So, I’ve been catching up on The Walking Dead recently (specifically, to write satirical scripts for this awesome site, which are crazy-fun to write and hopefully slightly entertaining to everyone else, please check it out). And I was watching the second-to-most recent episode yesterday, when a certain scene made me cock my head a little. Without spoiling anything, a character who has suffered a recent loss feels numb, and pushes a lit cigarette into their hand in reasonably graphic detail. My first reaction – after a series of “URGH-WHA-EEUGH-SHHHUU” – was to pause the video and go and play with my cat for a few minutes. Why? Because I found it a little bit triggering. I’ve written about my continuing struggle with self-harm on this blog and, while this scene didn’t actually cause me to do anything untoward, it did make a small bit of my brain to go “hey, we haven’t done that for a while, maybe we should-” until I could shut it up by making my kitten chase after the string on my pocketwatch. And it got me thinking: should TV come with a trigger warning?
Firstly, what the hell is a trigger warning? Basically, it’s a bit of netiquette that’s arisen for use in online articles, blog posts, and various other outlets to let potential viewers know that what they’re going to see or read might cause them to relive some painful or difficult emotions (the most common are for rape, sexual abuse, depression, suicide, and other mental health problems). In a lot of ways, it makes perfect sense: my Mum doesn’t like really violent films (unless Scorcese directed them), so showing her The Texas Chainsaw Massacre without first telling her that there’s loads of graphic violence in it would probably make her pretty upset (by which I mean, furious). Unfortunately, until there’s a trigger warning for Ben Affleck movies, my needs go unmet, but surely there’s no harm in flagging up topics that some people might not want to think about or be reminded of?
But there are a lot of people who think that trigger warnings actually patronise those who might be upset by the content their watching. And I can see that side too: I’d be really annoyed if someone told me that I shouldn’t watch something because I might find it triggering, because no-one except me has any idea what I find triggering (Christ, the most triggered I’ve ever been was watching an episode of Glee that depicted someone preparing for a suicide attempt, and not their cover of MCR like you might imagine). But I’ve discouraged close friends from watching certain films and TV shows because they reflect things that I know they would rather not be reminded of. There’s a very thin line between dictating what someone can and can’t cope with, and suggesting that certain people avoid certain films, movies, books, or articles because they might put them in a seriously upsetting place that they have no control over.
So, where do TV shows fit into all of this? How do you warn people, in this age where spoilers are the ultimate crime, that there might be triggering material in this episode? As most shows that depict graphic rape, self-harm, or in-depth explorations of mental health are aimed at adults, some people argue that those who don’t want to risk getting triggered should either suck it up or avoid these shows altogether. And I can see why: we’re all grown-ups here, and if that means I have to sit in the bathroom and cry for twenty minutes before I carry on with this immensely upsetting episode of American Horror Story, that’s my choice. Nobody is holding me at gunpoint and making me watch this stuff, and, if I find it upsetting, I can always check out and watch something lighter. Watching adult TV means dealing with adult themes, and if those themes- like rape and suicide- are dealt with in a mature, honest, and emotionally resonant way, then I think there would be something a bit wrong with me if I wasn’t a bit discomforted by it.
But I think the problem arises from shows which sneak up behind you and spring something potentially disturbing, like The Walking Dead. That might sound ridiculous considering the constant light drizzle of blood spatters and emotional character deaths, but these are things I’ve come to expect from the show having watched it for five seasons (despite a suicide attempt in season two, which-and I hate to admit this- had no affect on me at all because I had no emotional attachment to the character and her motivations so differed from anything I had experienced). I didn’t expect to see a pretty graphic depiction of self-harm thrown at me out of nowhere, committed by a character I like very much and whose reasoning I could relate to, and it triggered me.
So, should television have trigger warnings? It’s a tough question, because there’s a danger of every Hannibal episode starting with a disclaimer that states “DON’T. JUST DON’T”, or otherwise coddling audiences in a way that removes any trust in their own abilities to handle disturbing things in an adult way. But I think that yeah, from time to time, shows that are showing potentially distressing material that’s outwith what they’d normally broadcast could do worse than to give their audiences a chance to prepare themselves and make a decision that they’re comfortable with.
Oh, and this post should probably have come with a trigger warning.