Trigger warnings, also known as sensitivity or content warnings, are a way for authors to caution the reader about potentially upsetting topics included in the work. First coming into popularity on fan fiction platforms and other online media, they are now reaching mainstream literature. While some authors and readers are embracing this trend, others are bucking against it.
Those against the use of warnings say they can spoil what is meant to be emotionally jarring events. They use words like “snowflakes” to bemoan those who request this information prior to engaging with the work. However, I can see how creators would hesitate to include hard-to-read topics for fear the accompanying warning could turn readers away. Tip-toeing upon the line of self-censorship is not a dance any artist wants to do.
No Guidelines for the Guardrails
With no set rules, how does one know they are doing it right? Say an author includes a warning about a graphic car accident, or a character’s overdose, but then doesn’t include one about a scene involving domestic abuse or harm to an animal. Will they be chastised for covering one but not the other? What if they felt the instance they described was too mild to require a mention, but readers disagreed? With no guidelines, it’s difficult to navigate.
The Opportunity to Choose
Using content warnings can help readers in curating what media they do and don’t want to interact with. For example, picture a child abuse survivor who is working through their past trauma in therapy. They want to kick back and enjoy a quiet night with a book or movie. They see a trigger warning for a similar event to their own experience. This allows them to make an informed decision about if they would like to read that book or watch that movie, as opposed to getting blindsided with this kind of material halfway through.
With a wet floor in a hallway, the familiar yellow placard should be placed right at the start. That’s because everyone taking that route would be at risk. However, trigger warnings don’t have to be front and center. What about putting them at the back of a book, like an appendix? Those who don’t like the possibility of having certain plot points spoiled can start the book as normal, no worries about accidentally seeing something that may tip them off about plot events. But those who have this concern can still access the information with ease.
Another alternative is for an author, publisher, or film production to put their warnings on their website. Taking it a step further, they could make it possible to search for specific keywords. Some third-party sites are doing just that. Does the Dog Die is a site that started out doing what it says in the title, allowing soft-hearted animal lovers like myself to avoid having an unexpected cry fest. This crowdsourced database now allows visitors to search over one hundred and eighty triggers.
I don’t think providing trigger warnings is a bad thing. I can also acknowledge they can pave a slippery slope which leads to stifling the spectrum of experiences depicted in writing and other creative works. Life, and therefore art, is sometimes uncomfortable and scary. Like so many things, it’s all about finding balance and, hopefully, doing no harm.