musings, boundaries, and creative ethics
For quite some time now, I’ve seen folks in my own creative communities engaging in conversations about trigger warnings. When should we use them? How should we use them? Should we use them? What does a trigger warning add or take away from a piece of creative work?
In case you’re new to the term, a content or trigger warning is some kind of notice given to a viewer, reader, or audience member that at some point in the work they’re about to consume, something potentially activating, uncomfortable, or triggering is going to come up. There’s a wide range of specificity offered, but essentially a content warning is a heads up that something is going to happen, and the advanced notice gives folks the chance to proceed, pause, or take care of themselves in whatever way they see fit.
I have my own perspective and preferences about trigger warnings as both an artist and an audience member, and I do my best to center empathy and courtesy in my perspective, but that doesn’t mean I don’t mess up sometimes. When that happens, I do what needs to be done to restore what’s been lost or compromised. I don’t get defensive about how someone else should have received my work. I don’t have control over it, and it’s not helpful!
I think these conversations about the role and importance of trigger/content warnings are important, in part because they reveal how we want to be treated in the world and how we want our creative work to be consumed and experienced. I also think these conversations need to be nuanced, generous, and ongoing. Ultimately, I don’t think there is any kind of clear, hard answer to any of these questions, which means the work of doing our best to be thoughtful and kind to the people around us will probably never be over.
As an Artist
As an artist, I tend to err on the side of providing content and trigger warnings fairly liberally, for a lot of reasons. From a practical standpoint, I just don’t need to make personal choices for other people. For example, if you bring your child to a poetry reading (which is awesome), I think it’s the decent thing to do to let you know that I’m about to read a poem about sex robots. Once you have that information, you can make an informed decision about letting your kid stay in the audience, or taking a short outside break or giving them some headphones. In this situation, I don’t pass any judgement about any of these choices because I don’t know that kid, and I don’t have to. Maybe they go to poetry shows all the time, and you have a great open dialogue about the difficult subjects that often come up in poetry spaces. Maybe you know them well enough to know that they’re definitely not paying attention to me. Or, maybe you don’t want them to hear a poem about the topic I just gave a content warning for, so you’re going to remove them from the space for a few minutes. Those are all perfectly fine with me. It’s not my job to tell you how to raise your kid, but as a community member I do feel a responsibility to help facilitate an environment that supports you and your autonomy.
In that same vein, I do not have any way of knowing everyone else’s experiences or how they carry them. Some people experience huge, traumatic harm and find healing when they engage with art that speaks to that experience. Some people experience trauma or harm and feel uncomfortable and unsafe when they engage with art that deals with those experiences. Some people prefer to have a heads-up before someone delves into a rough topic. Some people don’t want to engage with certain kinds of content for non-trauma reasons. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and vary from topic to topic and even day to day.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong about any of these ways of being in the world. When I am the one standing on stage at the microphone, I assume a specific role in a power dynamic, and I try to be conscious about that. If you’re reading my poems in a book, you get to decide what you read and how you read it. You even get to decide if you want to close the book! But when I’m on stage with a mic, you’re stuck in a room with my voice and the rest of the audience.
Some of my poems have an agenda. Sometimes, I want people to feel surprised or shocked or even a little uncomfortable when they consume my work. However, I’m never out to make anyone feel unsafe. As an artist, I believe that people can engage with my work best when they have some amount of agency. I want people to come to my work voluntarily and consensually. When we feel safe, we’re better equipped to face discomfort.
As a Consumer
As an audience member, I also generally prefer a more generous approach to content and trigger warnings. It gives me a chance to take care of myself, and also to offer support to any close friends I might be in the space with. It also takes nothing away from the experience of the work for me. In fact, the opposite is true. When a poem or a movie suddenly becomes really graphic or triggering, I mentally take myself out of the situation to brace for impact. You’ve now lost me (and my trust) as an audience member.
I also do my best to be generous as a consumer. For example, when I enter poetry spaces I expect to engage with some heavy content, often about sexual assault, emotional abuse, and systemic oppression and violence. I know not every poet will give a content warning, and I know that we have some established community expectations about what is typically shared on the mic. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t interrogate those practices more, or that everyone should be able to prepare themselves or react the way I do, that’s just how I have learned to take care of myself.
I’m very resistant, and maybe even opposed, to approaching content and trigger warnings as creative devices. I see them as prefaces, or acts of community care that live just outside the bounds of the creative work for the sake of clarity. However, I will say, especially to people who resist content warnings because they can “ruin surprises,” that sometimes content warnings can function as interesting creative tools.
The clearest example I can think of is in the last episode of the first season of The Morning Show (spoilers ahead). At the beginning of the episode, a title card flashes across the screen to warn viewers that the episode contains depictions of self harm and substance abuse (both vague), and provides some resources for anyone struggling with these issues.
For the whole episode, I found myself wondering which character this content warning might apply to (last spoiler alert!). We see Yanko drinking at a bar as he processes his breakup, will it be him? We see several other characters pour themselves drinks to cope with difficult or isolating issues. We see tensions coming to a head a few times. While all of these moments feel appropriately dramatic and well acted, the content warning adds some gravity and apprehension to each one of them. I can’t speak to the intentions of the writers, but it certainly felt like they were aware of the tension created by their content warning at the top of the episode.
When it is revealed that Hannah is the one who overdosed about ¾ of the way through the episode, I was still shocked. It was still gritty and hard. The surprise hadn’t been ruined; if anything there was more tension leading up to the discovery of her body than there would have been without the warning. And, I felt safe and prepared. That’s how I want my readers to engage with my art.
That’s all to say that I don’t have any kind of universal definitive answer here, and honestly neither do you. We do not have any way of knowing exactly how anyone else feels in their body, we don’t know what it’s like to live another life or be in a different brain, so this conversation is always a conversation about our own personal needs and preferences. Whenever I engage in the discourse, I do my best to use I statements and only speak on my own experience. I encourage you to do the same. We simply do not get to decide what anyone else needs or feels.
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I probably won’t be posting an essay here in December, as I’ll be doing some holiday traveling, but I promise I’ll have some exciting announcements for you in the very near future! I wish you all a happy, healthy, restful holiday season.