Warning: Incoming Marissa Skud-missle.
One of the hot topics du jour is trigger warnings, but many of the arguments I read, both pro and con, strike me as arguments in bad faith. Engage in a discussion of trigger warnings and you’ll find slippery slopes full of straw men. Both sides claim the moral high ground. The pro-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that their sensitivity to social justice issues makes them better, more highly evolved human beings. The anti-trigger-warnings crowd can imply that art should always challenge and disturb us, so it’s immature and imbecilic to want to mentally prepare yourself before experiencing an upsetting work of art.
Let’s acknowledge, right off, that there’s a problem with the way the word “trigger” has gone from having a legitimate medical meaning related to PTSD, to meaning “anything that I find uncomfortable or unpleasant or morally questionable.” It’s the equivalent of someone who says “I’m allergic to gluten” when they mean “I want to eat fewer carbs.” Therefore, perhaps a better term than “trigger warnings” is “warnings about upsetting content.”
Many of the discussions about trigger warnings involve academia, where this issue is especially tricky because of the power dynamics therein: the professor designs a syllabus and the students have to read and engage with the material, or else they could fail the class. This blog isn’t about academia, though, so I’m sticking to the somewhat less fraught issue of trigger warnings for theater. Here, at least, people can freely choose whether they want to buy a ticket and experience a certain story.
To counteract all of the bad-faith arguments that result when talking about trigger warnings, I want to promote a good-faith relationship between theaters and audiences, in which they meet each other halfway. If a theater is producing a potentially disturbing play, they could put a blurb on their website that says something like “This play contains potentially disturbing material and is not appropriate for children. Please email us if you have additional questions.” (Being vague, and asking people to email for more specific information, avoids spoiling the plot of the play for people who don’t require trigger warnings.) I don’t think this represents some horrible capitulation to the Philistine hordes who hate any art that challenges their perceptions. Instead, it allows people to obtain information and decide for themselves what actions to take.
In turn, it’s the responsibility of trigger-sensitive ticket buyers to educate themselves as to what they might be seeing, and contact the theater if they have questions. If the theater offers them the opportunity to do this, and they don’t take advantage of it, they can’t complain if they attend the show and experience a trigger. Human beings are pretty good at finding coping strategies that enable them to turn toward pleasure and turn away from pain; but they should know that the world always offers both pleasure and pain.
Like it or not, we theater artists are in the business of selling tickets and attracting audiences. As such, I think we need to manage our audience members’ expectations fairly, and keep lines of communications open. Some friends of mine recently felt swindled by the marketing for ACT’s Let There Be Love: they went into the theater expecting to see “an intimate and often humorous family drama” (per the blurb), only to discover that it’s a play about assisted suicide. Neither of them were triggered, per se, but they thought they were going to see a cozy and heartwarming show, and weren’t happy when the play took a darker turn. Even if you think that some suggested trigger warnings (“heteronormativity,” really?) are silly, it’s not hard to see that the topic of assisted suicide might be upsetting for many people, and I have to think that there’s some way ACT could have better prepared their audiences for this.
Think about it this way: at the end of every New York Times movie review, they print a blurb about the film’s MPAA rating and potentially disturbing subject matter. Over the years, the critics have made these blurbs into a wry little art form of their own (A.O. Scott’s blurb re: Mad Max: Fury Road’s R rating is simply that it’s “a ruthless critique of everything existing”). It’s fair to say that these blurbs are trigger warnings; yet I don’t see the anti-trigger-warning crowd calling for them to be abolished. As far as I can tell, a fair number of people appreciate that the Times does this, and nobody really finds it pernicious. Without enacting official censorship or a ratings system, is there a way to offer a similar advisory for theater?
I know. Everything I’m saying here sounds boring and sedate and wishy-washy. In this polarized environment, it’s more fun to say “Down with the heteronormative cissexual white patriarchy, trigger warnings for all!” or “You’re a bunch of snowflake crybabies who can’t handle the complexity of the real world, I refuse to coddle you!” And yet, there are other people arguing for the middle ground. As I was drafting this column, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the article “How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke,” by Donna Zuckerberg. The rape joke in question occurs in Euripides’ Cyclops – which, in a funny coincidence, is the first play that Theater Pub ever produced.
Zuckerberg writes that when she recently prepared to teach Cyclops, she realized that she needed to acknowledge the rape joke and address it in the context of Greek culture. She felt that there were many valid reasons for Cyclops to be on her syllabus, and that rape shouldn’t be the sole point of her discussion, but neither should it be ignored. She also decided that there are ways to read the scene in Cyclops as critiquing rape culture rather than reinforcing it, which brings up another important point: everyone involved in debating trigger warnings needs to acknowledge that depiction of an unpleasant situation, character, or attitude doesn’t mean that the author (or the professor, or the theater company) endorses this unpleasantness.
Art and fiction allow us to process uncomfortable emotions; indeed, some people would say that that’s their main purpose. Here’s one last, somewhat flippant thought. Greek tragedy is supposed to provoke catharsis – pity and fear. What if “cathartic” is just a synonym for “triggering”?
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. She finds bad-faith, slippery-slope arguments triggering. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.