After Dark, March 25, 2014
When Trigger Is Not A Horse
A hot Facebook debate blooms
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I have clearly been living in a profound ignorance because this month I learned a new internet abbreviation: TW. It has apparently been blooming all around me - on blogs, for plays, for movies, in reviews - and I only found out during a muscular Facebook debate that it means Trigger Warning. I pretty much grasped what it meant right away but had no idea how broad its usage has become.
Soon after I learned that epileptics could have seizures brought on by strobe lights (some 30 years ago), theatres started posting signs outside of auditoriums, in programs and even in ads that a play included strobe lights. Soon, this early version of the TW added that a play included gunshot noises. I had never heard that this could trigger anything, but it sort of makes sense that something that can make you jump out of your seat in terror in real life and that can bring back hideous memories should come with a warning. (I used to live on a street where gunfire became so common that it also became common to dive to the floor when it started.)
It makes sense to warn...or does it?
For all its noble intentions, there is a real problem with TW's for artists of all sorts.
TW's have expanded beyond gunfire and strobing to include warnings about a work's content including discussions of incest, child abuse, rape, wife battery and many, many other unpleasant aspects of our hideous world.
Now think of that for a moment. For all its noble intentions, there is a real problem with TW's for artists of all sorts.
Let's take one film: Chinatown (and there is going to be a spoiler here, so if you haven't seen Chinatown, move to the next paragraph). One of the central points of the mystery in this Polanski masterpiece is the identity of a enigmatic young woman who appears and disappears continuously during the film. Who is she? What is her relationship with the villain of the film, played magnificently by John Houston, or - especially - with his daughter played memorably by Faye Dunaway. In the clinching moment of the movie, Jack Nicholson slaps the truth out of Dunaway: "She's my daughter," sobs Dunaway. Nicholson slaps her again. "She's my sister." Slap. Finally: "She's my sister and my daughter!" It is a devastating scene and Houston's villainy becomes even more abominable. There are potential TWs all over the place: Nicholson's beating of Dunaway, incest/rape, a subsequent violent death.
That is one example. Here are some non-specific others I have seen or read:
- a dance piece where the interpretation of love-making was so intense it resembled (as it was meant to) rape
- a play which begins with the dismembering of a body in as realistic detail as is possible in theatre
- a sex worker who submits to pedophilia fantasies
- at least three plays in which incest were the central secret of the play, one in which the incest is presented as acceptable and loving
- revenger tragedies
- depictions of school shootings
- depictions of youth suicide and the consequences (including copycat suicides)
Okay, I have no easy answers here.
In the above-mentioned discussion on Facebook there was one respected artist on one side, and some very angry rape and incest survivors on the other. The focus was Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). The comments went on beyond 200. I weighed in with my own case of PTSD. I was taking a bath, one night, dozing happily in the warm water when suddenly I was terror-striken and seeing people in white yelling and me fighting with a tube up my nose. I told my doctor about this and she told me that, yes, I had woken before I was fully anesthetized before an operation and had gone into a panic. I had no memory of this until that moment when my doctor told me of it. Since then, I feel faint at depictions of operating rooms. (In passing, I also blacked out twice during the final moments of Looking For Mr. Goodbar...and still have no idea why.)
So how should I - and all sufferers of PTSD - be dealt with, while at the same time allowing artists to present surprises, push the limits, or turn their plots and presentations around things that are profoundly unpleasant (and transgressive - see last week's After Dark on that issue).
I have a suggestion, and it may be targeted as "blaming the victim": on one side as long as what should be covered by a TW is becoming more fluid, it would be impossible (just using my own example) to cover all sufferers of PTSD with warnings. I would suggest a warning simply saying, "Trigger Warning: please call our box office at (phone number) to see if you may be affected." The box office would then have a list of all possible TW's. This way, TW's don't turn counter-productive - become a list of spoilers - and the responsibility for possible catastrophic effects of triggers are shared by both vulnerable spectator and artists.
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