Martha Thomases: Trigger Warnings! Beware!
Like the dweeb I am, I spent last weekend watching television on my computer. First (because I’d already seen the first two episodes), The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime, and then Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. I suppose there might have been other things to do for two days, but all of them involved wearing pants.
This isn’t going to be a review, or even a comparison of the two shows. Instead, I want to talk about trigger warnings. Still, you might want to beware of spoilers.
A trigger warning is a note, usually on a book cover or syllabus or other preview piece, that informs the potential user that some material in the specific piece might be disturbing. If you watch the network news, you’ve probably heard some version of a trigger warning before the camera cuts to pictures of starving children or corpses of people shot down in the streets.
The term “trigger warning” has become a cause du jour because some people think it means a particular book (or movie or newscast) is banned when it comes so captioned. To those people, a trigger warning is just another way we are coddling kids today, with their crazy music and their hair, who don’t appreciate how good they have it and they should just get off my lawn already.
Anyway, some people think that there should have been a trigger warning on Marvel’s Jessica Jones. And, I confess, I hadn’t thought about that until I read the essay in the link.
Here’s what I think is the key quote: The point of a trigger warning is not to tell people “Don’t watch this.” Or “You’re too weak to handle this.” The point of a trigger warning is to empower all viewers by informing them of what they can expect so they can make the best decision for themselves, cognizant all the while that the viewer’s personal response is just that: personal.
Maybe I would have understood if I had read the comic book on which Jessica Jones is based. I did read the first issue, and I didn’t like it much. To my reading at the time, it seemed to me to be trying to hard to be shocking and gritty. I watched the series because I totally love David Tennant. Yes, I’m shallow. Don’t judge me.
If I’d read the series, maybe I would have known that Jessica Jones is the victim of the violent sexual and emotional abuse perpetuated by Kilgrave The Purple Man, the villain who uses his mind control powers exactly as you’d expect if you imagine David Tennant to be the embodiment of a houseful of frat-boys. Still, because I heart him so much, I found myself, after the first episode, wishing he would come to me in my dreams and lick my face, as he did to Jessica.
After a few more episodes, I didn’t want that anymore. If anything, I felt kind of soiled for having wanted it at all.
I haven’t experienced the kind of comic-book violence Jessica Jones went through, nor have I experienced any more than the daily insults and bruises that any woman gets in this culture (and as a straight cis woman with gray hair, I get less than many of my sisters). The violence in the Netflix series seemed more harsh than what we see every day on network television, but I didn’t have to look away except for the parts about needles in the eye.
Still, there are millions of women who have experienced actual criminal violence, and they might have been disproportionately upset by the fight scenes on the show. (When I say “disproportionately” I don’t mean they are too sensitive, I mean that their reactions are not what the creative people intended.) If Netflix put some kind of warning or disclaimer in the descriptive materials (like cast information and plot summaries) they post before the user clicks to play, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.
There wasn’t a warning on Amazon Prime for The Man in the High Castle either, and I haven’t seen anyone ask for one. So I guess it’s just me.
If you haven’t read the Phillip K. Dick novel on which the show is based, you can still enjoy the show. I haven’t read it in decades. The premise imagines a world 20 years after the Axis won World War II. Germany controls the East Coast of the United States across to the Rockies. Japan controls the West Coast. There is a narrow neutral zone in between.
The world-building on this series is awesome. Everything, from the cars to the clothing to the outdoor advertising to the streetlights, reflects a world in which the American way has been perverted by fascism. It takes a while to notice some of the detail (like the lack of anyone but Aryans in Manhattan) but it’s chilling when it sinks in.
I didn’t experience concentration camps (I’m not that old), but I have been freaked out by the imagery for my entire life. I also have trouble looking at old footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs destroyed those cities. There’s a bunch of both of these things in this series. You have been warned.
Even if the shows had been labeled, I would have watched. Again, trigger warnings are not censorship. If anything, more people would probably enjoy them if they knew what they were getting into.
Now, if we could only lobby Marvel into that Dakota North series…