Content warning: this article contains a discussion of the practice of using trigger warnings and therefore cites topics that could be triggering.
“I would never put a trigger warning, ever, on any play I direct.”
Someone in my acting class did a solo performance piece about eating disorders, in which she played a victim of anorexia. She opened the piece with “this is inspired by a reading in my FWS” and proceeded to portray the character with a disturbingly lighthearted sense of humor. Among the nine audience members in the classroom, perhaps one or two let out a nervous laugh when she described compulsive eating habits such as “three bags of family chips within the past hour” as if it’s supposed to be a joke.
The humor started to feel really unsettling when the character started presenting more alarming signs of anorexia. The scene ended with her almost fainting while writing in her journal (a device the performer used to convey her inner monologue) that she only had a few more pounds to lose before Friday, when she would have a date.
I found myself shivering (I couldn’t quite tell whether it was out of anger, sadness or frustration) when she got up and said “scene” with a sweet, content smile. Before I could gather the words, another woman in the class commented that she would expect a trigger warning prior to this kind of performance, which led us to the opening moment, when our professor stated that he would never allow trigger warnings in his works. He explained that he would prefer the audience to come into the theatre “clean,” and that providing a trigger warning may prompt unnecessary expectations and ruin the play. For example, he said, if A Streetcar Named Desire were accompanied by a trigger warning of rape, people may be wondering when the rape occurs and/or to whom the rape occurs throughout the play, therefore failing to fully experience the shock of the event.
What I couldn’t agree with and failed to convince him of is that providing a vague trigger warning message couldn’t affect the artistic merit of the piece in any significant way if the play itself is complex and interesting, but it could potentially save someone’s life. Had A Streetcar Named Desire contained a message that reads “this play contains depictions of sexual abuse,” the characters of Blanche and Stanley wouldn’t become any less captivating, seeing how they are flawed human beings who may not meet the stereotypical representations of the rapist and the victim. Whereas on the other hand, someone who may be triggered by the subject would have the choice to exit the theater before the play starts to avoid being triggered and subsequently retraumatized.
A brief detour: When I called Stanley a rapist, the second professor, who is usually quieter in class, jumped in and said, “He is not a rapist; he rapes once.”
“Art is agitation,” the quieter Professor claimed. Then, the main professor chimed in and said art exists to create discomfort and to initiate conversations.
But what about the people that don’t want to talk? The people that aren’t ready yet, the people that don’t feel comfortable with whoever they are at the theater with, the people that come to the theater on a weekend night for entertainment? Can the artist just push them into talking? Isn’t that inconsiderate and disrespectful, harmful, even malicious? Art is agitation, and art should initiate conversations — but whoever is in the conversation should be a consensual participant. The trauma survivors who receive the trigger warning but decide to stay are perhaps the ones that are ready to share and to talk, whereas the ones that walk out after the trigger warning may walk out anyways in the middle of the play when the content becomes unbearable, the only difference being whether the latter could leave unharmed or not.
It is murky water, I understand. Sometimes it is hard to decide if the content is triggering, and sometimes even including a trigger warning won’t protect all the audience members. But as creators, we should do the bare minimum and include the message whenever and wherever we find applicable. I cited an earlier incident in the department where the playwright decided to include a trigger warning, which caused a lot of pushback from the producers and the administration. “But if that’s the story they need to tell, then they have to tell it even with all the crap.” And before I could finish the first professor interrupted as if he caught the ultimate flaw in my argument: “Doesn’t that cause self-censoring? Doesn’t that stop the important stories from being told?”
I was so utterly infuriated. No, professor. We tell the stories we need to tell despite all the crap that may happen. If a space wouldn’t let me display a piece of art because it could be triggering, then it probably isn’t the right space anyways. I would keep moving until I found somewhere to tell the story, and if all else fails, I would put on a film or a play or an art show in my backyard and people who want to see it would be able to. Quite frankly, if an “artist” decides to put their own artistic expression above other people’s wellbeing, I suspect their “art” could only go so far.
As I spill out these words onto paper, I’m contemplating if I feel safe to go back into the class knowing that there are people who outrightly refused to bear the storyteller’s burden. Before we are artists, perhaps it’s important to remind ourselves how to be decent human beings and try to take care of others the best we can.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.