Suzan eraslan is a theater director and designer on a temporary hiatus and a reluctant political activist and documentarian living in new york city.

A Content Warning Didn't Ruin Frankenstein in 1931, and It's Not Going to Ruin Your Show Now

Content Warning: discussion of PTSD (including physical and psychological symptoms), mention of sexual assault, gun violence, state violence, natural disasters, racism, anti-LGBTQI sentiment, ableism, abuse, suicide, DEATH, and depression

The seemingly never-ending battle over so called “trigger warnings” has moved from field to field over the years, from the first shots fired in academia to, now, the theatre pages of The New York Times (“Brace Yourself in Act II: Trigger Warnings Come to the Stage”, November 18th, 2018). Interspersed among a collection of quotes from theatre professionals and administrators across the US, writer Michael Paulson makes clear that his opinion on the “new” phenomenon of warning an audience about potentially upsetting content in art they are about to experience is excessive, unnecessary, and possibly damaging to the theatrical experience. He writes (emphasis mine):

Not so long ago, a theatergoer was handed a program, shown to a seat and left to enjoy the show. Then came notices about strobe lights and smoking. But now, following a trend bubbling up from college campuses, theaters across the country are offering increasingly comprehensive and specific trigger warnings.

The phenomenon has led to searching discussions at theaters large and small, pitting a traditional impulse — to preserve art’s ability to surprise, shock and stir — against a modern desire to accommodate sensitivities and not alienate paying customers.

It is ludicrous to argue that the traditional impulse of art, generally, but very specifically of theatre, is to surprise and shock. If this were the raison d’être for theatre, the examples he invokes— “plenty violent” Shakespeare and the “war horse” musicals like Oklahoma!— would no longer be performed. No one goes to see a production of Romeo and Juliet to be surprised. Theatre’s enduring quality, over superhero films or bingeable streaming television series is that the same story, with the same words, can be told thousands of different and engaging ways, even if the specifics of plot action have already been “spoiled.” This completely undermines the idea that advance knowledge reduces the art’s ability to “stir”— what heartless audience member or critic can watch Juliet utter a perfectly anguished “O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop To help me after?” without their heart breaking, again, no matter how many times they’ve seen or read the play? His emphasis on “paying customers” rather than “audience members,” creates the false impression that offering content warnings is entirely mercenary and cannot possibly be born of genuine kindness and care.

I find particularly infuriating the argument that emotionally, psychologically, and even physically destabilizing an audience by traumatizing them makes for art that will connect with them in a meaningful way— or at all for that matter. Clearly, these theatre professionals are unaware that a major component of PTSD is disassociation, which causes the traumatized person to detach from their immediate surroundings and events, which includes physical and emotional experience. Far from increasing the emotional impact of art by excluding content warnings, theaters and artists who refuse to use them have instead increased the likelihood that any audience members who suffer from PTSD will totally disengage from the work as an entirely unconscious and uncontrollable response of their autonomic nervous system.

I’ve seen people argue that the percentage of people who have actual, diagnosable (distinguishable from diagnosed) PTSD can’t be high enough to justify “spoiling” the experience for everyone else. Putting aside the cruel lack of empathy this demonstrates, the cold logic of numbers doesn’t back this up, either. An estimated 52% of women who are victims of sexual assault experience symptoms of PTSD, which jumps to 90% for those who have experienced assault in the last 2 weeks. Estimated numbers for women who have experienced sexual assault range from 1-4 to 1-6 (and for men it’s 3-100). Given that women still make up the overwhelming majority of theatre patrons (Broadway League’s 2017-2018 survey found that a whopping 66% of audience members identified as female), portrayals and discussions of sexual assault, as well as other violence, threats, or abuse will likely trigger a not insignificant percentage of every single audience.

These numbers are just for sexual assault, which would be enough even if it were the only experience likely to cause PTSD. But of course, it is not. Black Americans experience PTSD related to pervasive and chronic racist stress and trauma at a rate of 9.1%. For LGBTQI youth (youth, alone), the incidence of PTSD is 11.3%, while 31% have exhibited suicidal behavior. I could go on for pages on this topic about specific communities and their incidence of PTSD and never capture the whole picture, but the Department of the Interior estimates that 8% of American adults at any given time have PTSD. For a regional theater that seats 500, not providing trigger warnings for violence and abuse would likely result in 40 of your audience members suffering severe to debilitating anxiety, limbic system responses not limited to increased heart rate and cortisol production, and an elevated risk of long term depression and even suicide.

Is the privilege of “shocking” the other 460 people really worth that level of psychological and physical destruction? And if your art depends on that shock, what value does it really have?

In the New York Times article, Susie Medak, the managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is quoted as saying, “We have a generation coming of age that expects to be protected from discomfort, and a lot of companies succumb to that. To me, it’s a frustrating trend — what’s the point of experiencing art if you don’t expect to be surprised?”

In their watershed essay (and first hand documentation of their personal experience at a performing arts festival), entitled “SHOCK AND CARE”, Harry Josephine Giles lays out a compelling argument that the shock of artistic violence is no longer revolutionary and that, far from Medak’s assertion that millennials and the generation behind them have grown up expecting to be protected from discomfort, we have lived the vast majority of our lives constantly barraged by it. Beginning with the proposition “Learning how to care for your audience is actually far more aesthetically interesting and politically disruptive than working out how to shock them,” Giles convincingly asserts that contemporary art that depends on surprise violence and abuse is unjustifiable when so much of contemporary life is dominated by an onslaught of it in the form of political upheaval, weekly reports of mass shootings, race related assaults and murder, and devastating natural disasters.

Though the essay was published in the comparatively innocent days of the spring of 2016, it is is worth reading (and rereading) in its entirety; but this, in my opinion, remains the best refutation of the argument that the value of shock is so precious that it must be preserved, whatever the human cost:

But in the present political moment … Extremes of violence confront me whenever I look at a newspaper, a television, a website. I am faced with constant excitation, a thousand interruptions which demand my attention, many of which make a claim to changing my life to the better.

My generation in my country experiences higher reported rates of mental illness than ever before: whether its source is in daily experience of violence, the high presence of reported violence, the economic demands of high productivity, the bath of constant stimulation, the saturation of surveillance and self-surveillance in daily life – whatever its source, the dominant affect of the 21st century in the West is not boredom but anxiety. If the current cultural moment is dominated by shock, we need to question what role the idea of the artistic shock can now have.

Giles goes on to detail actual and theoretical ways in which art and art institutions that care for audiences can be not only more interesting in our current milieu, but more politically and culturally disruptive and revolutionary. To show violence and abuse on stage without any consideration for the audience is no longer iconoclastic so much as it is de rigueur, even passé.

The phrase “trigger warning” and what constitutes the necessity of using one has become so fraught that I’ve seen lengthy internet arguments about how intense violent, abusive, racist, queerphobic, transphobic, ableist, etc., etc., content has to be in order to be “triggering” rather than just “upsetting.” I find this to be about as useful a debate as asking how hard you can hit someone so that you bruise them but don’t break a bone. For artistic, academic, and even every day online purposes, I prefer the phrase “content warning” or “content note,” as it alleviates the burden of the artist to determine whether something will be truly triggering, and allows the audience member for whom the content may cause any level of anxiety to brace themselves accordingly, or, if necessary, bow out of the experience altogether. This isn’t a new social phenomenon— we have used it in every day conversation for probably the better part of our history as a species. Have you never heard someone preface a statement with, “This might upset you,” “Tell me if you don’t want to talk about this right now,” or the movie cliché classic, “Are you sitting down?”

I won’t even step into the entirely false idea that content warnings are a form of censorship that keep audiences from reading, watching, seeing, or otherwise experiencing art, because at least the New York Times piece doesn’t attempt to make that nonsensical assertion. I will say those who feel they are being forced to “ruin” their art by providing content warnings not only lack in empathy, but creativity, as well. Though now entirely unremarkable, when it was first introduced, the announcement to silence or turn off cell phones was annoying, even jarring for audiences. I’m old enough to remember initially finding it distracting and making my suspension of disbelief take longer to set in— I got over it. I honestly don’t remember either the first time I heard it or when I finally stopped noticing it altogether, but I do remember the first time I saw it turned into an additional artistic opportunity. At a 1999 production of Comedy of Errors by The Royal Shakespeare Company, they had written the entire announcement in iambic pentameter and had one of the actors, in full costume and in character, deliver it very severely. Far from taking me out of the show, it set the tone earlier than usual and pulled me head first into the world of the production. Content warnings can do the same, in the hands of a capable artist. As the end of the New York Times article points out, the Dallas Theater Center did just that for their recent production of Hair:

“WARNING,” it announced on its website. “This production will include hippies cursing, smoking pot, getting naked, mocking societal conventions, meditating, taking LSD, flaunting their sexuality, celebrating their race, creating a happening, singing and dancing. Also, there will be audience participation. Consider yourself warned.”

And for those who insist that content warnings are some new invention demanded by the spineless, weakling millennial generation, I present the opening of the movie Frankenstein, released in 1931:

If the Greatest Generation, who experienced two world wars and the Great Depression could take content warnings in stride, perhaps it is not those who request them or provide them, but those artists who take up arms to fight them who expect to be coddled. After all, if one of the greatest movies ever made (and it holds up— go watch it) could stand up to a content warning in which the better part of the plot and all of the themes are laid out in advance, maybe it’s not "spoilers” that are ruining your art. Maybe it’s just not that good.