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Content Warnings – The Writing Rating System?

Some people love content warnings, other people absolutely despise them. My feelings on the matter are that I can take them or leave them, but I also know the absence of one won’t cause any kind of deep emotional/psychological reaction if I stumble upon content I’m not comfortable with. While a little while ago, I might have had different feelings on this, in recent years I’ve realized the true purpose of content warnings and why they’re so vital.

I don’t feel bad claiming my own ignorance on the matter; with all the misinformation regarding the meaning of ‘trigger’ it was easy to assume it wasn’t truly a clinical term, and the warnings were truly used to prevent harm from coming to people reading certain posts/messages/consuming certain content. I’m also guilty – probably on this blog even – of not properly tagging my own warnings, but I’m working on correcting that for all future posts.

One of the reasons this change came about – besides me realizing that it made me a decent human being – was a personal experience I had when I gave a friend of mine a piece of writing to read. We’re online friends, and we’d been speaking about it, and I sent it, not realizing the piece itself would be a trigger due to its themes involving mental illness. The friend told me about it, and how they’d gone on to finish the piece and loved it, but I still find myself feeling bad. If I’d only taken those few seconds to be like “hey, just a warning, it has x themes” I would have given my friend a better chance to prepare for what they were about to read.

Moving off of myself, since I don’t want to spend too much time seeming like I’m patting myself on the back for doing what’s actually a bare minimum, there’s something important to think about when doing content warnings: The most common are usually short enough that they could be used interchangeably with the reasons a movie is rated ‘R.’ Every movie you’ve ever bought, and for many people likely reading this, every television show you’ve ever watched, has come along with a clever little rating system, along with a reason to tell you WHY it was rated like that. I’m not attempting to minimize the importance of content warnings, just countering many of the arguments I see that state a trigger/content warning “spoils” a book/post/etc for them.

I spent some time thinking about this, and I can’t come up with an explanation as to how it spoils anything. In the interest of giving it an honest try, I pulled out an R-rated movie I own, American Satan. I’ll post a picture I took of the rating on the back cover. In the bottom-right corner, taking up I would estimate less than one square inch of space, is the rating. What’s it rated R for? “Strong sexual content, nudity, drug use throughout, pervasive language, and some violence.” Now, listen, that paired with the back cover synopsis? Does nothing to ruin the plot of this movie, but it does its job to warn anyone who doesn’t want to see those things to maybe find a different movie to watch. Content warnings are similar, but usually a tad more specific. I mean, slapping a one-square-inch warning on a book that states “CW: domestic abuse/drug use/alcohol/sexual violence” hardly tells me what the story/novel/etc is about. It’s just a way for someone who’s sensitive to those topics a chance to either prepare themselves, or to maybe find a different book until they’re in a better headspace.

It just feels irresponsible as a content creator to put a harmful story into the world without warnings for at the very least, huge issues that are ‘common’ triggers for people. Sometimes, of course, there’s going to be something harmful that was missed within your warnings. There are some triggers I’ve heard about that are less common. The counter-argument I can come up with regarding content/trigger warnings has to do with not being able to make everyone happy, but I’d rather risk a few people being annoyed about me saying “Hey, this story has themes of suicide so if you’re not comfortable with that, maybe skip this one” than cause harm to someone who hadn’t been able to prepare for it.

It’s not about changing overnight, and it’s not about making sure to put a content warning for absolutely everything your story might have that can harm someone. Start small, with the really big issue things: Sexual violence/extreme gore/abuse. Be mindful of noting what sort of things on Twitter people are using CW/TW for. I don’t know if there is a perfect system for making books safer for those who consume them, just like we constantly do for people who consume visual media, and even music.

Do you have any thoughts on content warnings and how authors can do right by readers by including them? Do you think they’re a waste of time? Did I get something horribly wrong about the core concept of content warning? Let me know in the comments.

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