Film trigger warnings

by Victoria Brewster // 3 April 2012, 19:42

Tags: film, rape, sexual violence, trigger warnings

A photograph of a warning sign reading Warning, stay away from the edge In January the Hollywood adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released in the cinema, and there was a lot of TV advertising. The trailers were pretty slick, so it took me a while before I got bored enough of them to read the small-print consumer warning at the bottom of the screen. I was very surprised to read it warned of scenes of "violence and strong sex". I had seen the Swedish adaptation already, and knew that it featured one of the most brutal rape scenes I've ever seen on film. When this part of the film comes on, I have to either leave the room or physically hide my face.

Part of the reason I am affected so strongly is because, like around a quarter of the female population, I have been the victim of sexual assault. This has led to post-traumatic stress disorder, and I am sometimes 'triggered' by visual media. The term 'trigger' stems from cognitive behavioural therapy, and means something that can bring about a viscerally real memory of the traumatic event. Some websites (and most feminist websites) will post 'trigger warnings' on content that discusses common triggers, such as descriptions/depictions of sexual assault.

It was surprising, then, that a film which obviously would be covering a very graphic and violent rape scene did not properly warn against it. After all, "strong sex" could mean anything. It could just as easily mean there were very graphic but consensual sex scenes, as scenes of rape against both a man and a woman. If I were going to see the film for the first time without having any other experience of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wouldn't have expected to see rape. As it happens, I didn't go and see the film in the cinema, not wanting to risk a panic attack. Forewarned is forearmed.

But this vague wording of a consumer warning made me wonder just how often people (mostly women) who suffer PTSD are properly warned about films they're going to see, or DVDs they're going to buy. Every film released in the UK is subject to a rating by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) - this is the PG, 12A, 15 or 18 rating that we all know about. But the majority of films also have a brief description of what content in the film has brought about the board's decision. On a DVD, this appears in the little coloured square on the back of the cover. In a cinema release, it's a bit more hit and miss. Some trailers, like the one for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, will have it in small print at the bottom of the screen, while others might have it on the cinema listing, or appear before the film begins. But the consumer ratings for all film releases, past and present, can be found at the BBFC website.

With the help of Twitter, my friends and family, and a few movie-geek message boards, I compiled a list of 61 films with various ratings that featured scenes of rape or sexual abuse. Most of these were 15 or 18 rated films, but there were five rated PG or 12/12A. What surprised me most was that, of these five low-rated films, none of them warned of any kind of sexual violence. There were warnings for sex scenes, violent activity, swearing - but nothing suggesting that these could be particularly harmful to RSA victims. Of the higher rated films, only 31% of the 15s and 35% of the 18s warned of sexual violence. None of the films' warnings used the word 'rape'.

It could be argued that the job of the BBFC is not to protect adults, but to advise parents so that children don't stumble onto something they're too young to handle. But the BBFC website says they consider "the possible effect not only on children but also on other vulnerable people". Besides which, although I don't have children, I would think that most parents would want to be forewarned if the film their child is about to watch features someone being raped. The BBFC prints consumer content warnings anyway. How much more ink is needed to write four letters: R A P E?

[The image is a photograph of a bright yellow warning sign which reads "Warning: Stay back from the edge" with an illustration of a person slipping down a slope. It was taken by TheBazile and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Elizabeth Stockwell // Posted 03 April 2012 at 20:15

I have to say, seeing both versions the new one manages to be even more uncomfortable and graphic. I suspect its because the actress comes off as more vulnerable (which I think is closer to the character in the book, but I digress)

Really its a story about violence against women and rape

Daniel // Posted 03 April 2012 at 20:55

This is something that I hadn't really thought about, but thinking about it, it's a big problem which is frustratingly easy to rectify. To even write 'contains sexual violence,' is something so simple but is barely done (I can't think of any films where that is used in the trailer, but I'm sure there have been some).
As an add on; there has been a report released not too long ago about the membership of the BBFC and the lack of gender and racial diversity.

ANM // Posted 03 April 2012 at 21:37

I think the word "paternalism" is relevant here. I've made a feature film and was lucky enough to get a disability arts grant to pay for it to be classified by the BBFC. The movie was given a 16 rating because it contains "soft drug references and drug use", which is hilarious as its about a woman making her own wild yam preparations. "Yam" 2004 - amazonfilms.net
It's extremely tame but my point is that the same paternalistic hand is at work.
Sadly the implication is that "drugs are bad and dangerous" but sexual violence is rather normal, which the recent #ididnotreport trend would seem to bear out.
Paternalism - another nasty facet of patriarchy IMO.

Jane Brewster // Posted 03 April 2012 at 23:02

I haven't seen the American version of the film but the rape in the original film reduced me to shocked silence. I'm horrified to know that something like that could, in theory, be shown on a 12/12A certificate. I also worry that scenes of a sexual nature (other than a bit of 'snogging') encourage children to think that sexual activity is 'normal' from the age of 12. I also think there's a case to be made for films encouraging testosterone fueled young men to think it's acceptable to push/force/rape girls when they say 'no'. Seems to me that happens rather too often in films too!

The Goldfish // Posted 03 April 2012 at 23:09

I have very mixed feelings about trigger warnings (which I blogged about here), but I thoroughly support clearer labeling on films for the sake of trauma survivors, as well as people who are simply sensitive or uncomfortable about certain material.

However, one of the disturbing problems I've found with rape in movies in particular, is that some people just don't see it. Recently, I saw someone refer to the "sado-masochistic sex" in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Before I saw it, a friend recommended Last Tango in Paris and talked about a ground-breaking scene of anal sex, describing it as a playful, cheeky scene. I hated the film thoroughly for all kinds of reasons, but chief among them was that that scene was a (random and gratuitous) rape scene. She said no, she struggled and she wept. I only hope my friend saw it in the 1970s and was mis-remembering.

I could go on - I can think of several examples where rape in a film has seemed invisible to some viewers (largely, but not exclusively men).

Given the way rape most often happens, I imagine that it's just these scenes of rape which take place between romantic couples, on dates etc., the sort of thing which some viewers, bizarrely and scarily, just don't see (or don't want to see) for what they are, which are likely to cause most trauma to the greatest number of rape survivors.

Vicky Brewster // Posted 04 April 2012 at 07:42

Jane Brewster - (Hi Mum!) You wouldn't need to worry, I think, about a rape scene like the one in the original GwtDT movie getting a 12A rating. This was one of the films that had a warning for sexual violence on it, so that was obviously taken into consideration when dishing out its 18 rating. And it says in the BBFC Guidelines (linked above) that sexual violence, where it's graphic, is taken into consideration when deciding a film's rating. The problem is, it doesn't take a graphic sex scene to provide a trigger, as triggers can include the way in which someone's restrained, something that's said, or a particular emotional quality to the scene.

What was also very surprising, in the lower rated films, was how unnecessary to the plot the RSA scenes were! In that group there was a historical biopic of Henry VIII, and adaptation of Hamlet, and a Robin Hood film! Educational fodder your children can watch to learn :S Very possibly you might consider Hamlet could have some sexual violence, at a push, but raoe isn't what immediately springs to mind when I think of Robin Hood. I think this brings in what Goldfish was saying, about the rape not really being noticed. It's a family film, so you just skip over the part where Maid Marian's being raped by the Sheriff of Nottingham. It's been a while since I saw it, but I think they even try to make it a comedy moment. And of course, if you really really want to make kids laugh at rape, under freedom of expression you're perfectly entitled to do that. But it doesn't seem too much to ask, for those of us who don't want to see it, to have a warning about it on the box.

Thank you very much, all, for your comments :)

sohcahtoa // Posted 04 April 2012 at 10:23

Good article. Have you contacted the BBFC with your concerns? Their attitude looks to be insensitive and out of touch, but it's possible that they've never considered this issue. And if enough people bring it to their attention they might do something about it.
Thinking about, thanks to Youtube, and simply to the fact that they often have a lot more control over what they want to watch than previous generations did, children have more access than ever before to 12/15/18 films (I'm not saying that this is a good thing, but it's probably impossible to prevent. If the BBFC reinvented itself as an organisation sensitive to the needs of all film-viewers, it might not look quite so anachronistic.

Saranga // Posted 04 April 2012 at 11:19

The rape scene in Robin Hood is played for comedy effect.
I remember watching it aged about 12 with my (same aged) sister and mum, at home. Me and my sister both laughed at it (as the director intended) and my mum was disgusted and (quite rightly) said it was rape. Me and my sister didn't get this at the time and told her to lighten up (or something to that effect), but that memory has stayed with me and when I did realise it was rape I felt thoroughly ashamed for laughing at it, ashamed for trying to shut my mum up, and angry that the scene was played for comedy effect.
There are also other abuse scenes which are played for erotic effect (the sherrif of nottingham is forcing women to strip) - at age 12 I found these erotic. Now, I realise what is happening and I don't.

This sort of normalising of sexual violence is bad. It's a major part of rape culture and needs to stop.

Ruth // Posted 04 April 2012 at 13:03

I think this is a tough call. The BBFC by its own remit fulfils a role of warning not censorship. If you use the BBFC website, their guidelines are quite clear and the film rating info is very explicit about what content gets the film a certain rating and if there have been cuts, why those cuts are there. Their role is not necessarily to censor films or police them for adults, nor are they there to ensure film makers portray certain things in a palatable way. This definitely doesn't mean that we can't find the content of certain films objectionable (and the use of rape for comic relief in Robin Hood certainly was), but to understand that the BBFC isn't really there for ticking directors off about the way that they use rape and sexual violence but simply to give age appropriate certification. It's interesting that the guidelines for 12/12A say that sexual violence has to be strongly contextual and implied. The BBFC podcast is worth listening to because they talk in a lot more detail about why certain films gained certain certificates. Interestingly on the BBFC website the certification information says 'Contains strong sex and sexual violence' and the extended certification info makes it explicitly clear what that is so that information is out there.

Ruth // Posted 04 April 2012 at 13:12

Ooops, meant to say at the end of my previous comment that the information for the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

D // Posted 06 April 2012 at 15:24

Thanks for this post, going into things without warning is a horrible thing. I remember this came up in discussion a while back when Slice came out: its rape at the end wasn't warned for at all (not to mention the other dubious consent throughout).

Pat Cadigan // Posted 03 July 2012 at 14:40

You know, for the longest time, I thought I was the only one with a trigger. Then I thought I was the only one who thought of it that way.

I'm really happy to see some intelligent discussion about this. As a writer, I am 100% for free speech and freedom of expression. As a woman of almost 60 who has had some less-than-happy experiences, I prefer to steer clear of certain things but I don't want to infringe on those who don't share my feelings. And I'm not the only one.

My husband is a lovely gentle man who doesn't have any sort of sexual trauma in his past but he tries to avoid movies involving plots about paedophilia or with graphic sexual violence. Not just because I do–he has always tried to avoid them because they leave him depressed. I have the same problem with movies that have scenes involving animal cruelty. I know it's just a movie–I know it's a special effect. But that's only what my brain knows–my gut has an entirely different take on it.

Neither of us wants to deny that paedophilia, sexual violence–rape-and animal cruelty happens. We don't want to watch only those things which are only as violent as The Sound of Music. We don't even want to ban pornography. I would just like to protect myself.

It would be great to find a website that could provide some sort of caution about content–e.g., "not for those squeamish about violence," but is not affiliated with any group with a censorship agenda, religious or otherwise. For now, however, I check the spoiler sites if I'm not sure about something.

Alasdair // Posted 03 July 2012 at 15:57

Just commenting on this one because I saw it come up in the 'latest comments' feed. I was just thinking, does anyone else find it interesting that content warnings are standard for visual media (film, television and videogames), but not for literature? The latter can be just as disturbing. I haven't seen either of the films of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I've read the book, and remember being very disturbed by the rape scene in it - I stopped reading at that point, and it took me a while to come back to it. If I'd known that was going to happen, I probably wouldn't have started reading in the first place. Does anyone else have any thoughts on that?

Pat Cadigan // Posted 03 July 2012 at 20:40

Hi, Alasdair–

I think most people may find it easier to 'escape' from print by closing the book or skipping passages. However, others find it no less upsetting to read something and may feel haunted by it.

JericaLily // Posted 07 December 2012 at 14:19

"We don't even want to ban pornography."

I'd like to ban some types of pornography that are incredibly harmful to not only the participants but the audiences. porn isn't just 2 people having loving, sweet sex. There's a lot of stuff that is inhuman and that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. It is human depravity at the lowest form and interesting how when we reach rock bottom, sex is always present there in some way. It is the easiest, most lucrative way to destroy people.

And why was the Sheriff raping Maid Marian anyway? What was the purpose of that inclusion?

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