Do we need warning?

by Jane Fae // 28 January 2013, 14:30

Tags: consent, economic hardship, Les Misérables, prostitution, trigger warnings, violence against women

Les Misérables is a much-praised musical likely to be viewed by millions. It also contains material that some individuals might find triggering. In this guest post, Jane Fae asks: do we, as the British Board of Film Censors seems to think, now need specific information warning us of this? Or are triggers so individual as to make such an exercise a waste of time?

I went to the cinema last week. "Les Mis", of course. And it was every bit as wonderful as my friends had warned me.

Not only that but the body handing out film classifications, the BBFC, seemed keen to alert me to a possible downside as well.

Warned? Well, yes. Because alongside the music, the revolutionary passion, the love unfulfilled and the brilliant comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter was something much, much darker. A story of women's survival and economic degradation, with a plot set-up that hinged, absolutely, on violence against women's bodies:in this instance, submission to a sexual encounter that, while superficially consensual, clearly lacked agency.

I cried loads, though that is hardly surprising. Unusually for such a mainstream film, this one seems to have forgotten how to "make you laugh" and focused almost exclusively on making you cry. It succeeded. In the ladies', afterward, I have never encountered so many women all at once fixing smudged make-up or wiping away the shadow of tears.

So far, so commercial. Still, it set my mind wandering. The first thought, which I imagine will be regarded with suspicion by those who distrust Hollywood and all its works, is that this film is an interesting alternative route into discussion of the issues above. In the downfall of Fantine (spoiler alert!) you have, in one short parable: economic necessity, individual degradation, women turning on women and -in Fantine's eventual selling of herself, first in parts (hair, teeth), then as a package (prostitution)- violence and questions over the nature of consent.

(The latter I discussed soon after with a friend, whose views I greatly respect. I was surprised to find we took different positions on some of these issues: whether consent without economic agency was really consent. But then, that's the point. The debate didn't altogether change my mind but it did encourage me to think more widely.)

Back, though, to the issue of warnings. I was deeply affected by the scene in which Fantine surrenders the last of her dream. So, I thought: given the nature of that narrative, should the film have carried specific trigger warnings? Because someone who had themselves been on the receiving end of violence, of abuse, would read it in much the same way as me.

Or perhaps not. And again I am glad that I discussed this before rushing into print. Yes, one friend came back: that scene was mildly triggering. Maybe a warning of sorts would have been appropriate. No, came back three or four others. Triggers aren't that simple. Sometimes, a scene that closely resembles their own experience can do it. More often, though, triggers are much less specific. A word. A phrase. A sound. A gesture. In the end, they are as varied as human experience and therefore warnings about specific scenes or films misses the point. Because almost ANY film could prove triggering.

This is of particular relevance in this instance, as the BBFC, supported by the Cinema Exhibitors' Association recently launched its "Insight" service. This goes beyond the usual warnings about how films may contain sex, nudity, violence, etc. to give far more specific detail around individual scenes.

The Insight around Les Mis includes: "Scenes of moderate violence include stabbings with bayonet blades, truncheon blows to the head and the impression of gunshot impacts."

And in respect of the significant scene centred on the theme of prostitution: "In a more serious scene, a young single mother reluctantly prostitutes herself to a man once she has exhausted other options to earn the money she needs to keep her daughter. As she lies back and a man lies on top of her, she weeps as the man's expression implies sexual pleasure."

Is this helpful? I'm not so sure any more. For now, therefore, I'm just hanging this out there: an issue that feels to me like it needs further exploration - and one on which I feel hopelessly inadequate to draw a conclusions.

Image description: Poster for 2012 film version of Les Misérables showing the young Cosette (a character in the story) against a light blue background. Four of the actors in the film are written across the top of the poster in the following order: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Under Cosette's chin are the words "Fight, Dream. Hope. Love", followed by the film title, "The musical phenomenon" and, at the bottom, "Christmas Day".

Comments From You

The Goldfish // Posted 28 January 2013 at 19:51

I strongly feel that it is a mistake to separate out trigger warnings (and the issues around them) from general content warnings. Doing so has all the flaws you describe (and many more) whereas general content warnings allow people to use their own discretion and judgment for any reason at all.

For example, I can find some depictions of sexual and domestic violence triggering, but I find other content very deeply upsetting, even though I haven't experienced any personal trauma involving say, torture or violence against children. When I had PTSD, I had a real problem with swearing, especially shouting and swearing, so there were all kinds of things I would otherwise enjoy (like "In the Thick of It") which I avoided because of foul aggressive language. Other people might avoid it because they are offended by that language. Being offended isn't the same as having a flashback or panic attack, but along with taste, squeamishness or being of a sensitive disposition, it is a perfectly legitimate reason to avoid a thing whose purpose is entertainment.

Some people, without post traumatic symptoms, may find the scene with Fantine so upsetting it takes all pleasure out of the film. Same with gunshot injuries - and there may be people who have post traumatic symptoms triggered by seeing that.

I welcome the BBFC's move to give specific descriptions of content which may upset people, but I do so both as a trauma survivor and someone who, taking a great deal of pleasure from films, doesn't want or expect others to watch things they're not going to enjoy for any reason at all.

Laura // Posted 29 January 2013 at 08:25

I can't see that giving extra content information will do any harm, and it will surely be of value to some people, so it seems like a good idea to me.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 29 January 2013 at 09:34

It is true that it is impossible to prepare, and warn, for all of the individual triggers a person might have because, like you say, it can be things like a certain word, a facial expression, something that brings up even a flavour of a traumatic event they have gone through.

I don't think this is a good reason to abandon the idea of preparing people for what they are going to see altogether, though. Just because we can't anticipate everything doesn't mean that we shouldn't provide adequate warning for things that we know are likely to trigger PTSD responses in a more predictable way. Ditto for things that might contribute to distressing people with eating disorders or who self-harm.

There is a big difference between seeing something upsetting, and a post-traumatic stress reaction. However content notes do help to protect people against both of these, if they want to be protected from them. It is impossible to cover every possible trigger, but that is not a good enough reason, imho, to not warn against anything at all.

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