My proposal for how to do content warnings

Don’t worry! One billion dead humans but the dog survived.

COMMENT: Good content warning systems empower audiences to make informed choices. Bad content warning systems don’t respect this. And the best system I’ve seen comes from a very unlikely source.

So, outside of theatre blogging, my exciting news is that I have my first professional writing commission. This, however, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. In some theatres, this script would come with a pretty massive content warning. Okay, I have previously been flippant with content warnings (such as links to Mail Online having “content warning: Daily Mail sidebar”), but I’m really not kidding this time.* The problem is that it would not be possible to tell you what this content warning is without spoiling the story – it’s up there with “Snape kills Dumbledore”. Equally, however, I’m aware that there will be some people who really really really really don’t want to hear about the relevant subject material. The term “trigger warning” is I think massively overused and applied to every trivial/incidental mention of something unpalatable, but I really really really mean it here.

* For anyone who saw Waiting for Gandalf: this is worse.

So far, I have handled this delicate matter by respecting the policies of the theatre company and/or venue. My reasoning is as follows: at venues that don’t give content warnings, the people who go know what to expect, but you can’t reasonably foist something unexpected on an audience at a venue that routinely warns you what’s coming. The problem I’ve found with some content warning-heavy venues is that they are so dogmatic they will quite happily give away a plot twist – even one on which the whole play depends – in the name of showing how responsible they are. You might as well stand outside the queue for the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, shouting that the play may be distressing to those suffering trauma for unexpected news of parentage.

The other problem I’ve noticed with content warnings is what I called “content warning blindness”. This, I think, is becoming a big problem with the way Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes do it. In an effort to strike a balance between sensitivity and avoiding spoilers, they use catch-all categories such as “reference to mental illness” and “reference to suicide/self-harm”. Unfortunately, these labels are used so widely it becomes impossible to read anything into it. “Sexual content” can mean anything from graphic sex on stage to a PG-rated innuendo (and,in some cases, I’m not even sure what it was supposed to refer to). If a play has a warning of “triggering content”, how are you supposed to know if that’s triggering to you? Even when clear warnings are given they end up being ignored. I remember reading on article (can’t remember where) about a play called Daughter. Someone complained about the harrowing ending, and was reminded of the warning given prior to the play – to which that person replied “Yes, but I didn’t think you really meant it.” Laugh if you like, but when you’ve seen a hundred content warnings that turned out to be nothing, something like this was bound to happen.

Finally, I worry the obsession with content warnings unfairly puts artists on the spot. Not everyone is guilty of this, but I’ve seen some people use lack of content warnings as a gotcha to make other people look bad. (And, conversely, I’m seen people do content warnings in live events after it’s too late to leave, which defeats the object, unless the real object was to make yourself look good). The reality, however, is that it’s impossible to give content warning to everyone’s satisfaction. When I did Waiting for Gandalf, I never once had a complaint about the pretty distressing account of rape at the end. I did, however, once have someone walk out during the bit about breaking the news of a soldier killed on duty. I found out later it brought back painful memories of his duties as a real-life notifying officer. It simply hadn’t crossed my mind someone might have an issue with that. The point is that the most you can expect from artists is common sense and discretion. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for some isn’t good enough and they wag their fingers anyway.

There is good practice out there. Vault Festival and Underground Venues do something that I think is a good compromise: provide a link to show content warnings so that everyone has the choice as to whether or not they see it. The only snag I can see is that should you need to check the content warning section over one particular thing, you might read a plot-spoiling warning over something different. I quite like Alphabetti’s new system too: non-specific content warnings given before the play begins, with the opportunity to ask box office staff for more detail information if you need to – although I still have some reservations over giving away plot spoilers. However, I think I have found the best system of all. It’s used for film, but it could be adapted for theatre – and, crucially, it empowers people to make their own decisions on what’s best for themselves, and the system will help you however you choose. And it’s the most unlikely source.

: Also, if you’ve come with friends and you suddenly go out to ask for details of a content warning, that might lead to suspect something you’re not ready to share with them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the website known as: “Does the Dog Die?

It started off a joke website. Take the opening to Generic Action Movie. The hero, played by Jake Gyllenhaal or Michael Fassbender enters a military base, and see the bodies of forty soldiers, all with blood leaking out from the machine guns of the terrorists. The rest of the movie is footage of forty funerals with heart-wrenching footage of sobbing parents, wives, sweethearts and childrens. Lol, only kidding, who cares, let’s get to the explosions. What we’re really concerned about is the dog. Is there a dog carcass amongst the forty human corpses (to show the terrorists are really evil), or it is cowering in a corner (so Gyllenhaal/Fassbender/whoever can say “It’s all right, boy. I’ll take care of you”)? Either we, we need know what we’re letting ourselves in for. Likewise for the latest torture porn-fest: you’re not bothered by two hours of graphic footage of teenagers dying in unimaginable agony – hey, that’s specifically why you’re watching it – but is the cat going to be okay? Are you indifferent to the deaths of fifty witches and wizards at the Battle of Hogwarts but concerned about the well-being of Hedwig, Crookshanks and Pigwidgeon? Fear not, whatever your taste in movie, your friends at Does the Dog Die will tell you whether the pet dies, gets injured but lives, or gets through unscathed.

You killed Hedwig! You BASTARD, Lord Voldemort!
You BASTARD, J K Rowling!

But, let’s be fair here. Some people are very emotionally attached to their pets. The death of a beloved pet that has been central to your life for the last ten years can be a majorly traumatic event. If that’s what triggers you, why shouldn’t you check if such a thing happens in the film you’re thinking of watching? And, believe it or not, that was the unexpected use this website found. Thanks to the community contributions, you could check the pet welfare status of pretty much every film in existence. What started off as a joke to highlight the hypocrisy films valuing pets’ lives over humans became a useful – if somewhat niche – resource for some people with genuine concerns. It was certainly an improvement on the alternative, which was basically checking the entire synopsis just in case there’s animal harm somewhere.

However, why so niche? This might be a handy resource for recently bereaved pet owners, but what about people facing trauma from sexual assault ? Or racial abuse? Or depression? Shouldn’t they have the same? Well, the good people of Does The Dog Die agreed. The scope of the website was extended. There’s now the usual suspects such as racism and homophobia and mental health issues but also some other categories you can reasonably expect some people to want to avoid. You can search for warnings about infidelity, or the death of a parent, or someone having cancer. As well as the big things, it goes right down to things such as needles, spiders, or mentioning Santa doesn’t exist. (That was a joke kids, he does really.)

How it works is up to you. If you want to see the details of what it is you’re concerned about, you can. If even the mere mention of something distressing is too much (which it might be), you can simply check if there’s a warning against that category at all, yes or no. Admittedly some of the categories seem a bit weird – I don’t understand, for instance, why anyone would have an opinion one way or the other on whether a dragon dies, but hey, no-one’s forcing you to look up spoilers involving dragonicide. The point is that this website has accidentally turned into a very versatile way of searching for content warnings that matter to you on your terms, with no-one deciding on your behalf which things about a film are and aren’t worth mentioning. The only thing that might be a weakness is the community contribution format – that’s great for getting a big effort effort done for free, but one day we might have pettier community members going into moral feuds (as I’ve heard happens on IMDB). But I’ll worry about this if and when it happens.

Could the same approach work for theatre? Probably not exactly the same way. The community model works for films because they are seen by hundreds of thousands of people, of which only a few people need to take contribute to DtDD. The number of people who’ve seen a play is going to be more like hundreds (or even, as often is the case in fringe theatre, tens). With the exception of some of the bigger West End shows which attract thousands, it seems unlikely you’d have enough volunteers to do this job. So we may have to go back to asking the theatres and artists for their own content warning. The difference is we can put them under different categories. I’m not expecting such an intricate number of categories as a film website, but basics such as racism, mental health, and sexual harassment should be sufficient. What is important is that we give individuals the choice to find out as much or as little as they want.

The point is, if we do content warning this way, we’re not imposing a decision on what’s best for other people. We’re giving the, the choice to do what’s best for them and providing the means to do whatever them want. Do you find content about sexual assault distressing? That’s fine. Do you find it so distressing that even the details of what it is are too much and you just want a yes or no answer? That’s also fine. Is there something specific about mental health you find too close to the bone? That’s also fine? Do you not want to have to scroll through unrelated potentially plot-spoiling content warning in order find what you’re after? That’s fine too. Are you dead against hearing content warnings and just want to see whatever’s thrown at you? Fine again. I credit people with the intelligence to decide for themselves what’s best for them. Let’s empower people on their own terms instead of ours.

This, of course, is a lofty aspiration. I can only realistically see this working if this becomes standard practice throughout theatre. Perhaps too many theatres and too many companies are dead set on doing there own things for this to have a chance. So if this is not going to be, I’m going to make a couple of more modest suggestions. Firstly, please be realistic. You can make educated guesses at what’s liable to be distressing, but you cannot possibly guess everybody’s individual circumstances. Do what can, learn from your mistakes if needed, but don’t beat yourself up if you guessed wrongly. Secondly and more importantly, please don’t lose sight of who content warnings are for. They are for other people other people to make informed choices. If you are more interested in sticking up content warnings to show how worthy you are, that benefits no-one.

I honestly believe a website that started off as a spoof is the best way I’ve seen of letting people know or not know what to expect as they choose. If you have a better idea, I’m happy to hear it. But please don’t forget who you are supposed to be helping. There’s no easy way to handle the subject of trauma, but making yourself look good is most definitely the wrong way.

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