Do TV Shows Need Trigger Warnings?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 24 2013 3:51 PM

Do TV Shows Need Trigger Warnings?

svu
Mariska Hargitay

NBC

I see a lot of murders every week. I love police procedurals, and homicide is, generally speaking, a prerequisite of the genre. It’s the rough equivalent to a bout of dizziness in a medical drama or the arrival of a good-looking stranger in a soap opera—a familiar event that jump-starts the plot machinations. The poor victim is just an excuse for the cops, criminologists, and consulting detectives to show off their smarts.

That’s why I wasn’t too outraged back in April when Vulture’s Margaret Lyons looked at this season’s scripted TV dramas and found that 109 of the 125 shows had “depicted or described in detail a rape or murder.” It’s a shocking statistic, but as a fairly sensitive viewer, I know that all murders are not created equal. I can’t watch creepy psychopath series like The Following, Hannibal, or Criminal Minds—and, on the other hand, cozy mysteries like NCIS and smart procedurals like The Good Wife wouldn’t give anyone nightmares.

Advertisement

This week, though, television kept me awake on a couple of occasions. The season finale of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit focused on a psychopath who broke into the homes of women who tried to bring him to justice. The episode went into what felt to me excessive detail about the horrors he inflicted on a 60-year-old woman who had served as a witness against him. I won’t spoil the surprise ending, but let’s just say that it would cause viewers to wonder if anyone is safe in their own apartment. Earlier in the week I’d watched the first episode of The Fall, a BBC series featuring Gillian Anderson and Archie Panjabi that will be available on Netflix next Tuesday, which also centers on a psychopath who attacks women in their homes. I would’ve hit the trifecta, but I learned my lesson after two sleep-deprived workdays; when the plot summary for the season premiere of Motive, a Canadian show airing on ABC, mentioned “home invasion,” I decided not to watch, despite my deep love of Canuckian television.

I suppose we all have our triggers. My sensitivity to these home-invasion stories probably has something to do with their airing coinciding with my partner taking an out-of-town trip. Or maybe some things just set us off. I’m not a parent, nor am I even particularly fond of children, but PBS’s Call the Midwife—one of the 16 shows on Vulture’s “no rape or murder” list—makes me so anxious I simply can’t watch it. Every week babies and pregnant women are in peril, and though I love the show’s pro-NHS message, I can find no pleasure in that tension. Similarly, I can’t handle shows in which animals are hurt. I know it’s not entirely logical, since a) I love bullfighting, and b) I didn’t bat an eye when a small boy was thrown off a tower and crippled on Game of Thrones, but I canceled my DVR season pass when a direwolf was killed. (Others who share my aversion to animal cruelty in scripted entertainment should consult the great website Does the Dog Die?)

As more people use DVRs and thus have access to episode descriptions, it’s easier to predict the presence of a trigger. I know people who won’t watch episodes whose log lines mention serial killers—even if it’s on a show that is typically gentle and comforting. But fiction thrives on surprises—especially at the end of the TV season. In recent weeks, television has experienced a spate of traffic accidents; as Liana Maeby tweeted earlier this week, “65% of car crashes are caused by season finales.” In the cases I can think of, the crashes represented a shocking plot twist, so there’s no way they’d be revealed in a plot summary. Nevertheless, I’m sure these collisions are traumatic to folks with first-hand experience of car accidents. That’s why I hope that some day in the future, DVRs will feature some kind of trigger-tagging mechanism. I’ll tell my TiVo I can’t handle direwolves in danger or psychopaths with lock-picking skills, and episodes that feature such things will be demarcated somehow in my to-do list. Let’s face it, I’m too invested to skip the season finale of SVU, but I’d like to know if I should leave the lights on.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Federal Law Enforcement Has Declared War on Encryption

Justice and the FBI really do not like Apple’s and Google’s new privacy measures.

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 6:39 PM Spoiler Special: Transparent
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.