The Year of the Trigger Warning

What Women Really Think
Dec. 30 2013 10:42 AM

The Year of the Trigger Warning

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Shonda Rhimes believes there should be trigger warnings on television shows.

Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Yahoo News

As 2013 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

XX Factor year In Review

Trigger warnings—and the debate over whether they have any value—have long been a part of the feminist blogosphere. Originally, trigger warnings were short alerts put at the top of articles or blog posts warning readers that the following content could trigger known mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or eating disorders. The trigger warnings were intended to let readers with those conditions know to proceed with caution. Whether feminist bloggers believe their audiences are likelier to have these problems than other audiences, or if they are just more aware of these particular disorders, has always been a little unclear. (Also unclear: whether reading a blog post about an eating disorder can actually trigger disordered eating.)

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In recent years, however, the concept of the "trigger warning" has grown in its reach and meaning, popping up on more blogs for more circumstances—talk of drug use, suicide, rape, even just to warn that known bigots will be quoted in a piece doing their bigoted thing. And in 2013, feminist bloggers started to suggest that trigger warnings pop up in all sorts of places. At the popular blog Shakesville, Ruxandra Looft argued that they have a role to play in the classroom. The Onion was routinely singled out as a place that could do with more trigger warnings, with Molly Redden of the New Republic calling the website's edgier humor "trigger warning-worthy." Trigger warnings have become so common that now they are fodder for jokes—but, warning, everyone doesn't think those jokes are funny. When a Jezebel blogger wrote "TRIGGER WARNING" in the headline of a post about bug infestations, a community blogger at Jezebel shot back, angry that writers at the main site seem to think that trigger warnings are suitable material for a joke. But it was when people started seriously arguing that prime-time soap operas should offer trigger warnings for rape scenes that it became clear that the trigger warning was having a moment. 

The show Scandal—which just happens to be a cult favorite among many Internet feminists—portrayed a shocking rape of a regular character, and cries went up around the Internet denouncing the show for not having a trigger warning and demanding that future shows with similar content include the warnings. Remarkably, show creator Shonda Rhimes went on Twitter to agree with the critics, tweeting: "I agree that a trigger warning would have been a very good and responsible thing."

That a bigwig like Rhimes would not only know the term trigger warning but use the phrase herself made it official: The trigger warning became a mainstream concept in 2013. Whether or not this is a good thing will continue to be hotly debated. But even if trigger warnings become as ubiquitous as many feminist bloggers want them to be, odds are that most people will end up tuning them out like we do similarly intended parental warnings slapped on movie posters and TV shows. As for me, I write often about difficult subjects like rape and abortion, but I never use trigger warnings. My experience is that the audience can do a better job than I can at figuring out what kind of content will upset them by reading the headline than I ever could randomly guessing what blog posts count as triggering.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.