August 3, 2012

I Need to be in Control.

It was a Tuesday night. Nothing to do, no one to talk to, wondering what the heck to do with my time.

I’ve had a few of these:

This particular Tuesday night, I turned to Netflix, and chose a film solely because I knew it was based on a bestselling book. I didn’t know what it was about. The film I chose was Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The original Swedish version.

I would like to introduce Netflix to a little concept called a “trigger warning.”

This is something you use to let your viewers know that there are scenes in the movie, for example explicit rape, that are likely to trigger unwanted memories and emotions heralding panic and anxiety. It means that, if you are not mentally prepared to see a certain thing, you might get stuck retraumatizing yourself for two and a half hours.

Had I seen a trigger warning there, I probably would have just watched Wayne’s World again.

This experience got me thinking (after the panicking, crying, and general freaking out was over). We live in a world that bombards us with extreme violence, very often. It’s rare to see consensual sex or (god forbid) vaginas on screen, but you can be sitting in an airplane, flicking through satellite channels, and come across a scene of a serial killer breaking into a detective’s home and slowly stabbing him while waxing poetic on how stabbing is a lot like sexual penetration. On an airplane. There are children on airplanes. You can’t get away in an airplane.

I once took a film class that featured the director Lars Von Trier. You can tell this guy is a bit of a douchebag right away because he added the “Von” to his name by his own volition. He’s said it himself: he is “but a simple mastubator of the silver screen.” The paper I wrote on him took issue with the gratuitous rape he shows in many of his films. I figure someone who puts that much rape in his films must not have any idea at all what it feels like to be a woman watching rape over and over again in a film.

I didn’t do very well on that paper. I suspect it’s because I kept referring to him as “Lars Trier.”

Trigger warnings are not needed only on film and TV. I was reading one of the daily news rags on my way to teach a yoga class a few months ago, and came across an opinion column on crime. Suddenly I was reading one of the most graphic and horrible descriptions of sexual violence against a female child I’ve ever seen. I was sick to my stomach, and had to get it together to teach a yoga class. I spent my whole bus ride home writing a strongly worded letter on my smartphone.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not a proponent of censorship.

Censorship means someone else decides what you can and can’t watch, read, or learn, thus taking away your agency. Trigger warnings are a way of asking a viewer’s or reader’s consent, thus giving them agency to experience or to refuse what’s being offered.

In fact, I think sexual violence is a topic that should be explored in media and in some consensual bedrooms (or dungeons, perhaps). June Rathbone, in her book Anatomy of Masochism, explains that women who display sadomasochistic tendencies often do it to reclaim power that was taken from them:

“It soon becomes clear that what they are all involved in is the re-enactment of situations, long past, in which they were helpless but which they now master.” 

These women are able to heal old traumas by re-experiencing those traumas with an important difference: it’s on their terms. 

Mark Edmundson argues in his book Nightmare on Main Street that we are all actually doing this all the time. Our entire world is dominated by hierarchies and power dynamics, so we all need to work out our feelings about that in safe, consensual ways. We choose to watch movies about the things we most fear— war, rape, serial killers, terrorist and plagues—because, Edmundson writes, these movies corral “the anxiety that is free-floating in the reader or viewer and binds it into a narrative.” We are managing our traumas as individuals and as a culture when we experience them on our own terms.

Let me say that again: on our own terms.

If I go watch the movie Saw, or read the book 50 Shades of Grey, I know on some level what I’m getting into. But sitting in an airplane seat, reading a daily newspaper, or watching Netflix, I haven’t likely prepared myself for what I’ll be witnessing. In fact, I’m not in control at all: these media are feeding me—bombarding me—with images that can trigger fear and re-traumatization. I did not consent to this, and a body that is fearful is a body that is easy to control.

Give me the chance to say yes or no, and my consent may be revolutionary. It could heal my traumas, release my fears, and make me more powerful against the powers that be. So I can see why we’re not often given that chance.

In conclusion, Netflix, please put trigger warning on it. Until you do, I’ll be watching Wayne’s World.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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