On May 1st, Netflix issued a statement explaining that they will be adding a trigger warning to their hit series 13 Reasons Why, acknowledging the danger of exposing audiences to “graphic content” such as suicide and sexual assault. This decision was in part a result of pressure from mental health advocates, school administrators, and psychologists who fear that the show’s depictions of suicide could result in the contagion effect, in which publicizing suicide increases suicide attempts. Although suicide and sexual assault trigger warnings are guarding against vastly different reactions, as one attempts to prevent a person from taking their life and the other alerts the viewer to potential PTSD reactions, putting them in the same disclaimer is powerful. By putting suicide ideation trigger warnings beside sexual assault trigger warnings, Netflix is taking the PTSD responses of assault survivors seriously, and publically acknowledging that these can have serious physical repercussions.
In a society that constantly delegitimizes the magnitude of sexual assault trauma, seeing a major force in TV voice concern for sexual assault victims is a step to a public recognition of sexual assault as a devastating crime. Just as suicide ideation is dangerous, being unexpectedly triggered is not just emotionally upsetting; it’s physically harmful. Teenagers are the target audience for the show, which arguably makes the call for trigger warnings more pressing. For young people who are susceptible to self-harm, media that triggers suicide ideation could pose a real threat. This is the main reason why Netflix received so much pressure to add trigger warnings to 13 Reasons Why, while much of their triggering content targeted at adults remains trigger warning-free. Although much of Netflix’s content still lacks trigger warnings, placing a warning on 13 Reasons Why is a step in the right direction, as it sets an example for adult television and teaches a new generation to acknowledge that sexual assault has real repercussions.
This conversation is far cry from the adamant rejection of trigger warnings of just a year ago, and marks an important cultural shift. Fox’s Greg Gutfeld’s 2016 article “The Ultimate ‘Safe Space’ is a Coffin,” for example, called calls trigger warnings on college campuses “psychological bubble wrap” and safe spaces “ball pits for babies.” This rhetoric was not just sequestered to right-wing media, as academic institutions classified trigger warnings as the unnecessary coddling of young adults, from American University officially discouraging them to the University of Chicago banning them completely. “We do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” University of Chicago’s Dean of Students John Ellison told the class of 2020 in their admissions letter. “We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Here, Ellison is equating trigger warnings with censorship. Safe spaces, to Ellison, are places to retreat and hide from ideas, as opposed to places to find literal bodily security. Continue reading