Of Claire Meakins, Film and TV critic and sub-editor
There has been a conversation around the necessity of content warnings on streaming services for a long time now, often most prominently after particularly controversial releases that deal with the topic of sexual violence. The luckiest girl alive (2022) is one such film which, after being released earlier this month, has reignited the debate.
The film stars Mila Kunis as a woman struggling to overcome the trauma she experienced as a teenager. This trauma, which includes surviving a school shooting and being subjected to violent sexual assault, is graphically depicted on screen in scenes that are incredibly distressing. The small note that the film has an 18 rating could not prepare any viewer for the nature of such scenes, let alone a viewer who might be triggered by the content.
Similarly, another recent release, Blonde (2022), has been criticized for its explicit and disturbing scenes of sexual violence. The film is advertised front and centre Netflix website without obvious suggestions for the graphic content it contains.
In fact, one of the film’s cover images is of Ana de Armas recreating the iconic moment of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The seven-year itch (1955): a moment strongly associated with the actress’s sex-symbol persona.
Based on this thumbnail, an unsuspecting viewer might reasonably expect Blonde’p 18 rating is a natural consequence of a biopic that shares all the juicy details of Monroe’s notorious private life. However, the film’s sexual content is worlds apart from any raunchy gossip column.
In both of these cases, the intention behind the films seems to be to create narratives that help survivors of sexual assault in some way, whether through providing comforting relatability and/or an overt critique of our poor treatment of victims.
While this type of narrative may be helpful to some, it’s important that viewers can make an informed choice as to whether this type of intense content is for them.
Having an unexpected attack scene is certainly not the way to handle such sensitive subjects and in fact negates the whole ‘moral of the story’ if survivors are triggered and possibly even re-traumatised. To me, implementing clear and precise content warnings seems like an obvious and easy step for streaming services to take to make their platforms safer and more inclusive.
The main objection to the widespread use of content warnings can be summed up in the now infamous line: “Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings.” The argument is that placing these warnings provides a dangerous security blanket that does not exist in real life; this can cause people to have greater anxiety and struggle to function in a world that cannot provide for them.
However, this thinking is often accompanied by the suggestion that those dealing with trauma are somehow weak or needy.
This last part couldn’t be further from the truth, trauma sufferers show incredible strength in their ability to cope with a world that can feel frightening and overwhelming. Widespread content warnings aren’t going to make these people more anxious in the “real world,” rather they won’t need to be anxious when using a streaming service — services specifically designed for entertainment, not mental anguish.
Another objection to the use of content warnings is the fact that they may inadvertently contain spoilers, especially for movies and TV that contain dramatic plot twists. Of course, no one likes to have something spoiled, but personally I think this is a case of the benefits outweighing the costs.
A small, potentially insignificant, spoiler seems justifiable if it avoids others experiencing very real and intense suffering.
What is often left out of discussions about trigger warnings is that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. The streaming service Mubi provides an option to turn off content notifications for those who do not want or need them. This opt-out approach ensures that none are triggered unexpectedly, and that those opposed to such warnings can choose to remove them.
This would be a simple thing for the streaming giants to implement, and yet they have made little effort to do so. As such, I can’t help but wonder if the media storm generated by these graphic and warning-free releases is too beneficial for them to want to include any content warnings.
The media’s spectacular portrayal of controversial releases as scandalous, rather than merely disturbing, means that a warning or criticism can turn into a perverse advertisement.
While this unsettling possibility is a worrying indicator of the streaming giants’ stance on the ethics vs. profit debate, it’s not a completely hopeless situation. Streaming services rely on having a consistently good reputation to keep subscribers locked in. If enough people voice their concerns about an issue, it puts a lot of pressure on them.
For example, after the tragic school shooting in Texas in May, Netflix included a warning in the description of the first episode of the latest series of Stranger Things (2016-) due to the episode’s chilling similarities to the real-life incident. It’s clear that streaming services, while reluctant, are capable of making changes even if it takes extreme circumstances to force them to do so.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that there are unofficial websites that provide trigger warnings for a number of movies and TV shows, many of which also have handy spoiler filters. The two that first appear as reliable are Parent’s guide on IMDb and the crowdsourced website ‘Is the dog dying?’.
While the onus should not be on these types of sites to provide relevant warnings or on the public to research content before viewing, as it is, they can be an invaluable resource and provide reassurance to anxious viewers.
Featured image: Netflix, courtesy of IMDB
Do you think streaming sites should implement content and trigger warnings on all their content?