Tiffany Antone is a playwright, director, educator and producer. She is co-founder of The@trics and runs Little Black Dress INK, a female playwright producing organization. She writes here about the temptations and dangers of using trigger warnings, and how such warnings can limit both artistic freedom and an audience’s artistic appreciation. It was published first in Howlround.
Trigger warnings and artistic freedom
In 2014, Little Black Dress INK’s ONSTAGE festival lineup included a powerful little ‘rape comedy’ by playwright Jennie Webb that both challenged and scared me. At ten minutes, Rebecca on the Bus, managed to make me laugh and squirm every time I read it, and yet I knew that it was going to be a hot spot in our festival lineup. In a bid to be responsible to audiences who may take issue with a play about rape using satire to deliver its message, I included a trigger warning in our program:
This play deals with an account of rape that may be troubling to some people.
Because we had presented the play in two earlier staged readings and an open dress rehearsal, I knew that the playwright’s raw humor and pathos worked. Unfortunately, the trigger warning seemed to serve as a muffler for our audiences during performance, as though it left them stifled with responsible notions of what is and is not allowably laughable, preventing them from indulging in the play’s humor. The result was an audience both quiet and uncomfortable before the play had hit the gut-punch point that was supposed to leave them squirming.
This experience left me with the distinct impression that I had erred on the side of ‘covering my bases’ rather than trusting the audience to understand what the playwright was trying to show them. In my desire ‘Not to offend,’ I had cheated both the playwright and my ‘delicate’ audience of an effective and satisfying catharsis, which left me wondering if the recent trend of doubling down on political correctness is cheating both us and our audiences of creative freedom.
I’m thinking specifically of recent decisions like that of Mount Holyoke drama students to cancel their annual production of the The Vagina Monologues and Stanford’s recently cancelled production of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. In both instances, the decision-makers felt that the potential for alienating audiences outweighed the possibilities of cultivating constructive post-show discussion about the play’s controversial issues.
In an email sent to Holyoke students, the theatre group gave the following explanation for their decision not to go ahead with The Vagina Monologues:
At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.
There’s no doubt that the intention of Holyoke students to be more inclusive is admirable, but in labeling Ensler’s play ‘reductionist and exclusive’ they’ve completely missed Ensler’s point. In a recent Time op-ed penned by Ensler, the playwright explained that ‘The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina. In the play, I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.’
In their zealous pursuit of political correctness, the Holyoke students behind this decision see Ensler’s play as outdated and trans-averse, and decided to remove the play altogether rather than offend the trans community, even though Ensler had recently penned an additional trans-friendly monologue for the show.
With Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, officials at Stanford cancelled the show after concerns were raised about the play’s representation of Native Americans, along with its treatment of issues of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. In an interview with Stanford Daily, student director Benina Stern – who received both a Spark! grant from the Stanford Arts Institute and funding from the student group At The Fountain Theatricals (ATF) to put the show on – said ‘I don’t do theatre just to say we put on a show, I do theatre to have a conversation and to learn.’
Which brings me back to my experience with last year’s controversial ONSTAGE Project entry, Rebecca on the Bus. For those who aren’t familiar with Little Black Dress INK, we utilize a peer review selection process in which every submitting playwright reads and evaluates a portion of the submitted plays. During the review process Rebecca on the Bus received scores both extremely high and stunningly low, which told me I had a polarizing piece on my hand that needed additional attention. After reading the play, I knew I had to include it—it was powerful! But I also understood that the satire used to deliver the play’s message was what was causing some people to label it ‘inappropriate’ and ‘a very volatile trigger’ in the review process.
When I asked Jennie about her use of humor to address rape in the play, she admits that it’s a bit of a test:
Yeah. I often refer to the play as ‘my little rape comedy,’ and it’s pretty much always to be provocative. People tend to laugh, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. And honestly? After that opener I don’t get a lot of ‘Tell me about that, why don’t you!’ Which is all fine with me, because if the idea of a little rape comedy makes people nervous and the conversation shifts, I take that as cue that I’m on the right track; I’ve written what for me is the right play.
Rebecca on the Bus takes place in a coffee house where two women, Jane and Lynne, argue about scones while they wait for their terribly late friend, Rebecca. When Rebecca finally shows up, she explains that the reason she’s tardy is because she got raped on a bus. Jane, replies ‘Again? You were raped again?’ as though sexual violence has become such an everyday occurrence in this world that it’s not a valid reason to be late for anything.
The play is an obvious response to ‘rape culture’ (a term for a society in which rape is not only pervasive but normalized due to attitudes about gender and sexuality) and—more specifically— the brutal New Delhi gang rape of twenty-three-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey who was raped by five men aboard a bus in 2012. Pandey later died of her injuries.
‘I remember reading an online article written by someone who lived in the city, or had lived there growing up,’ recalls Webb. ‘She stated something to the effect that ‘Rape is an everyday occurrence here; it’s something women just live with.’ Webb goes on to explain, ‘Statistically, rape is an everyday occurrence all over the globe, which we may not stop and think about until we hear a horrifying news story. So I just took the situation to an All-American, most absurd (or is it?) extreme.’
Webb’s intentions with her script were readily apparent to both myself, and the directors who worked along with Webb during the play’s trajectory through our ONSTAGE development process. As a semi-finalist the play received a reading with Red Earth Theatre in Sedona, Arizona, before moving on to the finalist reading stage in Los Angeles. Red Earth Theatre’s artistic director, Kate Hawkes, recalls that their reading of Rebecca was a successful one.
I liked (the script) immediately and was both amused and moved and knew it would work. I just needed the right actresses and I had them.’ Said Hawkes. ‘(The audience) laughed and then got very, very quiet. No one left.
That poignant laughter transitioning into silence was exactly what I felt Webb’s piece had intended: to draw the audience into what at first feels like a completely normal sitcom scenario, only to then hit them with the gravity of the dangers inherent to treating sexual violence, and specifically rape, like it’s just another part of being a woman. I witnessed the powerful effect the play had on the audience myself at our Los Angeles reading; the play’s satire was quite effective. Rebecca’s director for the LA reading, Sara Israel, had approached the play with great insight into its complex nature.
My first thought – and I still think this, even more so now – is that Rebecca on the Bus is a thoughtful, telling, timely, funny as hell, and appropriately tragic play. Yes, it is also provocative, and yes, it also delves into emotionally fraught areas, which is what satire – and hopefully all theatre – ideally should do. The responsibility always, but more overtly so when the emotional and socio-political temperatures are high, is to execute really, really well. My first reaction—and still my reaction—is that Rebecca on the Bus executes wonderfully.
And yet, there were still those whose initial reactions to the play were polarizing enough that I felt myself struggling with my responsibility as producer. One director I had approached about the piece in particular felt, as a victim of sexual violence herself, that the play could be very upsetting for victims of rape that might be in the audience and that to produce the piece without any warning about the play’s content would be irresponsible.
As we neared production, I mulled over the options presented to me: make a counselor available at the festival (which felt a bit overboard for one ten-minute play in an otherwise noncontroversial lineup) or add a trigger warning (verbal or in print) before the piece. I ultimately decided that I should err on the side of caution, because what if there was someone in the audience for whom the play would be too disturbing? Although I very much believed in the piece, I didn’t want to ‘upset’ anyone ‘too much.’
However, during our open dress rehearsal, there was no program to warn audiences with. I held my breath as Rebecca played, totally without warning, to our early audience, and braced myself at the close of the evening for pushback, but none came. I felt relieved that the evening’s audience had let out some of those uncomfortable laughs before settling into Webb’s piece with understandable heaviness, and I felt confident that including the piece was the right decision. But I stuck to the plan to include the trigger warning in our program, and from then on, our audiences failed to laugh at all.
With one cautious sentence, I had neutered the play, telling the audience that the play they were about to watch was about (cue ominous music) RAPE. And everyone seemed to agree that they couldn’t go into the piece knowing it was about rape and still allow themselves to laugh. As Webb told me, ‘It’s my intention that humor helps us find a way to draw back the curtains and take a closer look at something we don’t want to talk or think about.’ But by prepping our audience for the reveal of the piece, I had deprived the play of its delivery mechanism.
Which brings to mind the recent success of Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series centers around one of the ‘Indiana Mole Women,’ a group of four women abducted by a crazy apocalyptic cult leader named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Abducted in eighth grade, Kimmy is forced to live in an underground bunker as one of Wayne’s disciples for fifteen years. In one episode, Kimmy blurts out that ‘Yes, there was weird sex stuff!’ and part of the show’s humor shows up not only in Kimmy’s reintroduction to the ways of the world, but in her struggle to move past the scars of sexual trauma she experienced at the hands of the Reverend.
In a recent article for the New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum applauds the show’s choice to use sexual violence as a launch pad for comedy, arguing that ‘by making horrible things funny, it suggests that surviving could be more than just living on. It could be a kind of freedom, too.’
But not everyone agrees. When I shared Nussbaum’s article on LBDI’s Facebook page, someone commented, ‘I don’t like the feel of the whole thing. There’s nothing funny about rape of captivation [sic]. I’m rapidly going off Tina Fey.’ For some people, it seems that laughter is too closely associated with advocacy. As though, in laughing when Kimmy tries to strangle her roommate during a nightmare in which she is once again trapped in that bunker, you are endorsing the cult that had enslaved her. Similarly, it seemed that audience members who were warned about Rebecca on the Bus’s content were afraid laughing would somehow mean that they thought rape was funny.
But employing humor does not mean the writer (or audience) endorses the thing being satirized—just the opposite! Many powerful forms of effective satire exist that move us to think about the very issue being lampooned; so why should sexual violence be off limits? As Nussbaum states in her article, ‘When women’s lives are taken seriously, sexual violence is going to be part of the drama.’
I would add that it’s not only sexual violence, but all of our ‘difficult’ women’s issues coming to fore that will be the true test of creative revolution. From my own experience I can say that we have run into challenges with placing another play this year simply because it involves a talking vagina.
Which leads me to suggest the following: rather than shying away from controversial plays or musicals, I believe it’s a theatre’s job to lean in. Because there’s protecting your audience and then there’s protecting your assets, and unfortunately it feels like the two have been getting conflated into one large mess of avoidance in the name of safety. But is it really a theatre’s job to protect audiences? Plays like Rebecca on the Bus are designed to spur thought and incite change—and change shouldn’t be comfortable, which is why we need to embrace the inherent pain in such work, rather than try to ‘soften’ or curb the show’s delivery of its message.
In response to Stanford’s decision to cancel Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Stern and ATF’s artistic director Sammi Cannold created a cabaret of controversial songs in musical theatre. The lineup featured songs from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as well as Rent, and The Book of Mormon, to name a few. In discussing their decision with Stanford Daily, Cannold said ‘We weren’t really content with cancelling the show and moving on, because we had tons of questions left, like what can we present in art, and what’s offensive and what’s not offensive? So that’s where ‘Did We Offend You?’ came from.’
For myself, I have to admit that although the process of producing Webb’s piece was challenging, I can’t imagine not taking the risk. The only thing I would do differently, were I to present the piece again, is that I wouldn’t include that trigger warning. In setting an audience up with a pre-positioned apology, I had in fact told them to be afraid of the play – because, let’s face it, the piece scared me – instead of allowing my audience to come into the piece on their own and engage in their own unbiased conversation with the play, the playwright, and our production team.
Instead of censoring or sanitizing content that ‘might offend,’ theatres should look at such works as opportunities to engage their audiences in critical public discourse about important issues in the play, because if we approach theatre as something that should be feared or approached cautiously, then we’ve robbed it of it’s power before the actors have even said a word.
The images are all posters about freedom expression, mostly from Posters4tomorrow competitions; they are, from top down, by Agnes Szucz, Beetroot, Grzegorz Drobny and Christopher Scott.
And according to some, the word ‘trigger’ is itself triggering: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/420401/trigger-warning-everday-feminism
There was also a story about a “safe space” filled with bubbles and coloring books. Also, a proposal to replace clapping at events with jazz hands, because clapping is triggering.
It’s all super-fragile egos that completely exploit social justice to be coddled and kept ‘safe’ from opposing points of view. But even otherwise, therapy for those who have suffered actually traumatic events often involves exposing the victim to the event and memories, not hiding from it.
The same goes for rape jokes. Victims often use those as a means to cope with humor. The idea that a rape joke should be completely devastating to a victim is partially based on the idea that rape is the ‘ultimate’ crime to happen to a woman, which is straight out of Victorian ideas of women’s sexual worth being their only worth. You cannot have it both ways – sex based upon 2015 ideas of sexual worth and rape based upon 1840 ideas of sexual worth.
The idea of “rape culture” against women is a complete crock also. The rape of a woman has, for thousands of years, been seen and treated as one of the most serious crimes one can commit. The potential of any harm happening to a woman, especially by ‘foreign’ or non-white men, was the impetus for men to rush to do anything to *protect* women. If there is a rape culture, it is the one against men, especially female-on-male sexual violence which repeated studies have shown to be at about the same rates as male-on-female. Female-on-male rape is not legally counted as rape in many countries across the world, and is certainly ignored far more. So while you might be able to somewhat argue that there are cases where rape in general is not taken as seriously, even under the most radical feminist view of history, you cannot argue that male rape victims are taken more seriously than female victims. And to call rape “violence against women” is to buy into very reactionary, conservative ideas.
This reminds me of Corey Robin’s post about Arendt, the Eichmann trial, and laughter:
“Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand.”
This is weird… This piece talks about triggers but is full of words like ‘upset’, ‘offend’, ‘uncomfortable’… This is not what triggers are about, they are about panic attacks, about being rendered emotionally incapacitated for the rest of the day, they are about being thrown back without warning into one of your most traumatizing experience…
I can’t shake the feeling that the author is totally missing the point. This is not about political correctness, this is about trying to avoid causing severe distress for some of your audience members. This is not about avoiding uncomfortable feelings, this is to be able to prepare emotionally before confronting oneself to difficult material. And survivors of rape are not uncomfortable with the subject of rape, they are rather familiar with it, actually…
And this could have been handled so much better with a few minutes of thinking and a couple hours of work. This is the 21st century, internet is a thing, many people even have smartphones, so why not have a page on the website of the events called “Trigger warnings” listing the subjects you judge potentially triggering present in any of the shows (without specifiying which ones) of the event. Each trigger is a link to another page like “trigger-warnings/rape” which lists the shows in which that trigger is present. That way, people can check if there are any material that might trigger them in the event. If not, they can participate freely without being spoiled. You can also communicate the information on flyers, with the web address. People who do not have triggers will ignore it, people who know they have triggers can prepare, by going to the website or asking about it to a member of the staff.
There, done, problem fixed.
I don’t think you’re familiar with how today’s social justice warriors use the term ‘trigger’. I have seen plenty over the years claim they are triggered and are having panic attacks on anything as much as differing viewpoints on anything political, being given links proving they were wrong, attention being given to any causes not their own, etc. I have even seen some ask for trigger warnings over the mere mention of the word ‘rape’, no description, just the word ‘rape’.
And it is for this reason that ‘trigger’ is now used to mean anything that upsets or makes one feel uncomfortable.
As for actual traumatic events that people can have flashbacks on, they can be triggered by literally anything, not just words. If you were raped, you can be triggered by a carpet that reminds of the room you were raped in, or someone saying a compliment that reminds you of your rapist’s words before, etc. It’s impossible to avoid triggers all your life. You learn to deal with it gradually in therapy, and at the time being, simply avoid triggers that have already provoked, or are extremely likely to provoke, a bad reaction from you. This Reddit post goes more in detail: https://pay.reddit.com/r/TumblrInAction/comments/23fr0z/the_correct_way_to_handle_your_privilege_being/cgwx6p5
Unfortunately with today’s SJWs crying ‘triggered’ over anything like I listed above, it’s become more common to associate triggers with them as opposed to those who are legitimately triggered from PTSD. Some of the latter group, influenced by the former, are also refusing to learn to handle their triggers in therapy, and avoiding more and more of the world and making their problem worse.
But SJWs do not get to decide which trigger warnings are put in place, this is left to the sole discretion of the organizers. Here one of the organizers was convinced that a trigger warning was warranted (I think, from the description of the gig that, indeed, it was) but realized that it screwed up the show. She then concludes that trigger warnings should just be dropped when, in fact, they can be kept by tweaking the execution…
We are not talking about SJWs, here, but about organizers who genuinely care both for the their audience and for the art and think trigger warnings might be a useful tool (albeit with some misunderstanding of what their purpose is) but have problems with the execution. There is no need to politicize this, this is an organizational issue…
Do you really think a joke about rape warrants a trigger warning?
You might have a case if it was a graphic description that would cause flashbacks for most (read: not just ‘any’) victims (and even then I would consider it more of a courtesy). Even if SJWs aren’t the ones directly deciding what warnings to put, there is a strong atmosphere of not offending anyone today, and they are indirectly influencing the organizers.
If a victim with PTSD is triggered by anything from a graphic description or a prop furniture, it sucks, but that’s what happens after abuse, and it is up to them to leave the show, and get therapy. Victims need to take responsibility for managing their triggers and eventually de-sensitizing themselves, instead of glorifying their reactions.
‘Trigger’ is a word stolen from PTSD.
PTSD can be triggered by any stimulus: a raised voice, a crashing sound, a flashing light, a colour or a song with bad associations.
The concept has been hijacked by those who simply find something uncomfortable or unpleasant.
We now have students claiming that certain ‘themes’ are triggering: Heart of Darkmess is ‘triggering’ because the colonialist theme triggers flashbacks in those who never experienced colonialism themselves but feel that they must be suffering something inherited from their ancestors.
It’s an insult to genuine PTSD sufferers.
As a someone who goes through life with PTSD, complete with blackouts and anxiety attacks, allow me to confirme when you say the diagnosis and the term ‘trigger’ has been indeed co-opted from people like me. I find it revolting that the politically active of today (whether they be parlour pinks or neo-cons or lib-labs or whatever) think nothing of propping up their profound lack of knowledge and intellectual honesty by adopting whichever term evokes sympathy and/or outrage. Thank you for recognizing and pointing this out.
I don’t want to live in a world where artists of all types must warn the world of potential triggers. Art MUST trigger reactions to be effective. I feel for people with serious PTSD and encourage them to get help. But we have to be able to inform, expose, confront, and stir people to think and rethink issues. How does one learn without squirming?