In today’s society, it seems that almost everything has the potential to be offensive to someone in some way. No, really, everything. Trigger warnings on television shows, works of literature and even personal essays are becoming more important than expiration dates on dairy products. Is modern media-related hypersensitivity hindering our ability to produce authentic and valuable art?
13 Reasons Why is a popular Netflix drama revolving around the life, hardships, and (spoiler alert) eventual suicide of fictional female character, Hannah Baker—and oh, has it caused controversy. After two seasons, the production has received immense backlash. Katie Louise Smith’s latest article for Pop Buzz states,“[m]any fans have already called out the show the graphic rape scene in the finale episode, claiming that the trigger warning ahead of the episode did nothing to prepare them for what they saw on screen.” This past May, Vulture also published an article titled “13 Reasons Why Starts With A New Disclaimer Warning Some Viewers Not to Watch the Show.”
This can be alienating both for consumers and the actual communities/situations that media such as “13 Reasons Why” and shows like it are based on. Real victims may feel isolated by such warnings. Those who are affected by suicidal thoughts, experiences and losses of close ones due to the beast that is depression in their everyday lives can tend to feel oppressed or silenced by the sense of ‘taboo’ in culture that the stigma around these shows is creating. This removes their right as individuals to react to and discuss the pain that they are feeling, because the world is deciding that it is a matter of censorship, therefore putting emphasis on universal consumption as a delicacy and diminishing the voices of those who do not want to be hidden behind a disclaimer.
As a writer with hopes of commercial success, responses of this nature definitely discourage me from being completely unfiltered in my art. I don’t like the idea of being prohibited from being raw if I want to achieve my goals. It seems that going forward, creators are expected to tiptoe around certain themes of intensity, which is a severe disruption in the natural cycle of life imitating art and art imitating life. Sometimes life is messy. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Skin is torn, hearts are broken, sexual violence exists, mental illness flares up and dominates unsuspecting, undeserving individuals. Representations of these challenging and turbulent things can be hard to stomach, but, let’s face it: describing fangs as baby teeth isn’t an effective long-term coping mechanism, nor is it going to dull their sharpness.
Hannah Fearn of The Independent responds to arguments over the censorship dilemma of trigger warnings, writing, “Freedom of speech requires that no barrier be placed between the writer or creator and their audience on such matters. The voices and experiences of the marginalised should be heard, and it doesn’t matter who that offends.” I fear that blocking and warning against the portrayal of certain forms of abuse and struggle in mainstream media isn’t going to eliminate these issues—it will simply make platforms for expression such as cinema and television bland and void of vibrance and texture. Most artists choose their career paths because the freedom that comes with it is empowering. Creative control and direction shouldn’t lay in the hands, or should I say, clenched fists, of an oversensitive public.
Over the last week, I asked a handful of motivated and hardworking young creators to share their opinions on this matter.
Sarah Varrell, a 20-year old photography student at Temple University, shares that “People report certain wildlife and animal activist pictures because they get offended by seeing something bloody—it’s gory and hard to witness, but the fact is, this art deserves to be shared to spread awareness to fix issues like poaching, and if everyone is going to oversensitize themselves to these images and report them, these artists won’t have the platform they need to express their goals and make a change. People are oversensitive. That’s what’s ignorant—not the graphic photography itself, but modern society’s unwillingness to accept truth through image.”
Labeling any kind of content prior to our ability to experience it individually, without this taint, strips us of our chance to internally react to it authentically. It is also possible that trigger warnings being splattered liberally cause potent imagery to lose its seriousness by framing it with a pre-decided intensity, and therefore complicating how we’re actually being affected, instead immediately basing our response off of other people’s visible discomfort, rather than our own.
Nick Henon, 21, filmmaker with MidVessel Media chimes in, “Hypersensitivity is ruining satire. I don’t know, the modern social restriction on comedy is getting kind of wild. If I were making a joke—like if I wanted to have a male artist dress up like a female, maybe for a role in a music video or a skit, even if I thought he would be the best person to portray the character—I feel like there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t like that. It’s not meant to be offensive or hurtful. Context is being ignored to the point where an actual well thought out performance or script or idea is overlooked because of one image or word or phrase. People are getting so accustomed to being perpetually bothered that they’re not able to sit back and relax and enjoy something, they’re too busy villainizing other creators. Our culture is being brainwashed; we’re all paying attention to the wrong things.”
Danielle Massi, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia working with young and developing minds in our generation adds, “news and opinions can gain traction and blow up at alarming rates, so there’s camaraderie in feeling polarized on topics.” This implies that while an individual may not actually be particularly offended, damaged or hurt by something, they experience the trigger-warning-happy culture that others are engaging in and perpetuating, and decide to hop on the bandwagon because they don’t quite have a sense of self yet, perhaps feeling isolated in the world.
It appears that artists, creators, and even mental health professionals are noticing the severity with which sensitivity is exploding and poisoning the modern mind, damaging our subconscious and self-awareness on a cultural and global scale. This poses challenges for artists to create raw and unfiltered content to the true best of our ability. As Cesar A. Cruz once said, “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”
Photography by Hannah Adams