Do Superhero Shows With Graphic Violence Need Trigger Warnings?

The superhero genre is currently at the top of the television food chain, having struck gold with Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and FOX’s Gotham.

All of the above have left behind the campy tone of earlier shows like the 60’s Batman and Catwoman shows, Flash Gordon, and The Incredible Hulk, for darker material that can often be distressing, and sometimes, downright triggering.

Superheroes are popular because we need them. We need people we can put our faith in who will save us from the evils that threaten to destroy us. Many of us, myself included, turn to superhero stories as a way to cope, process, or escape for a while. But with the rise of stories that favor extreme violence, graphic depictions of sexual assault, and other disturbing content, sometimes we have to forego the stories we love in order to fight off a relapse.

I’m not saying I don’t appreciate these stories. I love Daredevil; I’ve enjoyed watching Gotham. I’m going through Jessica Jones and while I have to take breaks between episodes, so far, I think it’s great.

But there are things in these stories that I wish someone had warned me about beforehand, because it’s better for me to be prepared ahead of time than attempting to deal with a panic attack after I’ve been triggered, which is far more difficult to overcome.

What is a trigger? According to The Free Dictionary,  a “trigger” is “a factor that initiates or worsens a behavior or action.” When someone is triggered by seeing or hearing a situation similar to the one(s) they have suffered (death of a loved one, rape, physical or other types of abuse, etc.), their behavior and/or actions can include flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares, hallucinations, or self-harm. Prepping for such eventualities ahead of time can go a long way in preventing new trauma from adding to an individual’s experience.

This is where trigger warnings come in. There has been a long-standing argument in academia, over social media, and in other communal spheres about the need for or the dislike of trigger warnings. However, I think there are some misconceptions about what trigger warnings are and their purpose in helping people with PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Trigger warnings are not used to censor content, nor are they put in front of a story to drive people away. Trigger warnings are labels that state what material in the story might “trigger” a trauma response in the viewer. There are very common triggers like gore, violence, death, rape, etc., that are becoming more routinely part of our media consumption, and knowing what a story contains prior to experiencing it can help people be prepared for when the element(s) shows up in story.

Refusing to provide trigger warnings prevents people from being able to make healthy mental and emotional choices and sometimes prevents them from being able to experience the story at all. Miri Mogilevsky’s article “Trigger Warnings Are Not Censorship” provides an explanation on why adding trigger warnings is more productive than avoiding them, especially since people are more likely to interact with the material if they know what to expect beforehand.

Mogilevsky wrote:

“Many people who experience triggering say that knowing ahead of time what they’re getting into often allows them to manage their emotional response.”

If you’re worried about trigger warnings being used as “spoilers,” WIRED magazine addresses that in the article “Spoilers Don’t Spoil Anything,” which provides scientific data on the enjoyment of a spoiled vs unspoiled story. And frankly, if you’re more concerned about spoilers than the chance that a person could be triggered by the material, you may need to sit down and think about what really matters.

I’m in agreement with Andrea Smith on the issue of trigger warnings. It isn’t about the pros and cons of having them — rather, it’s the issue of, “How do we create critical intellectual spaces that recognize that intellectual work is not disembodied and without material effects?”

These stories aren’t told to the void. These stories are told to people, to an audience, to individuals, many of whom are living with triggers, and we need to be aware that certain stories are more emotionally taxing, especially for those of us still healing from past wounds.

Trigger warnings can help prepare us, and, maybe, eventually, help heal us. Many experts say that exposure and EMDR therapy, both of which return the individual to the traumatic experience by re-visiting memories of the trauma, can help in the recovery process, though of course it is not wise to attempt to do so at first without a professional. You will notice, that counselors and therapists prepare their clients prior to attempting these methods.

Adding trigger warnings to television shows, particularly those without a procedural storyline, would help tremendously in allowing viewers to make healthy decisions about their consumption of story. After all, without stories, we are unable to learn from anything but our own experience, which by default is rather limiting.

If we are to grow, and heal, we will need assistance, and one of the simplest ways to implement assistance is to include trigger warnings, which serve as a caution and nothing more. It is up to the individual to be responsible for handling their own triggers, but it is our duty as a community to ensure that we take what steps we can to prevent damaging an individual further.

Image Credits: Netflix
K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

Latest Articles by K.M. Cone (see all)

You Might Also Like

  • rubi-kun

    TV shows, some of them, already come with trigger warnings anyway, don’t they? Network shows have to put up a “viewer discretion is advised” message for particularly graphic episodes, HBO always lists the reason for a show’s rating before each episode. I guess Netflix is behind on making the reasoning for their content ratings as immediate, though they do link to Common Sense Media’s general content overview (not episode-specific like HBO’s warnings though).

    • “Viewer Discretion Advised” is used on some shows/channels, but I think that’s different from “Trigger Warnings” in that trigger warnings often have to be more specific, and there are more common trigger warnings than there are general statements used by the “VDA” warnings. I’m curious to see how this evolves over time, especially with Netflix, Hulu, AmazonPrime, and other sites that provide their own content along with regular television programming.

  • whatever

    Oh jeez, I think kid shows like Barney should have trigger warnings. Also news shows that show today’s latest atrocities. Certainly dramas like the wire, treme, needed trigger warnings.

    Thank god your website and anything you write needs no trigger warning. Literally. I mean I’m serious about that.

    • You’re right about the news. And I’d really like to see trigger warnings become an established part of the procedure of a show. Here’s hoping that becomes a reality in the near future.

  • docmelonhead

    In general, Trigger Warning of rape and domestic violence should be included in all medium since those two were rampant in society, but rarely reported due to fear of further abuse to the point of death.