Do Trigger Warnings Need Spoiler Alerts

As content advisories become popular, Hollywood tries to find a balance between ruining plot twists and helping viewers avoid trauma You’re watching your favorite show, and one of the main characters is in a jam

Published Time: 07.06.2024 - 18:31:31 Modified Time: 07.06.2024 - 18:31:31

As content advisories become popular, Hollywood tries to find a balance between ruining plot twists and helping viewers avoid trauma

You’re watching your favorite show, and one of the main characters is in a jam.

He’s held captive by mercenaries and, for the past two episodes, has struggled to escape a labyrinthine prison. It’s unclear whether our hero will live or die, but the next episode opens with a warning: “The following contains a depiction of suicide. Viewer discretion is advised.” Welp, you think, I know how this story ends.

So what happens when trigger warnings need spoiler warnings? As content disclaimers trend in television, some viewers are taking issue when they give away crucial plot details or ruin surprises.

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Take Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer,” which dulled a shocking assault scene with a preemptive warning reading, “The following episode contains depictions of sexual violence which some viewers may find troubling.” Or Apple TV+’s “Severance,” which tipped viewers off to an episode cliffhanger by revealing, “The following contains a depiction of self-harm.” Or “Better Call Saul,” which, on the international streamer Stan, foreshadowed a major character death with a suicide hotline number.

The list goes on: Shows like Netflix’s “You,” Hulu’s “Life & Beth,” TNT’s “Snowpiercer” and Apple’s “The Morning Show” have slapped trigger warnings on the beginnings of episodes to alert viewers who may be sensitive to seeing suicide or sexual assault on-screen.

Separate from typical parental guidelines — like a TV-MA rating that warns of drug use or nudity — trigger warnings are more specific (and more in-your-face). Some flag strobe sequences. Others contextualize “outdated” content. (In May, AMC was ridiculed for warning that Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob epic “Goodfellas” contained “cultural stereotypes that are inconsistent with today’s standards of inclusion and tolerance.”)

But the most common trigger warnings in TV are content advisories relating to self-harm and sexual violence. They became popular after the release of Netflix’s 2017 teen drama “13 Reasons Why,” which follows Hannah, a high schooler who dies by suicide and leaves behind a box of cassettes detailing why. The Season 1 finale showed Hannah cutting her arms in the bathtub. A year later, after mental health experts criticized the show for glamorizing suicide and a study found it was “associated with a significant increase in monthly suicide rates” among teens, Netflix added advisory warnings. And a year after that, Netflix removed the suicide sequence entirely as it debuted the third season.

Since then, a growing number of programs have opted to inform viewers before showing potentially traumatizing content. But as trigger warnings continue to spread on TV, those who rely on them in other fields, like academia, stress that they’ve always been controversial — and widely misunderstood.

“Trauma and discomfort have started to become conflated, and I think that’s where people pull away from the idea of a trigger warning,” says Colleen Clemens, the director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University. Clemens has published a defense of trigger warnings and provides them for her students regarding topics that might specifically elicit a “trauma response,” as opposed to any subject that could offend.

“I appreciate a TV show that says at the beginning that it depicts sexual violence,” she says. “That’s great, thank you for telling me. I can now make a decision if I feel like I could watch that right now.”

Still, some research suggests trigger warnings don’t dissuade vulnerable people from continuing to watch, instead creating a “forbidden fruit effect,” according to Deryn Strange, a psychology professor at John Jay College who co-authored a heavily cited study titled “Trigger Warnings Are Trivially Helpful at Reducing Negative Affect, Intrusive Thoughts, and Avoidance.”

“The idea is that people can have the opportunity to avoid the topic if they so wish,” Strange says. “But the research suggests that they don’t actually take the option.” She adds that trigger warnings can “actually increase the anxiety viewers feel in a preparatory stage.”

However, trigger warnings are often paired with a “call-to-action card,” which ty -

pically appears at the end of an episode and includes links to resources or hotlines. Dawn Brown, the national director of helpline services at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says NAMI experiences a significant increase in calls after cards air. “We do see a trend for people reaching out for help for things like suicide ideation or disordered eating,” she says. Recent programs that drove traffic to the helpline include Max’s “The Fallout,” which opens with a school shooting, and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” in which Kyle Richards recently talked about her friend’s suicide. Similarly, cards on Netflix’s “Maid” and, indeed, “Baby Reindeer” generated an increase in outreach to The National Domestic Violence Hotline and the male sexual abuse support organization, We Are Survivors, respectively.

Networks and streamers approach NAMI, and other organizations like it, to create cards and retrieve helpline information. In turn, NAMI alerts its volunteers and staff so they can prepare for an increase in calls. Brown is grateful for content distributors who contact NAMI, but she hopes to work toward building a more formal collaborative system.

As of now, trigger warnings are applied on a case-by-case basis by distributors. Netflix, for example, has a de facto content policy group composed of staffers from across the company who work with writers and producers to determine what types of warnings are needed and where. Some streamers have created websites to share additional information and resources. Netflix’s WannaTalkAboutIt.com links to helplines and guides for how to deal with things like loneliness, anxiety and depression; Max and Hulu have accompanied select programs with web pages listing resources around the world.

Creatives have sometimes pushed back against the use of resource cards in the “body of the show” — like, for instance, after a title sequence — but, as one veteran TV producer explains, “the industry generally supports these things.”

Melissa Carter, a showrunner on “The Cleaning Lady” and “Queen Sugar,” believes trigger warnings provide “an extra guardrail” for young viewers.

“It’s the Wild West when it comes to streaming. Kids can watch whatever they want, whenever they want,” she says. “A trigger warning could at least prepare them for something that’s personally upsetting to them.”

Some shows walk the line between warning and spoiling. CBS’ “Ghosts” posted on Facebook ahead of an episode featuring a suicide: “Tonight’s episode deals with sensitive subject matter. … We won’t go into detail as not to spoil the episode, but we will share support resources.” “Dimension 20,” a role-playing game show on Dropout, issues a general content warning ahead of some episodes, urging viewers to read the description for triggers.

Even when shows omit warnings, the internet comes to the rescue. Reddit users advise each other in forums dedicated to their favorite binge-watches. And DoesTheDogDie, a user-supported website, contains every trigger imaginable, from depictions of body dysmorphia to the use of needles. (It also has hundreds of other, weirder data points for more than 23,000 movies and TV shows, like whether someone spits, farts or destroys a priceless artifact.)

“I spoil movies and I’m proud of it,” proclaims the site’s founder, John Whipple, on its homepage.

But in reality, Whipple is only spoiling for those who want to be spoiled. “DoesTheDogDie.com takes away the fear of the unknown,” he writes in an . “I hope the site is useful to people that have been through things.”

As the industry embraces trigger warnings, these alternate models could be guideposts for how shows can look after audiences while preserving plot twists. Perhaps streamers will integrate an “opt-out” setting, or conceal warnings in episode synopses. Either way, given that the goal is to help viewers enjoy TV without trauma, does worrying about spoilers feel like a trivial pursuit?

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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