All About Content Warnings
Content warnings (sometimes conflated with trigger warnings) are those missives that suggest some viewers should exercise caution with watching or reading the story and characters of a book, TV show or movie.
Here are some standard content warnings we have all seen …
- ‘Contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’
- ‘Parental advisory: explicit content’
- ‘Contains scenes of a sexual nature’
- ‘Contains strong language.’
- ‘Includes sexual violence or dubious consent’
Of course, for some people, content warnings have the opposite effect and make them MORE eager to read or watch something. This is why others may believe content warnings are pointless, especially since ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. B2W has a certain sympathy for this argument, though not enough to take content warnings away altogether.
Others say they don’t like content warnings because they offer ‘spoilers’ or because ‘readers and viewers know what they are getting into’ because they read the blurb. (Personally I think both of these arguments are bilge. If a content warning is a spoiler, so is the blurb … and as we know, blurbs don’t give away the whole story! In fact, we can read the blurb and STILL end up reading or watching something wildly different to what we expected).
So it should be noted here B2W ultimately supports content warnings. Hell I have even warned Bang2writers umpteen times to NOT follow me or read my posts if they don’t like explicit language!
FYI: This post also has a content warning!!!
I also include one for this post you’re reading right now because of the pics of racist caricatures towards the bottom … So do feel free to give the rest a miss if you can do without pics of yellowface, golli***s and other such assholery nonsense.
Content Warnings In The News
Hardly a week goes by without someone decrying the nature of ‘cancel culture’. The most recent to get the gammons in a froth is probably Doctor Seuss. The late author’s own estate pulled six books due to racist imagery, especially of black and Chinese people.
As ever, people lined up to cry ‘censorship!’, wilfully ignoring the following …
- The estate itself pulled the books. Whilst discussion of Seuss’ content has been ‘years in the making’, there had been no specific demand the estate do anything
- All 6 titles were very obscure, so it was more likely the books were not selling well (supply & demand)
- Oh would you look at that … The existing, classic Dr. Seuss such as Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs And Ham titles then rocketed up the charts! (Funny that).
In other words then, the late author’s estate made a business decision … which paid off handsomely for them! That’s the very opposite of ‘censorship’ and ‘cancel culture’. It’s PLAYING THE MARKET.
Content Warning Rows
In the summer of 2020, white people decided to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (aka BLM) after the murder of George Floyd. From there we saw what appeared to be a seismic shift in the creative industries and across social media.
Writers, filmmakers, producers and publishers alike committed to being more inclusive of black creatives.
Fast forward to winter 2020 however and this had happened …
Racism And Storytelling
Before I was even born, The Black And White Minstrel Show was finally cancelled. I am assuming no writer would argue for the likes of that literal shitshow to be reinstated, so it’s odd that some see content warnings as so ‘controversial’.
Especially when we look at DVD boxes and see THIS …
Or if you turn on Netflix or Prime, you get THIS too …
I’ve noticed the same people complaining about content warnings rarely focus their vitriol on film classifications anymore.
I find it odd that standard content warnings of stuff like discriminatory language, fantasy violence or even bloody horror are apparently ‘fine’ … Yet warnings about stereotypes are suddenly some snowflakey thing?? Weird.
Anyway, here’s a round-up of some of the more recent arguments I saw made on social media about the content warnings surrounding Gone With The Wind and Flash Gordon.
1) ‘Gone With The Wind was made in another time, they didn’t know’
Erm, they did. People have complained about this book and its movie adaptation since it came out back in the 1930s. The notion ‘no one cared’ before the modern, so-called ‘woke era’ is a full-on FIB.
2) ‘Gone With The Wind’ is a classic’
Yes, it is. Loads of people love it, which means some black people will love it too. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t stereotype its black characters, though. Most writers would argue against using stereotypes in their own writing, so it’s strange they would defend it here.
3) ‘It’s censorship to take it away from us’
Censorship refers to prohibition of something and Gone With The Wind was never prohibited from sale. It was only ever removed from the streaming catalogue temporarily to add that content warning. It was always stressed it was a temporary measure.
The movie is not only back now, having a content warning for stereotypical portrayals of a marginalised community does not adversely affect our viewing experience in any way. Hell, THIS VERSION on Amazon Prime’s UK site doesn’t even appear to have a content warning anyway!
4) ‘Ming The Merciless is an alien’
Yes he is supposed to be an alien, but sci fi and fantasy has a long history of ‘othering’ those from BIPOC (aka BAME) backgrounds which cannot be ignored.
Ming was also conceived in 1934 during a time that was especially Sinophobic (aka racism against Chinese people and by extension other East Asian people, especially if they are mistaken as Chinese).
This is why the character is called ‘Ming’ (which most people in the West can associate easily with The Ming Dynasty, or at least a Ming vase). He even comes from the planet Mongo (drawing on the word ‘mongol’).
Sinophobia is especially relevant in the Covid era, where racist attacks on East Asians have risen sharply. If you think the link between racist stereotypes and hate crimes is an exaggeration, Variety offers this thought-provoking article … How Hollywood Is Complicit In Violence Against Asians In America.
A Quick Note on Antisemitism Too
Of course, not only BIPOC people can be stereotyped by the sci fi and fantasy genres. Religion/ethnicity is another. There has long been discussion about the representation of Jewish people in both, such as the bankers in the Harry Potter franchise.
I will admit as a completely secular person religion is something of a blind spot of mine (I wouldn’t even count myself as atheist, religion is literally not on my radar, even to reject it!). I had not realised anything about these stereotypes or myths until Jewish writer friends brought it to my attention. Once I had seen it, it was like WHOA — this stuff is everywhere!
What’s more, antisemitism so frequently goes unchallenged, even by those calling themselves progressives. Sometimes it’s because we don’t understand how pervasive and insidious the stereotypes are … In more depressing cases, the same people with BLM in their handles who’d (rightly) say ‘dominant voices don’t get to define what is racist’ will nevertheless insist on defining what is and isn’t antisemitism. (Sometimes this will be ‘justified’ on the basis of various myths like Blood Libel or what has been happening in the news, just like every other form of racism since time immemorial).
5) ‘So Ming’s clothes are inspired by the Orient, so what?’
Ming’s eyebrows and clothes are codified to be ‘exotic’, a typical trait of Orientalism. Sci Fi has a long history of using East Asian cultures as ‘other-worldly’ (which might seem like a compliment to some, but it’s not) or ‘savage’ (which obviously isn’t).
Both cases shore up white supremacist values in that ‘white = default’.
As if all that was not bad enough, Ming’s casting is Max Von Sydow, a white man. Most white people have heard of ‘blackface’ and consider it ‘common sense’ to avoid it. In stark contrast it seems some white people appear to be in denial of the ‘yellowface’ in Flash Gordon.
Facts are, Ming would NEVER look like this if the film was made today and that tells us everything we need to know.
6) ‘People must want to be offended!’
This one is hugely ironic, largely because the ones complaining about the complainers are often those making the most noise.
This is a variation on the ‘Happy Christmas vs Happy Holidays!’ hoo-har that happens every year on social media. In other words, it’s a copy-and-paste kneejerk argument The Gammonati spread almost constantly.
7) ‘This push towards diversity is just groupthink’
Wikipedia defines Groupthink as …
‘A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Cohesiveness, or the desire for cohesiveness, in a group may produce a tendency among its members to agree at all costs. This causes the group to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation.’
Again, another deeply ironic accusation. Diversity is NOT normality in the creative arts. The vast majority of creators are white, able-bodied cishet males, plus the vast majority of characters are too, so stories are told from generally from that dominant POV.
So no, those calling for more variety can’t value ‘conformity’ because if they did, they’d be happy with the status quo as it is.
Plus it’s worth remembering that every single time there’s a call for less stereotyping and more diversity or intentional inclusion, there is OUTCRY (as noted in the hollabacks listed here).
This means that there IS conflict and again, conformity is not the desired outcome.
However there is one example of ‘groupthink’ going on … You guessed it! Yup, it’s the people who DON’T WANT diversity or inclusion, because they think everything is FINE THE WAY IT IS. They are literally the ones arguing against critical evaluation, not for it.
8) ‘[SHOW/ MOVIE/ BOOK] is being cancelled!’
Nope – there’s no such thing as cancel culture.
There is, however, supply and demand. If a piece sinks it’s much more likely that NO ONE WANTED IT IN THE FIRST PLACE, including (not ‘because’) it’s been ‘cancelled’.
Put simply, regardless of how ‘problematic’ something is, if audiences want it, they will buy it and consume it.
What’s more, often such discussion of ‘cancellation’ will LITERALLY HELP a piece of writing find its audience.
We saw this happen with the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey. How many people ‘hate-read’ or ‘hate-watched’ that??
So far from being ‘cancellations’ or prohibiting anything, content warnings can actually HELP sell stuff. In fact, controversy is such a reliable selling tool there are plenty of companies and individuals that utilise outcry on purpose.
9) ‘I refuse to feel guilt about something I enjoy’
Great. No one sensible is asking you to feel guilty or discontinue your enjoyment.
All that’s being asked of you is to accept marginalised people were not represented well in that book, movie or TV show.
We do this by accepting content warnings and acknowledging the ways such representations can be improved in the future.
10) ‘Content warnings are a sad indictment on today’s snowflake society’
Aaaah, my personal favourite.
Let’s consider the evidence when we assume this is somehow a ‘new’ thing … NOPE! Movies have been removed or re-cut to suit the sensibilities of the modern era for decades now.
It’s the same with TV. As written before on this blog, no one but the most overt of racists would ever countenance the return of something like The Black and White Minstrel Show or other such blatant caricatures of black people.
Similar has happened with books. I recall everyone going ballistic when Enid Blyton’s Noddy got a revamp in the 1980s when I was still a child. The Secret Garden is just one of many classic children’s books that has not aged well too.
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is another obvious example. Its title has been changed several times over the years because of its racist original, which in turn was replaced with another racist title.
It may also interest Bang2writers to know that Christie’s book was NEVER published by its original title in the USA as it was considered ‘too racist’. This was waaaay back in 1939. So much for people ‘not knowing’ what was racist ‘back then’!!
Basically books and all kinds of media have long been under fire for their content, rightly or wrongly, throughout history. You may not have heard about it as easily as you do now, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Last Points On Content Warnings
Basically, the evidence does not support anyone’s calls re: the ten arguments against content warnings listed above. Instead, those wails are classic examples of what B2W calls ‘feelz over facts’.
Yet it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a dated movie, book or TV show AND appreciate things have changed. We do this via content warnings, which are NOT censorship, cancellation OR a new thing that’s suddenly started.
The idea *NOW* is an especially ‘woke era’ is grossly exaggerated. It just seems that way because more people have a voice now thanks to social media.
This means a content warning is not censorship, OR a sad indictment on society ‘today’. They are just an acknowledgement that we have moved on. Nothing more, nothing less.
More on B2W About This:
Dorothy Koomson: ‘No one is being censored or stopped from writing’
13 Questions On Cultural Appropriation You Need To Ask Right Now
We Need To Talk About Lionel Shriver And ‘Fine Writing’
7 Casting Debates That Need To Die The Death
Why Should Writers Work With A Sensitivity Reader?
This article was stupid and offensive.
Fact: Black Lives Matter is a Marxist, violent terrorist group that spreads lies to advance its false narrative, while continuing to ignore the epidemic of black-on-black homicide in the US.
Fact: There was nothing ‘racial’ about George Floyd’s death. Think about it: a stoned ex-con goes into a Palestinian/Muslim-owned shop, and the young back clerk calls the cops after he passed a counterfeit bill. Four cops showed up, of whom 2 were white, 1 African-American, and 1 Hmong Cambodian. The senior officer, later prosecuted for purely political reasons under completely inappropriate charges which are certain to be thrown out on appeal, happened to be married to an Indochinese woman. See any racism yet? The only reason this became ‘racial’ is cynical politicians and violent extremist organisations like BLM lied about it. There’s plenty of whites and other non-blacks who die in interactions with police too–but people like you never mention Tony Timpa, Justine Damond, Ethan Saylor, or Daniel Shaver. You don’t hear chants of ‘say their names’. Because BLM is a crock. (And that’s not meant as an indictment of police. Police brutality and malpractice is vanishingly rare in the US–unlike, say, in China.)
The author further states,’It just seems that way because more people have a voice now thanks to social media.’ This is absolutely ridiculous. Social media giants routinely censor and de-platform people who don’t toe their ideological line. What we’re seeing is a war on free speech. The ignorance of people who deny this is breath-taking.
Bless your cotton socks Tony, you have ignored every little piece of evidence here on the **actual** thing being discussed in order to hijack with your own racist agenda … in order to complain about ‘marxist, violent terrorist’ supposed ‘facts’ and the mythical ‘war on free speech’ (if people like you are so ‘silenced’ then how come we are all hearing you cry-wank onto the internet? That’s a rhetorical question btw, since it’s clearly difficult for you to be rational when it comes to discussion).
Cockamamie. A fine site for writing tips ..but please, don’t kid yourself. It’s among the silliest sites ever, politically.
English majors are not academics. English majors are not history majors. Trend-following digiteratti are the worst of all.
“But where have these folks been?!?! B2W has ALWAYS placed storytelling and social justice together, because our community’s remit is that writing is a political act.”
State what political acts you strive to emulate. There’s good and bad political political acts.
If you’re going to bolster the association of fiction-writing with politics, then state the specific political underpinning which lends itself to your aims. Does that movement –whatever it is –recognize you?
“Too many of us have been forgotten, erased, or coerced to toe the party line somehow.”
Where do you substantiate this on your site? Where else in the industry is this corroborated? It’s probably not even related to valid political cause/theory.
I won’t engage further on this (not wanting to be disruptive), but my suggestion is not to fight out of one’s weight.
The fact you engage here proves you don’t think writing as a political act is ‘cockamamie’ idea at all, otherwise you would have scrolled on by without the need to add your voice. You also prove you read my newsletter, since you have copied and pasted here directly from it. You also prove you are clueless about the current industry conversations about marginalised folks and how best to include them, not to mention the fact you ignore every piece of evidence here for the sake of your feelings. Dear me, you try to condescend to me about punching above my weight, yet serve only to make yourself look like an amateur.
Brilliant article. Well said. This snowflake is happy to be part of the avalanche.
Happy to have you on board! x
Re: supply-and-demand outdoing “Cancel culture”
You state that “regardless of how ‘problematic’ something is, if audiences want it, they will buy it and consume it.” I agree. However, if the audience never knows of it, they are prevented from wanting, buying, or consuming it.
Cancel culture is about major social platforms (Facebook, YouTube) and mass media (television and streaming) ignoring entire topics, discouraging views of posts (by burying them, adding warnings, creating playback glitches), and refusing to show content altogether that doesn’t agree with the perspective they want everyone to have. It’s outcome is group-think.
Agree, though as mentioned in the article as well: *that* type of groupthink comes from the alt right, not some lefty wokist bogeyman. What you’re talking about becomes much bigger than mere groupthink. This sleight of hand from the right is actually something much more sinister: HEGEMONY. This goes waaaay beyond adding a few content warnings to attempt to reset balance/introduce conversation about representation. Hegemony is how we ended up with stuff like tweet storms, fake news and hacking like Cambridge Analytica, which in turn has fuelled and radicalised whole generations in favour of things and ideologies that are literally against their *own* best interests, from anti vaxx through to Brexit through to MAGA.
What’s more, all the well-meaning progressives wringing their hands over the like of Trump getting de-platformed (for inciting the January coup in which people literally died!!) miss the point **those on the left** have been penalised and their careers ruined throughout history as standard, simply for standing up for what they believe in. Ever heard of Colin Kapaernik? Most people outside the USA have not and there’s a reason for that, as I mention HERE.
In contrast, adding content warnings to old stories ruins no one’s career & makes zero difference to the actual content. Plus everyone who has apparently been ‘cancelled’ by ‘wokists’ have not gone anywhere, in fact it often HELPS their careers … So why are writers so concerned? Because they have been hoodwinked by the alt right into believing getting bad reviews/yelled at by Twitter is the ‘same’ as having their careers ‘ruined’. If writers (traditionally critical thinkers) are unable to see the con of cancel culture, imagine what the average Joe thinks. So yes, this culture war is ‘Orwellian’ – just in the opposite way to what most people think. The evidence is clear, but people’s emotions have been exploited and said evidence is being eclipsed. We are literally living in The Upside Down.