So, you may have noticed, Canada has a new government now and they’re trying to build a brand around not being evil. That is, almost literally, the advertising strategy: “Your New Liberal Legislature: Now with 50% less killing kittens for meat!” I’m not complaining. It’s a big step up from the Conservative era, when Stephen “I’m Pretty Much Voldemort” Harper reigned supreme- but it still feels odd to give mad props to our new Prime Minister just because managed to say hello to some refugees without punching them all in the face.
Anyway. As part of their Maybe Let’s Not Be The Worst People Ever routine, Trudeau’s Liberals have decided to take the bold and risky step of not ignoring the murders and disappearances of more than a thousand First Nations women. You may recall that Harper’s government had a rather different approach, which involved the use of the following three-point plan:
- Blame all the murders on First Nations men.
- Create a diversion by throwing a rabid badger in the air, and hide under the carpet while everyone’s looking the other way.
- Engage in dialogue with concerned parties until you get tired of doing that, then hide under the carpet some more.
So now we have the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the website of which has caused some loud and vigorous yapping on the Internet over the past few days. You see, the webmasters put a trigger warning on the site’s front page, thinking that, for some strange reason, reports about recently murdered women might be a thing that some people would find traumatic. Naturally, some Netizens are now wailing about over-sensitivity, and political correctness, and the decline and fall of our country. One assumes that they are pining for some mythical golden age, wherein all Canadians would cheerfully discuss brutal violence over a breakfast of raw meat, and then go kill a polar bear with a spoon. I don’t remember a time like that myself, but I don’t want to make assumptions about what everyone else was doing in kindergarten.
Content warnings: are they really a modern phenomenon? All of the trigger warnings, spoiler warnings, and disclaimers on every form of media- have they come about because we’re more sensitive now, or because broadcasters are squeamish and scared, or is there something else at work?
Maybe one reason the warnings have proliferated is that there are so many new stories these days. Back in Ancient Greece, if you went to a play, you knew what you were in for. If you went to a tragedy, someone would get buried alive and/or get eaten and/or boink his mother. If you went to a comedy, all the actors would be wearing gigantic fake dicks and no-one would die at the end. Shakespeare wasn’t a master of suspense; in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, he said right in the prologue that the story would end with stabbings.
Once a large-scale literary industry emerged, we had censorship and obscenity laws shoving stories along pre-chosen, predictable tracks. If two women banged their bits together in a book or movie, they had to be punished. As a general rule, that meant that they had to be spectacularly dead before the climax (so to speak).
By and large, censorship has been replaced by content warnings. It comes perilously close to making sense. Don’t try to come up with a universal set of standards, don’t legislate what a writer can or can’t say. Let the writer tell readers what they’ll be getting if they choose to step into her created reality, and let them make up their own damn minds about whether to step into her sandbox.
But then it all comes full circle: What kind of content merits a warning? It’s all about mainstream expectations, which is why this issue is such an important one for our community. We all know of cases in which narrow-minded parents have had enormous tantrums after their little ones read King and King or Heather Has Two Mommies in school. Just recently, as you may have heard, there was a giant blow-up over the latest in the Captain Underpants series, Dav Pilkey’s The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot. (Hey, I keep track of queer content in all media, don’t you?) One of the main characters of the series turns out to be gay, a fact discovered when he travels forward in time and finds his future self hanging out with his husband and their children. No giant warnings in red ink, no XXX ratings or “Viewer discretion advised,” just a kid who finds out he’ll marry a man one day. Imagine that.
As someone who (a) loves surprising my readers, to a probably unhealthy degree (b) can take things to a pretty dark place, this is something I struggle with personally. Should I err on the side of letting people know what they’re in for, or should I keep my cards close to my chest, in the hopes that’ll make the journey more worth taking? You’ll be amazed to hear that I don’t have a perfect solution. By and large, though, I still believe in the power of books to take you somewhere you never expected to go. Sometimes, that means it’s better to start the trip without a map.