Content Note: This post includes a lot of examples of reasons one might use content notes, but none of them are highly detailed.
One of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class, is good about giving content notes (aka trigger warnings). They don’t always call it that, but they consistently let their audience know if something potentially upsetting is in that episode. Unfortunately, they don’t stop there. Instead, they often then add an unnecessary bit, telling people who might be upset by that subject to skip the episode.
This is not the only media does this, just one example of a problem I see coming up with the increased use of content notes. Often, instead of just letting people know what is ahead, they tell readers or listeners what to do about it. This comes from a misunderstanding of the point of content notes, and it’s condescending in a way that I don’t think anyone intends.
Content notices are intended to let an audience know about material that is coming up, especially material that may be triggering for people who have PTSD, anxiety, phobias, or similar conditions. They can also be helpful for forewarning people about potentially offensive language, sexually explicit material, or things that are commonly upsetting to people like deaths of children. Some people will also include them for media that is likely to make many people cry.
This is part of why I like the term “content note” a lot more than “trigger warning.” Certainly potential triggers can and should be included in content notes, but the term is more broad. It includes things that may not be triggers but are just things that people might like to be forewarned about, like swearing or unexpected loud noises.
One of the reasons a content note is helpful is to allow people to avoid that piece of media entirely, like the podcast above mentiones. For example, I am likely to skip a piece of media that includes explicit descriptions of or visual representations of rape unless I have a compelling reason to read/watch that media (such as an assignment for class). However, if I do need to read or watch something like that being forewarned can allow me to do so in circumstances that are less likely to trigger me the way Jessica Jones did. I might decide to read that homework assignment when I have a therapist appointment the next morning for example.
For other types of content notes, I might respond differently. If someone warns that a video is likely to cause people to cry (ie many Steven Universe related things) I may choose not to watch that video while I’m at work, school, or public transit. I’ll watch it at home instead so as to give myself space to cry in a socially appropriate environment.
Ultimately, it is my choice what to do about content in a piece of media I may be consuming. I want to be given the choice about how, when, and if I experience media that has potentially upsetting things in it. That is the whole point of a content note: it gives us the freedom of choice. Telling us what to do about those choices doesn’t help. Just tell me about the content ahead of time and let me make my own choices.