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Toward a Contextual Pedagogy of Pain: Trigger Warnings and the Value of Sometimes Feeling Really, Really Bad. Lambda Nordica: Nordic journal on LGBTQ studies, 1/2015, 131–144. Open access at:

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Toward a Contextual
Pedagogy of Pain
Trigger Warnings and the Value of Sometimes
Feeling Really, Really Bad
THE DEBATE ABOUT trigger warnings has spread all over the Internet
and in academic contexts, especially in the United States during the last
few years. In short, trigger warnings try to give a heads-up to viewers
and readers about media content depicting e.g., violence, self-harming
behavior or other potentially disturbing content so that they know to
either avoid it or knowingly take the risk of getting ”triggered” into post-
traumatic stress, anxiety or not feeling safe. Typically, before an online
clip or an article, one might include a text such as: ”Trigger warning for
sexual violence/suicide/racist hate speech/transphobia/eating disorders/
fat shaming,” or anything else that can cause distress to someone with
traumatic experiences. On one hand, trigger warnings have been seen
as protection for vulnerable groups, a needed attempt to try to provide
a safe space for those living with trauma or societal stigma (e.g., Dal-
ton 2014; Johnston 2014; ”Make Me a Sammich” 2014; Häggdahl and
Eriksson 2015). On the other hand, they have been seen as extensions
of a neoliberal culture of overprotection, excessive self-involvement, and
celebration of victimhood that does said victims no favor, or can even
enforce the trauma they are meant to protect from (e.g., Bianco 2014;
Freeman et al. 2014; Halberstam 2014; Westerstrand 2015).
e debate has now ended up in a kind of a stalemate where the polar-
ization between the proponents and critics of trigger warnings is grow-
ing stronger, the stakes are becoming higher, and big (verbal) guns are
being drawn. Both sides are blaming the ”other” side for bad things.
ose that are pro-trigger warnings blame the anti-trigger warning
camp for not caring if students, readers, and viewers are put in harm’s
way. ey claim that trigger warnings give people the right to make
choices about their cultural consumption and keep them from being (re-)
traumatized in spaces where they should have the right to feel relatively
safe. ose against trigger warnings blame the proponents for infan-
tilizing themselves, pathologizing the reading practices of already mar-
ginalized groups, and ignoring their capacity to read and view critically.
ey argue that trigger warnings repress discussions and representations
of dicult and hurtful matters, and that their advocates misunderstand
how trauma functions and how it can and cannot be treated eectively.
Context: The Boring Necessity
Does this remind you of any other highly polarized and charged debates
in the history of feminism and sexuality studies? What immediately
springs to my mind are the now notorious ”sex wars” between anti- and
pro-pornography camps (e.g., Duggan and Hunter 2006). Just like with
that debate, it will probably take some time to actually see where this
is going and all the things it connects to. Just like that debate, this one
has originated specically in the American context but is largely dis-
cussed as a universal matter. Whether or how it spreads to Europe and
the Nordic countries, in what form and to what degree, remains yet
to be seen (the public discussion has recently started in Sweden with
e.g., Häggdahl and Eriksson 2015; Martinsson and de los Reyes 2015;
Westerstrand 2015). And just like so many intelligent retrospective
analyses of the pornography debate (see e.g., Attwood 2002; Paasonen
2007; McNair 2014), I will now argue for a similar, perhaps boring and
not-polemical-enough, but in my view direly needed move in relation to
trigger warnings: that we need more careful contextualization, instead
of simplistic against-or-for approaches. In other words, I am calling for
analyses of how exactly trigger warnings are being used and misused in
various situations, not only what they do ”in general.”
Firstly, it seems to me that a part of the discussion concerns academic
classrooms, practices of critical pedagogy, and the concerns about what
it means to spread institutional demands to not only warn for potentially
triggering content, but also to excuse students from being required to
engage with it. In this case, a key problem is what counts as potentially
triggering content and what the expected consequences of such engage-
ment are (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014). Secondly, an interconnected, but
in important ways also separate, discussion concerns trigger warnings
in online environments like blog posts, videos, discussion boards, and
fan ction, where warning labels are regularly used to signal care, con-
cern for others’ feelings, and safety in that environment and community
cohesion in spaces where reading or viewing is never an institutional
requirement but a voluntary act (see e.g., Stasi forthcoming).
Teaching Potentially Disturbing Content
My own research participates in discussions in feminist and queer me-
dia theory on how to understand the involuntary, visceral, and highly
charged grip that media images or other cultural products can have on
us, in both pleasurable and disturbing ways (e.g., MacCormack 2000;
Sobchack 2004; Paasonen 2007). Focusing on how our bodies and sex-
ualities take shape in relation to media content and use, I have long
been interested in the ethical and transformative potential of so-called
negative aect, such as disgust and shame, and visceral reactions that
feel ”beyond one’s control.” ese research interests have also shaped my
teaching in important ways, and vice versa.
Such interests and focuses, however, have lead to a situation where, if
I was teaching in the United States, I could very well be a prime candidate
for lawsuits about teaching triggering content. While protected in a way
by the fact that my courses have taken place in Sweden and Finland,
the trigger warning debate hits close to home. I have very purposefully
taught many courses where potentially disturbing media material and
discussions around it have formed the backbone of it all, and the discus-
sions and readings have addressed that material and its topics through
feminist, queer, and postcolonial theories. I will most probably continue
to do so, because my experiences have been very encouraging. I have
taught pornography, and the discussions around it have been invariably
astonishing in terms of student engagement, insight, and willingness to
reect on how sex and sexuality are audiovisually inscribed in our bod-
ies. I have taught feminist and queer fat studies with the lm Female
Trouble (1974, USA, dir. John Waters), which includes a great variation
of bodies, desires and fetishes, nudity, sexual and other violence, as well
as incest, and even if students have said it was the most horrible thing
they ever watched, they still saw its value as material to reect upon.
Needless to say, my purpose has not been to traumatize students, but
to have them reect on their bodily gut reactions, as well as intellectual
and analytical practices in an environment that is encouraging of and as
safe as can be for such reection.
Just recently I taught a course in Turku (Åbo), Finland on theorizing
media attachments and the body, and included trigger warnings – not as
warnings about course content, but as a topic on the syllabus. e stu-
dents read a bunch of blog texts for and against trigger warnings, as well
as the main points of an empirical study by Martin Barker and research
group (2007) on audience reactions to four lms that were censored
in the United Kingdom due to sexually violent content. We watched
one of those lms in class, namely À ma soeur! (Fat Girl, France, 2001,
dir. Catherine Breillat) which includes scenes of (hetero)sexual male-
on- female violence and abuse, but also emotional abuse between young
women. e students were asked to compare their own reactions to those
of Barker and his group’s respondents, as well as to form an opinion on
whether or what trigger warnings should be given in relation to the lm.
e majority of the twenty-odd students, about a third of them non-
Finnish, had not heard of trigger warnings before. ey seemed quite
rmly to be of the opinion that this is some American thing that has
little to do with their needs or reading practices. Most of them voiced
views that the lm was extremely discomforting to watch but that was
exactly how it should be from a feminist perspective. e lm’s rape
scene, the scene that is its most hotly debated feature, censored in the
lm’s theatrical and DVD release in some countries, was in fact not its
most disturbing element for many of them, but the more subtle sexual
and emotional abuse elsewhere in the lm. We viewed the rape scene
separately in class, and students were not required watch it. ey were,
however, required to reect on what kind of a political or ethical en-
gagement a refusal to watch could and could not be.
None of the students took the opportunity to not watch, or no one
ever admitted to closing their eyes. Instead, we had a long, intense dis-
cussion on the potential value of discomfort and anger in engaging with
controversial media content. e comparisons with other viewers’ reac-
tions in empirical research made it easier to look at aective reactions
as both personal and culturally shared, and avoid the trap of elevating
singular personal experiences to anecdotal evidence of how the ”gen-
eral audience” perceived the lm. An important observation came up in
class, that the refusal to watch is sometimes already a form of becoming
deeply impacted by the image – although not by it per se but by one’s
fantasy of it, possibly worse than what actual viewing would be. In queer
lm theorist Patricia MacCormack’s words:
Even if the eyes are shut, the body is reacting […]. All reactions to the
visual depiction of perversity are perverse, whether they are consenting
with the image or in conict with it. (MacCormack 2000, 140)
Another example, on a course in postcolonial media studies I taught
in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University, I showed a documentary
called Standard Operating Procedure (USA, 2008, dir. Errol Morris) on
sexual torture of male prisoners by US male and female military ocers,
and the documentation of that torture through photographs in the Abu
Ghraib prison. is was a few years ago, before the trigger warning dis-
course really hit the shore. I was genuinely concerned beforehand about
possible student reactions, both in the light of my own strong reactions
to the lm, and since I did not know how ”close to home” the lm
could hit some students, them being of varying cultural, religious, and
geographical backgrounds from all around Europe, Middle East, and
East Asia to Canada and South America, as well as of varying genders
and sexualities. e lm was accompanied with several debate articles
to be read beforehand, and I had purposefully set for it to be viewed
toward the end of the course when I felt we had had time to establish
trust in the classroom. e subject matter was obviously horrifying, but
an issue much debated at the time, and I felt the ethical and political
obligation to take it up on a course like this. I warned my students in
advance about the potentially upsetting nature of the documentary and
gave the possibility to not watch or leave the viewing, if anyone felt too
uncomfortable. No one took this opportunity, not once during the three
years I taught the course.
Once, however, a student asked a question anonymously in the course
feedback, which left me thinking long and hard (in fact, I am still think-
ing). ey asked why I warned them and gave them the chance to skip
the viewing of this particular lm, when we had also watched some
comedies and adventure and romance lms whose perhaps more insidi-
ous racism and sexism became quite obvious too – but they required no
warning since they were perceived as ”only entertainment”? Indeed, why
would they be less harmful? Did I trust the students’ judgment so little
that I did not think they could evaluate their own capacity to watch or not
watch without overprotective, and thus implicitly condescending, warn-
ings? After all, they were all taking the class voluntarily. In retrospect,
I am still wondering if I did the right thing or not to include a ”trigger
warning,” although not by that name. Did it help maintain a safe learning
space for the students, or did I just end up babying them? Did I help pro-
duce a student mentality where the position of the victim/taker of oense
is the position that warrants most attention and empathy? Or did I en-
courage sensitivity toward one’s own and others’ unpredictable reactions?
Genealogies of Pleasure and Danger
It is sometimes easy to forget that trigger warnings have already been
here for a long time, just by other names, like lm classication, age rat-
ings, and content labels (see e.g., Dalton 2014; Stasi forthcoming). e
practice of adding warning labels to consumer products began in the
United States already in 1938 and has since spread from food, alcohol,
and tobacco to cultural products (Souza 2014). ese labels and ratings
seem, just like trigger warnings, to concern only relatively easily identi-
able things like (presumably) harmful substances, physical violence, eat-
ing disorders, nudity, and profane language but not (and how could they)
ner structures of oppression or marginalization addressed, maintained
or produced.
We have good reason to ask what the addition of the language of
triggering brings about specically and what remains from the past.
”Triggers” seem to act performatively, not only describing but also pro-
ducing audiences as ready to be mentally shot down and shattered. On
the other hand, it seems to me that those demanding trigger warnings
are not helpless or on the verge of psychological crumbling, but able to
voice their wishes and needs loud and clear. For sure, a certain consumer
mentality seems to have stuck from warning labels to trigger warnings,
that people are entitled to know the content and the risks involved in
what they consume, which is an important aspect of limiting (corpo-
rate) power to sell and promote whatever, in whichever way, but then
the other side is a sometimes outrageous refusal of reasonable personal
responsibility for practices of consumption.
e student’s feedback comment also connects to the history of femi-
nist lm theorizing on the ideological dangers of visual pleasure and
the spectator’s proximity to images. For example, in the 1980s Mary
Ann Doane (1982) interrogated the ways Hollywood cinema constructs
the female body as an idealized and pleasurable spectacle, which lures
in the female spectator. According to Doane, this spectacular image
draws the spectator ”too close” and she has no choice but to overidentify
with the image, i.e., to become it or reject it – a structure which trigger
warnings seem to return to. Feminist psychoanalytical lm theory sees
such a treacherous proximity as produced primarily through pleasure and
heightened lmic fantasies, while the content that trigger warnings ac-
company often directly addresses potentially disturbing issues. Indeed,
there has been a time when feminist, LGBTQ , and postcolonial schol-
ars have been much more worried about the treacherousness of pleasure
than about pain and hurt. Perhaps the most (in)famous feminist lm
theorist of the time, Laura Mulvey (1975), demanded visual pleasure to
be destroyed. Why, then, should content that explicitly addresses dis-
turbing things or content that makes you ”feel bad,” be categorically
perceived as more politically suspect than so-called feel-good, easy-to-
shake-o content?
Early feminist psychoanalytical lm theory has since been criticized
for, among other things, its heteronormativity, racial and class bias, and
totalitarianism without space for subversion. However, in relation to
trigger warnings, the key criticism is that it assumed a recognizable and
stable similarity between the spectator and the image to be a prerequi-
site for the ”suction” into the image. e demand for trigger warning
does seem to fall into the same trap; it seems impossible to preempt the
possibility of traumatic or anxious reactions, since those reactions do
not only come about through recognition of some simple similarity, like
rape victim seeing a depiction of rape or an eating disordered person
seeing a body marked as eating disordered. While personal triggers for
those suering of post-traumatic stress disorder can be highly random
and unpredictable (e.g., Freeman et al. 2014), I would claim that images
and signs often become collectively seen, recognized, and experienced as
traumatizing, disturbing or oensive only through their circulation and
repetitive framing as such (see Ahmed 2004). is is not to say that the
experiences would not be real, deeply felt, and worthy of taking seri-
ously. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions about the degree
to which the very discourse of triggering might produce dramatic viewer
reactions, gures of (potentially) traumatized audiences, and certain
kinds of imagery as spectacularly dangerous – especially when compar-
ing the things I am reading and hearing from many US universities with
my rather easy experiences of teaching potentially disturbing material to
partly international but mainly Finnish and Swedish students.
On Safe Space
A recurring gure worthy of more attention in the trigger warnings
discussion is that of a ”safe space” (see e.g., Ryberg 2012). is gure has
been central in the recent Swedish debate on whether students should
be able to question the syllabus (in gender studies classes) and be warned
of or have the possibility to not read canonical feminist texts from the
past that are perceived as, for example, transphobic or racist (Häggdahl
and Eriksson 2015; Westerstrand 2015). e anti-trigger warning side of
the debate claims that trigger warnings will make students ill-equipped
to face the world full of oense and brutality (Westerstrand 2015). e
pro-trigger warning side emphasizes that shared attempts to create
safe spaces are needed to foster activism, which can face and change
that world of harshness, and points out that the privileged cannot be in
charge of deciding what counts as safe (Häggdahl and Eriksson 2015;
see also Martinsson and de los Reyes 2015).
Ironically, the demand to implement trigger warnings is often, as it is
in this case too, directed at those who are already expected to care, and ex-
pected to want the same thing as the ones making the demands: to pro-
duce feminist futures where sexism, heterosexism, racism, transphobia,
and ableism would cease to exist. Only the vision of the routes that have
to be taken is dierent, whether what is needed for change is safe space
or space of discomfort. Trigger warnings do not seem to be required
from, say, political racist and anti-immigration parties whose power is
growing as we speak all across Europe; nor from evolutionary biolo-
gists who claim that societal hierarchies between men and women are
a natural and unchangeable result of evolution; nor from conservatives
expressing homophobic and transphobic views as matters of conscience,
not of human rights. is, I assume, is due to the simple reason that no
one even expects them to give a damn. Trigger warnings are asked of
feminist teachers and partners in struggle, of those that should care for
each other, and who do care enough to engage in discussion, as the de-
bate shows. Trigger warnings are also opposed by feminist teachers and
partners in struggle, who ask us to not stop engaging, even if the road
gets rough and makes us sometimes feel really, really bad. is, I think,
is worth remembering.
In her book Queer Phenomenology Sara Ahmed (2006, 134–5, 154)
talks about spaces of comfort and discomfort. In spaces that feel com-
fortable, the boundaries between bodies and the world fade away and
one ts in easily, sinks into an expanding space, which produces a homey
feeling. In discomfort, one stands out and feels ”out of place,” becomes
disoriented and remains in the margins oating, which in turn demands
reorientation and, according to Ahmed, can open up new worlds much
more eectively than comfort, or happiness which she critically dis-
cusses elsewhere (2010). Here, I believe it is important to distinguish
between the productive space of discomfort, the space of productive
feminist anger, which should not be seen as aimless aggression but sim-
ply a healthy reaction to injustices, and the space of anxiety and fear that
can be a radically debilitating vacuum (Ahmed 2004). is relates to the
point that most opponents of trigger warnings make too, that personal
or collective trauma cannot be treated eectively through avoidance and
seeking maximum comfort, quite the opposite – avoidance can and is
likely to strengthen the trauma (Bianco 2014; Halberstam 2014). On
the other hand, some advocates (or negotiated views) of trigger warn-
ings point out that the aim is not to have an excuse to ignore or reject
disturbing material or discomfort overall, but to oer the possibility to
knowledgeably engage on one’s own terms, and to give the choice to
also not engage or engage in one’s own time in this world where we are
already likely to daily encounter texts and images we wish we never had
to read or see (see e.g., Cecire 2014; Dalton 2014). So where on the axes
of discomfort, anger, and anxiety do the various incarnations of the trig-
ger warnings debate move at the moment?
One key issue that the opponents of trigger warnings have blamed
the advocates for is an emphasis on interiority and the personal; self-
involvement that the neoliberal cultural ethos encourages, which shows
for example in prioritizing one’s own potential discomfort before oth-
er people’s possibly very dierent ways of engaging (e.g., Halberstam
2014; Westerstrand 2015). To rephrase, a safe space in this case would
be measurable by personal, not necessarily shared, feelings of comfort or
discomfort. However, the opposition has equally been accused of pro-
moting a culture of neoliberal individualism, as they call for individual
responsibility for being able to cope with oensive or disturbing texts
and images (Cecire 2014; Stasi forthcoming). If you nd yourself un-
able to take a critical distance and ”shake it o,” it is your own fault for
not having learned enough tools to deal, or having lead a too protected
life, or using your disability or subordinated position as an excuse for
intellectual laziness. Now, how can we not ignore the personal and the
traumatic, but direct them toward politics instead of self-involvement
or remaining stuck in one’s injury? To conclude, I would like to briey
return to the pedagogical value of pain and self-reection, by addressing
their turning into anger instead of complaint.
How many scholars use their anger, pain, and taking oence as the en-
gines to do research? I know I am not the only one, especially in the
genre of feminists and queers. I have chosen to largely conduct research
that should, by any account, be extremely ”triggering” to me. I wrote my
doctoral dissertation in media studies on the ways in which media im-
ages of fat gendered bodies aim to engage viewers aectively, and used
autoethnography, my own viewing experiences as research material. As
a recovering bulimic, I watched endless hours of fat women and men
being bullied into believing they are only worth something if they lose
weight through atrocious diets. I felt I deeply recognized the anxiety
over gender, sexuality, and ”wrongfully” directed desires that all seemed
entangled in the need for the body to t in, even though I was not fat
and had never shared that experience of structural subordination. But
I grew angrier and more distressed by the minute, not least because I
could feel how these reality television shows also appealed to me, no
matter how hard and how thoroughly I dissected their strategies of pro-
ducing pleasure. I was forced to face both my privilege and my trauma,
when working simultaneously to suppress my bulimic impulses evoked
by the material, and working through the ways in which my reactions
were partly a product of my personal history, partly a product of audio-
visual techniques, and partly about how viewer reactions are situated in
wider cultural contexts of how bodies are valued and measured through
gender, sexuality, and size intelligibility.
But in the end, the research process was immensely therapeutic.
rough repetitive engagement with material I knew to be oensive and
trauma-evoking, I actually managed to turn my anger, shame and, yes,
pleasure too, into something productive: a book I felt passionately about,
as well as personal recovery and a gradual change in my gut reactions
toward variations and instabilities in my own body as well as bodies of
others. Indeed, the moments of feeling bad – and especially the mo-
ments of feeling so bad it was almost unbearable – were also those that
prompted the most intense need to work through them, reect on their
cultural background, and shared ethical repercussions (Kyrölä 2014,
140–55). is same tendency is what I have also noticed in my students,
as addressed above; that being jolted out of one’s comfort zone can open
up new worlds. As Audre Lorde points out in her essay ”Uses of Anger”
(1984), especially women, and other marginalized groups, are taught
to fear or feel guilt when facing injustices, rather than to have the ap-
propriate and productive reaction of anger. Lorde (1984, 132) reects
on how her anger toward racism, and racism among feminists, is often
heard as a claim to the ”moral authority of suering,” rather than fury.
However, as she formulates it, ”my anger has meant pain to me but it has
also meant survival.” Following Lorde’s cues, the demands for trigger
warnings can be seen as an expression of anger toward a culture which
claims to oer safety for marginalized groups but just does not deliver.
However, the avoidance of pain and the claims to unbearable suering
can prohibit change from happening, ”[f]or anger […] births change,
not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is
not fatal, but a sign of growth” (Lorde 1984, 131). Sometimes one just
needs to feel really, really bad rst before smaller and bigger, personal
and collective revolutions start happening.
KATARIINA KYRÖLÄ is Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Re-
searcher at Media Studies, University of Turku, Finland. She worked
as Lecturer and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Cinema Studies,
Stockholm University in 2010–2013. Her current research involves
aect theory, the concept of body image in feminist media studies,
”body positive” online activism, porn studies, and the discourse on
trigger warnings. She is the author of e Weight of Images: Aect,
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The Weight of Images explores the ways in which media images can train their viewers' bodies. Proposing a shift away from an understanding of spectatorship as being constituted by acts of the mind, this book favours a theorization of relations between bodies and images as visceral, affective engagements that shape our body image - with close attention to one particularly charged bodily characteristic in contemporary western culture: fat. The first mapping of the ways in which fat, gendered bodies are represented across a variety of media forms and genres, from reality television to Hollywood movies, from TV sitcoms to documentaries, from print magazine and news media to online pornography, The Weight of Images contends that media images of fat bodies are never only about fat; rather, they are about our relation to corporeal vulnerability overall. A ground-breaking volume, engaging with a rich variety of media and cultural texts, whilst examining the possibilities of critical auto-ethnography to unravel how body images take shape affectively between bodies and images, this book will appeal to scholars and students of sociology, media, cultural and gender studies, with interests in embodiment and affect.
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