The Invisible Man, Trigger Warnings, and the Art of Listening and Learning
How do we process difficult content, and what is our responsibility to ourselves and each other?
A few weeks ago, just before it cleaned house at the Oscars, we screened Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in the Intro to Film Studies class I assistant teach at the University of Iowa. As we were setting up the screening, the other TA asked if I thought we should give a ‘trigger warning’ for the film’s content. My immediate reaction was to scoff. “For Parasite? What for?” I couldn’t imagine anything in the film that would be particularly upsetting to a broad audience. And so we didn’t say anything about the content. Students reacted positively to the screening, and we haven’t had any complaints or negative reactions to the moments of violence or horror my colleague was probably thinking of when he made the suggestion.
In a sense, then, I guess my reaction was vindicated. I didn’t think we needed a trigger warning, and by all available evidence, we were apparently fine without one. I still feel shitty about what I said, though, and guilty about my knee-jerk dismissive reaction to my colleague’s perfectly reasonable question. There’s an attitude in academia – and in the online film community, and in politics and society at large – that we’re all adults, we can take care of ourselves, and except in extreme cases, worrying about such things as ‘trigger warnings’ is a coddling, unnecessary stance to take. I don’t like that attitude, and as soon as the movie started and I had some space to think about what I said, I felt ashamed that I had given into it, almost without thinking. I couldn’t imagine anything in Parasite that would viscerally upset anyone, but what’s so great about my particular imagination? I have a certain expertise in cinema, yes, but does that mean I am uniquely gifted to see into the minds of others, and know, with any kind of certainty, what will and will not be upsetting to them? The violence in Parasite is shocking, but not particularly graphic, I thought; then again, I have seen a great many more movies than the average Freshman film student, and my standards are no doubt different than those of many in the room. Maybe a warning would be helpful, especially since Parasite is not a movie that primes one to expect graphic violence given the comedic nature of its tone in the first half. And maybe there are other things in the film – themes, ideas, character interactions – that could be upsetting or troubling for reasons I couldn’t even begin to conceive of. What business did or do I have dismissing a concern about content, based solely on how I feel about something?
This thought came back to the forefront of my mind last week when I saw Leigh Whannell’s excellent The Invisible Man, a movie that takes as its core hook the iconic conceit of the H.G. Wells novel and Universal monster movie, but refashions it into a story about domestic abuse. There is a lot to praise about the film, from Elisabeth Moss’ commanding performance to the immense quality of Whannell’s filmmaking, but my first reaction when posting about the movie on Twitter that night was to issue a trigger warning. “It’s dealing with intensely real-world trauma in very immediate, at times unrelenting ways,” I wrote, citing themes and depictions of domestic violence, sexual abuse, self-harm, gaslighting, and other fraught topics that could have a painful resonance with various members of the audience. The movie is absolutely harrowing, and even as a man who cannot pretend to have the direct, lived-in experience of the kinds of horror the movie depicts and analogizes, I felt pretty deeply shaken by what I had watched. I felt some kind of social responsibility to put that reaction out into the ether, because it wasn’t hard at all for me to imagine someone being profoundly upset by the film, especially if they walked in expecting a more conventional studio horror film without such real life echoes.
Here, still, I know I have to tread carefully. I could not imagine what one might find upsetting about Parasite. I could very easily think of a dozen scenes that might be triggering to someone in The Invisible Man. Either way, what I don’t want to be is paternalistic, to pretend that I know best and am an authority on content for which my reaction is formed by a narrow, individual lived experience, one that is, of course, shaped in part by my identity as a straight, white, American man. It’s not my place to dismiss the potential need for a trigger warning on a film, but neither is it necessarily my place to declare a film needs such a warning for how I imagine a group with whom I cannot directly identify may react.
It’s a tough picture to figure out, isn’t it? The truth of the matter is that this discussion is fraught with a vast, sometimes impenetrable grey area, and there’s a real difficulty that must be attended to while navigating it. Not every movie needs a ‘trigger warning,’ obviously. There are films too gentle of heart to need one, like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, or too broadly, commercially mainstreamed to ever broach triggering subject matter, like your average Star Wars or Marvel movie. But then again, not every possible trigger an individual might have to a piece of art can be accounted for, certainly not within the mind of one person. So especially if you’re in any position of power or influence – like someone curating or leading a film class, or writing and posting online in a forum where you know some might look to your words for recommendations – you should, I think, lean on the side of empathetic caution. If you are showing a movie in a film class, and you have an inkling the film might have content that could be upsetting to someone, it is a responsibility to give voice to that. If you are a film critic who posts frequently about new movies, and are talking about a film with as many traumatic real-world resonances as The Invisible Man, I think it would be irresponsible not to point out that it treats its subject matter in such a way that could be triggering to anyone who has been impacted by domestic violence. In the last month, I think I made one of those calls wrong, and I think I made one of those calls right. I don’t think I wound up doing any particular harm in the first case, and I don’t know if I worded everything perfectly in the second; but I do know that I’m trying my best to think about the issue critically, to open my mind and learn from these experiences, and if I’m confident about anything here, it’s that this is probably the right attitude to have when considering content warnings.
Because the truth is, no matter who we are, we are all going to have blind spots – some big, some small – when it comes to assessing media and how it affects others. When people complain about the culture of ‘trigger warnings,’ I think it comes from a place of ghoulish dismissiveness at worst, and a genuine misunderstanding at best. The former will never be convinced, but if I may attend to the latter for a moment, I think there’s sometimes a misconception that ‘trigger warnings’ comes from the attitude that there’s a proscriptive list of cultural do’s and don’t’s that we check pieces of media against, and that it’s then somehow a condemnation against both that piece of media and one’s ability to engage with it if one draws the line and voices a warning.
But that’s not how it works at all. There is no list, and there is no agreed upon set of instructions for what is and isn’t good practice when it comes to issuing a trigger warning. Some cases may be more obvious than others – if something includes a discussion of suicide or self-harm, we generally know it’s good practice to let one’s audience know ahead of time, for instance – but there’s no rulebook on any of this. It’s all about thinking empathetically, listening to others, acknowledging both one’s expertise and one’s limitations, and trying to act responsibly when presenting or sharing media with other people. It’s not always easy, and by its very nature no one is going to get this right 100% of the time, but there is real value in making the effort.
Let me give two examples that have shaped my thinking on this, one recent and related to The Invisible Man, one older and more formative for me. I noted, after seeing Whannell’s film, that it was really interesting to have The Invisible Man and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey playing in theaters at the same time. They’re incredibly different films, obviously – just compare the color palettes! – but there’s something compelling about having two big studio pictures, playing right next door to each other, using established genre tropes (horror and superhero iconography, respectively) to explore misogynistic violence and how women are affected by men who pathologically exert control as a form of torment. The films have almost nothing else in common with one another, and yet, it is still so rare to see Hollywood tackle anything to do with the interior lives or lived experiences of women that when you have two nationwide releases playing simultaneously that make a conscious effort to resonate with the kinds of real, frequently ignored pain and trauma women live through, it is impossible not to feel like the films are, in some way, in conversation.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think I would have been nearly as open to drawing that comparison had I not been actively listening to the opinions of the various women film critics I follow on social media. The Invisible Man makes its real-world points of reference extremely obvious. Nobody, no matter one’s background, could possibly miss that the film is about spousal abuse (reviews that fail to consider this context are, I believe, doing so willfully). Birds of Prey, on the other hand, is a little less overt. It’s obviously a film about empowerment and female friendship, but many of the specific resonances it has to offer are less overt to a cisgendered man like myself, who has not lived through the moments of fear and anger Yan calls upon. When I saw the film, I really enjoyed it, and said as much on Twitter, praising the performances, direction, costume design, and vibrancy of voice and vision. One thing I questioned was how brutal some of the violence in the film got, and whether that seemed to fit with the pastel aesthetic, pop soundtrack, and creation of a Gotham that felt a lot more like Batman: The Animated Series than any recent live-action depiction. I couldn’t quite figure out how to integrate this into my understanding of the film. It felt off, in some way – not necessarily a bad way, but in a way which created a discomfort or dissonance I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.
This is an example of a critical blind spot. Of course Cathy Yan didn’t just throw in graphic violence on accident; Ewan McGregor wasn’t just riffing as Roman Sionis when he cuts someone’s face off or expresses virulent verbal misogyny. It’s there for a reason. It’s purposeful. And it cuts in multiple directions in how people react to the movie – including ones I couldn’t quite see or articulate from my particular vantage point.
Donna Dickens, a writer whose work I’ve been following since her days at Hitfix, shared a reaction to the film and its violence on her Facebook page (from February 9th) that I found extremely thought provoking. In it, she explained how she found the film’s gendered violence actively triggering, and that the amount of material revolving around applied or attempted sexual assault made it a tough viewing experience, one at odds with the “fun action romp” depicted in marketing materials. The extremity of the film’s presentation of misogyny was a trigger, and while I had felt generally cognizant of how the film ties together misogyny and violence, it wasn’t until I read Dickens’ words that I really started to think about how much real-world coding there is to the film’s most extreme moments that can, indeed, be a real trigger, and not just a tonal inconsistency. Based on the life experiences I brought into the movie, those moments read differently to me than others, but not to this degree of visceral impact.
But like I said, there’s an intentionality to that violence that cuts in multiple directions of critical understanding. Lauren Humphries-Brooks, who I used to work with at WeGotThisCovered, has written several good articles and a lot of excellent tweets about the film and how that characterization of misogynistic violence, for her, helped serve to make the movie so perceptive and meaningful. In this piece on the “Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend” sequence from Birds of Prey, Humphries-Brooks compares the fantasy number from Yan’s film with its progenitors in Marilyn Monroe’s original rendition in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Madonna’s take-off in the “Material Girl” music video. Along the way, she discusses the kinds of misogynistic violence that set the stage for Harley imagining herself as Marilyn in the “Diamonds” number, and I think this passage in particular illustrates how much there is to see in that violence that I, for one, had a blind spot towards when I first saw the movie:
During the “Diamonds” sequence, Sionis shifts from physical and psychological abuse to a tentative offer of protection if she obtains the diamond for him. But his protection is much like the Joker’s, coming with the consistent threat of violence and abandonment if she displeases him (or if he feels like it). Male violence is here couched as a means of possession—Sionis explicitly states that Harley belongs to him because she no longer belongs to the Joker, a frank disavowal of her autonomy by not even imagining that it exists. He later tells her that he’s going to kill her “because I can.” She is, in other words, a possession to be exchanged between men, for them to use, abuse, and discard at will. And like Lorelei, her value is measured in diamonds.
Humphries-Brooks goes on to tie that moment into Harley’s larger arc of recognizing her own lack of autonomy, and conscious journey – as represented by the musical number – to take it back by force. It’s an excellent analysis, and one of several that have led me not only to see a lot more in the film than I initially gleaned, but to recognize how much I could not have gleaned in seeing the film through my own eyes, because I haven’t ever had anything like the experience of staring down a Roman Sionis who feels entitled to my bodily autonomy – or the specific kind of anger that results from those experiences.
This is all a long way of expressing how Birds of Prey is a prime recent example of recognizing my own limitations in analyzing a movie that was not explicitly aimed at me. And it’s a lesson in what I was explaining earlier about thinking empathetically and acknowledging one’s limitations. Listening to other perspectives different from my own is an enriching experience – I certainly wouldn’t have thought to draw the connection between The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey in a vacuum, without all this bouncing around in my head – but also instructive in the necessity and nuances of trigger warnings. If I were to show Birds of Prey in a film class, for instance, I would absolutely want to make a content warning about the violence and its associations with sexual and domestic abuse, because I know there are people in the audience who might have similar reactions to Dickens, and it would be unfair to spring that on students without forewarning. But I also know it would be useful to show it and work through those moments together, to encourage discussion about the scenes that spark the trigger warning, because there’s a lot being expressed there that can clearly connect to various experiences and points of view. Not listening to those points of view, or failing to curate a social media diet that includes them, would be irresponsible of me in multiple directions. I would be a much poorer critic and teacher if I did not listen, assimilate, and learn to the best of my ability.
Doing that also means looking and reflecting inward, of course, which leads me to my second example of this principle in action. As I said earlier, this one is much less recent, and it’s also something that happened to me, rather than something I observed in others. It was during my time at the University of Colorado, when I was getting my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and I was in a grad seminar on “Memoirs, Snapshots, and Home Movies.” Our screening for the day was a documentary about a photographer who had made a major, ongoing project of taking portraits of dead bodies. Our Professor, who was then and is now a dear and close friend of mine, told us what the film was about beforehand. I do not remember if she framed it as an explicit ‘trigger warning,’ but the film obviously had sensitive, difficult content, and she did not simply spring it on us. Nor would she. She is the kind of empathetic instructor and person I strive to be, and I know she would never show something that might be truly, viscerally upsetting to anyone in her class without giving a thoughtful warning or necessary context.
And yet, I was absolutely ‘triggered’ by the film. The subject matter, the presentation of dead bodies, the use of the photographic apparatus to ‘preserve’ the shells of the departed…all of it combined to painfully affect me in ways I didn’t even really have the words to express. And that came out in ugly ways after the film was over, during our seminar discussion, where in my fragile emotional state I found myself trying to frame the film and the photographer’s project and as ghoulish and immoral when, in truth, there was something deeper going on about how it was affecting me specifically.
My personal context was important. My father had passed away within the last year. I had been there with him throughout the final weeks as he declined, and I was there holding his hand when he died, and I saw his body taken away. That entire experience – his illness, the many ups and downs, and especially the trauma of his final months – has affected me in ways I am still discovering, over seven years later. Back then, only a year removed from everything that had happened? I may have done a decent job of covering it up on the surface, but I was a frayed nerve underneath. I didn’t know this movie (let alone any movie) could hurt me that much, let alone that it would. My Professor could have given me the most detailed and thoughtful trigger warning possible and it wouldn’t have done anything to prepare me for how I would actually feel when I came into contact with these images of dead bodies and he act of photographing and reproducing their likeness. What she did do – what she could do – was to give me the space to work through that pain without judgment, to recognize how I was hurt, and to talk with me afterwards to make sure I was okay. And that, for me, is a personal North Star, the gold standard of what I’m talking about here – knowing that you cannot possibly anticipate everything, but that you can try your best, and you can be open to be there for people if there is a reaction that needs working through; and that, at the end of it all, you can learn from it an incorporate the experience into however you handle that work or something like it in a future scenario.
So, is there a grand conclusion we can draw from all this? No, but that’s kind of the point. When it comes to making, considering, or reacting to ‘trigger warnings,’ I think you have to be open and empathetic. Open to what you know you don’t know and what you don’t know you don’t know, and empathetic to the possibility that a piece of media might spark a powerful, painful, or difficult reaction in someone, just as has probably happened to you at one point or another in your life. It is no one person’s job to be in charge of all of this, and no one person needs to be thinking about all of this all of the time. But I do think that if you are in any position of influence or power – if, simply put, people are listening to you – then it really is a constant, necessary, and ultimately very positive practice to be listening, learning, thinking, and assimilating as much as possible. Neither you nor anyone else is going to get everything right, but if you’re trying, you’re certainly going to feel a lot better when you inevitably get things wrong.