Who Are The Real “Victims” Here? On Trigger Warnings, Defensiveness, and Anti-PC Hysteria

Belladonna of Sadness (movie poster)

Last night I saw Belladonna of Sadness at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle. The movie is a surreal, psychedelic take on the dynamics of heterosexual eroticism set in medieval France, animated in 1970s Japan. I found a lot to recommend it, as a formally striking film that foregrounds a complex female character and its portrayal of witchcraft as a survival-driven rebellion of a patriarchal order, but due to its frank (albeit highly sympathetic) depiction of coercive sex and outright rape, I can definitely see why some other women might choose to skip it.

(Another case could be made that the intensity of the rape scenes allows male viewers to empathize with the woman whose experience the movie chronicles, feeling a kind of helplessness they might not otherwise have access to, but that’s not the point I’m interested in making here.)

The main thing I want to talk about right now is how judiciously trigger warnings were used before the film. In her brief introduction, Northwest Film Forum director Courtney Sheehan made reference to the erotic complexities of the film. “Are we supposed to be turned on by this? Or horrified? Both are true, at different times.” Her insightful words, along with a brief on-screen introduction from Violet Lucca, digital editor of Film Comment Magazine, gave fair warning of the kind of content we were about to encounter.

As a woman who is lucky enough not to be triggered by much in the way of sexual violence and yet strives to understand the complexities of the experiences of other women and marginalized people, I found these warnings to be highly humane, effective, and welcome. A trigger warning is not the same thing as censorship. On the contrary, the warning made the film accessible to an even broader audience than it might have otherwise been.

In a recent interview with Buzzfeed about her new book ‘Shrill,’ Lindy West said of internet harassment culture, “It’s the same conversation we’re having about political correctness and coddled co-eds.” The world is full of people who, because they are lucky enough not to need them, don’t fully understand the purpose of trigger warnings, but rather than trying to listen to those who do, become outraged and defensive at their mere mention.

The anti-PC hysteria in the US today is coming from a place of intense emotion, not the “reason” it claims to deify. It is coming from a place of wanting to shut down conversations, not the “free speech” it hypocritically touts. We can speculate forever about what motivates people to fall in line with avowed racists and misogynists like Donald Trump and cultural currents like GamerGate, but I would submit that the motivation for this defensiveness, at its core, is sheer, unadulterated terror. Even the slightest glimpse of the terror that many women face every day is intolerable because it is so much more horrifying than anything most of us would prefer to imagine, given the ability to opt out. (This ability to opt out is known in social justice parlance as “privilege,” but for reasons related to the impulse to opt-out in the first place, that word is highly triggering to many who possess it.)

Our culture despises anything we perceive of as “vulnerability,” “weakness” and “victimhood” because we categorize these experiences as “feminine,” but where is the true weakness here? On the part of survivors and feminists developing tools to help everyone navigate the world with more openness, curiosity and understanding? Or on the part of a fragile ego which is triggered into a sputtering, adolescent rage upon being exposed to ideas like “privilege” and “rape culture”?

Upon closer examination, it would certainly seem that when it comes to internet harassment culture and trigger warnings, the true “coddling” in this situation is the coddling of the consciousness that lashes out in denial of the suffering of others.