College Slaps Trigger Warning on ‘Clueless’ as Warnings Surge at Film Schools Nationwide

Film Studies professors are increasingly using trigger warnings before they show movies to students.

One estimate by a film studies professor at an East Coast university, speaking on condition of anonymity, was that trigger warnings have more than doubled in the course of the last year as the debate over their deployment on campuses has intensified, led by social justice warriors.

She added that trigger warnings for movies—an alert prior to the screening informing viewers that the film they are about to watch contains potentially distressing material—are now becoming routine.

“Trigger warnings have become a way for us to cover our a***s in case a student complains about what we have showed them,” she said. “I personally think the movie rating system provides a sufficient trigger warning, but more and more academics are issuing them on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

The professor revealed one instance of a trigger warning being used at a college in the Midwest for LGBTQ viewers prior to a screening of Clueless because of a scene in the film where Cher Horowitz [played by Alicia Silverstone] refers to a gay character as a “disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.”

Another professor, who asked not to be named, said that the films of Quentin Tarantino are becoming less popular at colleges because of their frequent racial and sexual language.

A few professors were prepared to speak on the record. Todd Berliner, professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina, told Heat Street he was a recent convert to using trigger warnings.

Professor Berliner said: “For many years I didn’t do them because I thought I didn’t need to warn students. But when I showed Festen [the dark 1998 Danish film about a family gathering], a student said to me afterwards, ‘I was molested as a child and I wish you had warned me.’

“I realized I was failing to make an important distinction.  The warnings aren’t about offense, but to warn people who might be traumatized by scenes of rape, child molestation or acts of violence and suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of what they see.”

Professor Berliner added he was careful not to give too many trigger warnings—he recently screened Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver without one. But he said he would consider issuing trigger warnings to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange and 2002 French movie Irreversible, which features a 10-minute rape sequence.

Bob Rehak, associate professor and chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said currently each professor at the college is “given complete autonomy to label films. But increasingly I’m thinking the department should have a policy because of the current debate happening around us.”

Professor Rehak added: “I’ve tried to be sensitive to students but I don’t call it a trigger warning. It’s more a heads-up or a preview.  When I showed Taxi Driver, I said this contains scenes of gun violence and was upfront about what happens at the end of the movie. I also warned students before showing [1977 film] Killer of Sheep.

“But it shouldn’t affect work that needs to be shown. We shouldn’t be cutting films off the syllabus.”

Another film studies professor, who specializes in gender and sexuality, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “I can’t really speculate on why trigger warnings have possibly gone up on other campuses, except that sensitivity issues (regarding past trauma, etc.) seems to be running at an all-time high especially with the millennial generation.

“I am generally against trigger warnings as on educational principle, for I believe that students should confront images and themes that challenge them… I believe that all campuses and all classrooms should be safe spaces inherently. That is, they should, in their mission and design and policy, protect free speech and also ensure the protection of all members of its community against discrimination and hate speech.”

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