It’s hard to imagine a John Waters film that wouldn’t come with a trigger warning if those who advocate for the widespread use of the label had their way. Even his most mainstream offerings Cry Baby and Hairspray are loaded with innuendo and squeamish content, and those two relatively family-friendly films — if such a qualification exists in John’s universe — look like Disney movies compared to his most extreme works like Pink Flamingos and A Dirty Shame.
For hardcore Waters fans, it should then be no surprise that the writer/director has been outspoken about his annoyance over the emergence of trigger warnings. John’s career, after all, has been constructed around the ability to shock and revolt an audience. Bad taste is the theme which unites his work, even in all of the disparate directions Waters has gone in his nearly 50-year career. John is the ultimate middle finger to the censors, whether that crackdown comes from a conservative or progressive perspective.
Which is why the Waters take on trigger warnings will probably be on the less jarring things he’s said. When speaking with Jezebel last week, he was asked to clarify earlier dismissive comments he had made about the trend. John, like many critics, thinks that they are changing the make-up of higher education itself.
“You just can’t go to college anymore. I thought you went away to college so your values were challenged. Now, the best colleges have to warn you that they might say something you don’t agree with. I really find that staggering. So that’s a reason to drop out of school — trigger warnings.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, John is rejecting trigger warnings that give a heads-up about topics like rape or child abuse that may conjure up negative memories associated with such crimes. Waters’ filmography is, of course, rife with references to both. In the worst cases, proponents of trigger warnings say they may help avoid anxiety attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You don’t have to see John’s answer to know how divisive trigger warnings have become. The top voted answer on Urban Dictionary calls those who ask for such forewarnings “dips**T” and another refers to them as “autistic, emotionally unstable people.” Some of the pushback from opposing definitions also uses insulting language, one saying that trigger warnings are the “surest way to enrage an obese male.”
That debate over trigger warnings has gone far beyond the internet, and even far beyond the celebrity of a cult figure like Waters. John may have identified with a piece published in The Atlantic last September called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which detailed cases like a Harvard Law professor who was pressed to not teach rape law in order to protect victims. Last October, Pres. Barack Obama dismissed the culture surrounding trigger warnings in a speech in Iowa, reported Forbes.
“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn, either.”
That’s not to say that Waters and company have dominated the conversation on trigger warnings. In response to the Atlantic piece, an assistant philosophy professor at Cornell University wrote in The New York Times that she chose to use such cautionary notes in order to make the conversation run more smoothly for people who suffer from intense reactions to such content. Like John Waters, the author also believes that colleges are a place to have values challenged, but that it was best won through “enabling everyone’s rational engagement.”
[Image via Noel Vasquez/Getty Images]