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Trigger warnings and movie ratings

In an effort to explain trigger warnings and safe spaces to people who clearly don’t understand them—like the University of Chicago’s dean of students—a few folks have compared them to the movie ratings and trailer cards that list potentially offensive material. It’s a useful analogy, but not likely to be much comfort for people concerned about trigger warnings.

In the US, the movie and trailer ratings system is operated by the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization. The actual process by which they set and deliver those ratings has long been somewhat secretive, but the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” does an impressive job of uncovering and exploring those facts. Unfortunately, it’s not just a benign means of presenting more information so that viewers can be better informed.

The documentary shows filmmakers describing instances where the movie raters appear to be biased against non-heternormative sexual content, and against women’s sexuality. Independent filmmakers, too, report that they get less detailed notes about why their films were rated a certain way.

If these ratings were just used for informing viewers, that might be alright; viewers could learn about the MPAA’s bias and discount certain ratings accordingly. But there’s a cascading effect: theaters refuse to show movies with certain ratings, or refuse entry to people below a certain age. (Sometimes, admirably, they buck that trend.) The same is true for other media—music and video game retailers make stocking and selling decisions based on these ratings from industry groups.

Good instructors should have empathy for their students, and that includes giving a fair warning when upsetting (or triggering) material is likely to be discussed. Some people worry that such a suggestion will be mandated, or that those warnings will lead to relevant but controversial content being avoided or even banned from the classroom. It’s absolutely possible to have the former without the latter, but movie ratings are not a great example of that in practice.