What HBO can teach colleges about "trigger warnings"

After watching the episode, that brief warning seemed like a good idea. It isn’t that the character’s rape, awful as it was, is significantly “worse” than other traumas perpetrated in the series–in another episode, for example, a stripper is beaten, killed, and dumped in a ditch on a whim, a scene covered by generic “graphic violence.” But every viewer of The Sopranos knew people would be beaten and killed. Rape, a distinct trauma, is absent from the show aside from one episode, and virtually every viewer was unprepared for the unexpected way it arose. I suspect the preemptive descriptor helped some number of viewers to avoid the scene, or more likely, to brace for it so as to be better prepared to watch.*

Notice that the general concept of “trigger warnings” is not, in fact, unique to feminist blogs or campus activists, even if they’ve cornered that particular buzz phrase. Mainstream, mass-entertainment networks find value in preemptive viewer alerts, even at the cost of tipping everyone off to a future plot development.

Weighing costs and benefits, that Sopranos episode strikes me as deft deployment of a “trigger warning.” But the series illustrates the limits of such alerts too.