There’s a slight nuance between trigger warnings and content warnings, but I’m using the term content warning to mean both for brevity’s sake. They’re equally important concepts, but content warning feels more inclusive of trigger warnings than the other way around. Content warnings for this article include: discussions of self-harm, bullying, sexual violence and outing—also, spoilers.
A rocky foundation
Millennia ago, back in college, I took a course about children’s TV programming. It wasn’t a psychology course but rather a course to help us, as creators, make mindful choices when producing content for kids. We learned what things were OK for kids to watch, how much screen time is appropriate for different ages, etc.
Basically, the early aughts (when I was in college) ushered in the era of helicopter parenting, which was reflected in kids’ TV shows, but that wasn’t really a good thing. In the 70s and 80s, children’s shows were far more complex. Luckily, series like Sesame Street have never shied away from treating kids with respect and dealing with the tough stuff.
My classmates would get high to watch this show …
I know how I’ve started this article, but I’m actually not here to talk about contemporary kids’ programming. It’s just that the younguns of the early aughts are teens and young adults today. They grew up saturated by screen time, with access to virtually anything they wanted, but with the actual programming directed at them not treating them as intelligent humans. Or, worse, actually spreading bad messaging. (I could write a thesis about why Peppa Pig is the worst.)
What I’m advocating for is one) more media literacy training and two) content warnings. This is a pop culture site, so let’s talk about the latter. To say I’m disturbed by how teen programming aimed at Gen Z is marketed would be an understatement. Overly sheltered, protected kids TV shows have morphed into misguided efforts at representation and gritty realism that are ofttimes, for lack of a better description, trauma porn.
Netflix’s foreign-language teen dramas: a case study
This month’s column was supposed to be entitled “Ranking Netflix’s Foreign-Language Teen Dramas,” but but but. I started watching them, and some of them triggered me so much I had to stop. I couldn’t make informed decisions as the streaming service’s info sheets didn’t properly prepare me.
Further, the horror I felt got me thinking: What is the difference between something that has artistic merit/purpose and something that exists to shock? When is a content warning necessary?
What makes something watchable versus just painful? For me, I think the answer to that is: If something is so heightened that it moves into camp territory, if it’s so removed from reality, then it feels like something that couldn’t actually happen. Or if it feels like it’s being used as a metaphor, then I can usually get on board.
Your mileage may vary, which is why accurate summaries and info warnings are so important. I’m gonna use three different examples here: Control Z, Young Royals and Kissing Game. Again, what was triggering for me might not be for you and vice versa.
Control Z … (more like Control X)
Control Z was the true culprit here. The show made me completely switch gears and abandon my original project. Netflix’s official synopsis of the show is:
When a hacker begins releasing students’ secrets to the entire high school, the socially isolated but observant Sofía works to uncover his/her identity.
That sounds innocuous enough, I guess. Netflix advertises Control Z as a teen show and rates it 18+ for violence, sex, nudity, language and substances.
I didn’t even make it through four episodes before: a trans girl is outed and repeatedly misgendered, a gay/questioning boy is outed, said boy beats another boy into a coma, another teen is beaten by his father and the lead cuts herself on screen (among other things). No content warnings. No hotline numbers at the end of the episodes. Yeesh.
I kept trying to give the show the benefit of the doubt, waiting for this all to go somewhere, to have a point beyond digging into pain. Eventually, I realized any artistic merit was outweighed by the sheer nastiness of what played out on screen. It was too much. It was too real. Too close to what actually happens, IRL.
Teachers not stopping any of this, not doing enough to protect their students, either because they didn’t know how or because they didn’t want to. I … couldn’t. Control Z feels wholly irresponsible. I was expecting some whodunit set in the tech era, but holy eff, this that was not. Perhaps if we switched things up a bit:
A hacker begins outing students’ secrets to the entire high school, and Sofía, a student isolated due to her recent stay in a mental hospital, works to uncover their identity.
Rating: 16 + for: violence, bullying, self-harm, sex, nudity, hate speech, outing and substances.
This show is: dramatic, gritty.
Young Royals almost gets it right. Netflix bills it as “emotional” and romantic,” which it is. But, umm … when a (gay) couple’s first time together is filmed and used to out them, I think there’s more going on. The streaming service slapped an 18+ on Young Royals for sex, language and substances.
Prince Wilhelm adjusts to life at his prestigious new boarding school, Hillerska, but following his heart proves more challenging than anticipated.
There are some really positive things in this show. First of all, the actors are age-appropriate and even have acne. I cannot tell you how much I love that. Sex is portrayed as beautiful and awkward. The romance between the two teen boys is sweet, lovely; it feels natural.
The thing is … there’s also, once again, outing, followed by rejection of a partner because of the outing. Also, the tragic death of a sibling. But, like, we’re dealing with a prince here, dating a guy from “the wrong side of the tracks.” So, there is a fairy tale quality to it. Let’s fix the info sheet:
Prince Wilhelm finds himself torn between his heart and royal duties when he falls in love with a boy at his prestigious new boarding school.
Rated: 16+ for sex, outing, bullying, death, language, flashing lights and substances.
This series is: soapy, emotional, dark.
Kissing Game (Beso a Beso)
Kissing Game (Beso a Beso) is fairly successful, both in its info sheet and as a series. Here’s Netflix’s synopsis:
At a high school in a rural, isolated ranching community, families panic when teens contract a mysterious “kissing disease” that quickly spreads.
Netflix markets Kissing Game as suspenseful and rates the teen show as 18+ for violence, sex, nudity, language and substances. From the two episodes I’ve seen, that’s pretty fair. Though they could be more specific, I’d argue there’s sexual violence since we’ve got an adult/child sexual relationship.
It seems someone is intentionally spreading the kissing disease. In general, I don’t agree with giving teen shows an 18+ rating. Still, I’d give them a B for content warnings and info. Also, epileptics everywhere beg you to please warn about flashing lights!
However, the biggest reason this show works for me is that it’s a metaphor. In some ways, obviously, it is squicky. The kissing is so exaggerated, and perhaps, especially in a post-COVID world, watching people continue to mack on one another even though they know they could be killing them could be triggering. But this is a horror series.
The adults think a cult is corrupting the kids. I mean, like, a dad throws a Bible at his kid because of the teen’s “weed addiction.” The way people act is so dramatic, so campy, that even if there are parents who literally throw Bibles, the way it’s presented here removes the show from reality in a way that Control Z and Young Royals aren’t.
A lot of the teens are queer. Like, most of them. So, queer people dying from a virus is difficult to watch. But everything going into the show prepares us for that. And, looking at this as the adults focusing on the wrong thing, blaming the victims, not helping the children be healed … that’s saying something.
It’s not just trauma for trauma’s sake. The biggest takeaway is that Netflix gives viewers enough information to know whether Kissing Game is something they can handle at that moment or ever.
The point, dear, the point
Complicated content is a good thing. I’m not advocating sheltering teens from anything troubling. But streaming services ought to think about how they’re marketing their series to anyone really, but especially teens. Sure, you can rate it 18+, but if it’s also labeled a teen drama, it’s a teen drama. After the polemic about 13 Reasons Why, I’d hoped Netflix would have learned, but alas, capitalism.
On the part of creators, I think we should all be careful about why we’re including potentially traumatizing material. Trauma is part of life, and art is life (yes, TV is art). Further, art doesn’t have to function as education. So, media can include the tough stuff and have a lot of artistic and social value — I do not advocate any form of censorship.
That being said, everything we include in our art is there for a reason. If we can’t narratively justify something potentially harmful, maybe it shouldn’t be there. Going further, perhaps all of us should question whether something needs to exist at all. But, for the love of the TV gods, please use accurate content warnings.
This article was originally posted 8/15/21.