Comics and Censorship, Or, Trying Not to Lose Your Head Over Content Warnings

First, the news story (also, a slightly more in-depth take with some editorializing).

Student Calls For Eradication Of Graphic Novels From English Course

This book is extremely good, and shouldn’t be censored. It may be prudent to include a trigger warning when discussing it though. (Image credit: io9)

For anyone who doesn’t want to click through, the gist is this: a woman, Tara Shultz, in California has filed a complaint with her college about a literature course that she took during the 2015 spring semester which focused on the graphic novel as a literary form.  The reading list for that course included Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, The Sandman: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman, the first volume of Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  The woman’s complaint focused on her shock that these books, which all deal with mature themes and have frank depictions of sexuality and violence, were included on the reading list without warning.  Stemming from that complaint, Shultz and her parents are now demanding that the college strip the books from their course reading lists.  At this point, the college has agreed to add a warning to the course regarding the content of its reading list, but it will not remove the books from the curriculum.

The gut reaction in relation to issues like this one is to get outraged over what we perceive as a more ignorant kind of outrage and deride this person for not only not knowing about the state of comics as an art form, but insisting that it should fit only in her narrow preconception.  Comics have been fighting for legitimacy as an art form for decades, and censorship is a particularly sensitive topic going all the way back to Fredric Wertham.  Someone coming along without knowing anything about the medium’s history and railing against it so vehemently just instinctively raises hackles.

Add to that the fact that these are not crass, exploitation style books that are being attacked.  I’ve only read two of these four books myself, though I’m familiar with Vaughan’s other work (I might have mentioned that I’m a huge fan of Saga) and I know of Alison Bechdel through her reputation for coining the concept of the Bechdel Test.  These are well-respected works by well-respected writers in the comics industry.

It’s easy to see why people who like comics would be upset about what Shultz is asking for.

There’s another dimension to this story that complicates things though.  Though I fully agree that banning the books is a preposterous proposition, I’ve seen some commentary tying this incident in with the current trend of smack talking students who request warnings about the content of their college courses.  Shultz’s reaction is just one more instance of a student balking at being confronted with what she thinks is objectionable content, goes the line of reasoning.  The problem I’m seeing is that this is another case of confusing trigger warnings and content warnings.  The two concepts are linked in some significant ways, but they do have important distinctions, the most prominent one being that trigger warnings are about helping people with PTSD navigate the cultural landscape safely and content warnings are about letting people know that something may have content they find offensive or inappropriate for a given audience.

I don’t know anything about Shultz besides the fact that she doesn’t know much about comics, but I suspect that she comes from a culturally conservative background, and thus finds depictions of sex and graphic violence offensive (also, considering some of the texts she’s objecting to, positive depictions of queer characters).  Given that, I can understand the call for content warnings; some of the stuff in Persepolis and Sandman can be difficult to deal with if you aren’t accustomed to reading about it.  Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s on the same level as a student requesting trigger warnings for course materials.  Persepolis depicts sexual harassment, and Doll’s House contains multiple instances of sexual assault along with depictions of general violence against women, children, and trans people; these are things which should be noted for readers who might find those situations triggering.  Shultz is asking that the texts not be taught at all.

So yeah, Shultz seems to be calling for legitimate censorship, and she’s had the misfortune of targeting books with pretty good reputations in the comic reading community.  I don’t sympathize with her goals, and I feel ambivalent about the idea of content warnings on college courses.  However, I do support the idea of adding trigger warnings to college courses, and I’m concerned that this particular dust up will become fodder for people who don’t want trigger warnings, especially since it’s so easy to spin the story as being about censorship of liberal texts, which distracts from the central issue.

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