Content Warnings: One Size Does Not Fit All

I saw Pomona College Theatre and Dance’s production of “Cabaret” last Saturday night. I loved it. It was a wonderful production. It also gave me such a huge panic attack that I didn’t go to sleep that night.

My friend told me ahead of time that “Cabaret” is set in a nightclub in Nazi Germany. That should have been enough of a warning for me to reconsider seeing the musical. And yet I didn’t reconsider and ended up shaking, sweating cold, and staring up at my ceiling, cursing myself for attending a musical to which I reacted so viscerally.

The theatre department, for its part, gave a “mature audiences recommended” content warning for “Cabaret,” as well as having both a swastika and the phrase “Silence = Death” prominently featured on the posters.

I don’t blame the theatre department for my panic attack. I know there are some people who, if they were in my place, would. I see this bad experience instead as a way to examine the role of content warnings in fictional media.

In higher education, content warnings usually apply to nonfiction media because nonfiction media makes up most of what most college students read for class.

If I read an essay about someone’s household growing up and put a content warning on it for “parental abuse,” that’s imposing a general moral judgment on it because parental abuse is rightly considered amoral. The author of that essay, however, might disagree with me and say, “I didn’t experience my parents’ behavior as abusive.” But that essay could still upset someone who has lived in an unhealthy, abusive household. It’s all relative.

Nonfiction – real, lived experiences in this world told with little flourish – is intensely personal. We read these experiences and our hearts ache because we know someone lived through those events. We walk a fine line of wanting to give others fair warning to what a work may contain but also to not distort others’ readings of the piece with our own morals.

In spite of this subjectivity and risk, I still believe we should use content warnings for nonfiction. Rather, we should be careful in how we present content warnings in nonfiction.

However, fictional media does not deal with real people and lived experiences. When the actors in “Cabaret” step off the stage, they are once again students in Claremont, not people in a 1930s nightclub in Berlin. Even fictional media based on the experiences of real people (such as “Cabaret”) does not carry this same risk.

I do not give as much thought in creating content warnings for fictional media in the way I might for non-fictional media because there is not the risk of imposing my morals on someone else’s life. Of course, a creator could be hurt by the way I, or anyone else, warn for content in their work – but it is not their lived experiences I am judging. It is fiction, removed from but still interacting with reality.

Even as I try to differentiate between “nonfiction” and “fiction,” I struggle. Some works of “fiction,” are essentially nonfiction with a thin veneer of falsehood. Some works of “nonfiction” are so heavily stylized that they barely resemble the truth. Works of media fall into a continuum between fiction and nonfiction, not into two binary categories.

“Cabaret” falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between fiction and nonfiction. The events themselves may not have happened but each of the characters represents a real person – and possibly many real people.

I don’t hesitate judging what happens in “Cabaret” harshly. I feel that the events of the musical must be warned for appropriately and in an accessible manner. In the age of the internet, a poster like the one Pomona used probably sufficed.

Yet on Tuesday, the Chaplains’ office held a debrief and processing session about “Cabaret.” Obviously, I am not the only one deeply affected by the musical. If there were enough people upset in that way, perhaps the poster wasn’t enough of a warning.

It doesn’t make us weak or deficient to admit we sometimes make mistakes and interact with media that hurts or agitates us. We cannot all be perfect in our self-care and self-preservation all the time. Even with content warnings, sometimes we assume we can handle media that we ultimately cannot.

I don’t think colleges should shy away from controversial media because some people might be hurt by it. The story of “Cabaret” is one that must be told in today’s political climate. We cannot forget the visceral hatred and fear that lead to the Holocaust. We must fight against fascism wherever it rises.

And yet, we cannot conflate this fight with a fight against content warnings for hugely traumatic media. We can’t fight the evils that are here already if we burn out from exposure to trauma over and over again.

I cannot give a definitive balance for when and how we should warn for content. I could try to give exact guidelines, try to outline strategies with footnotes and asterisks for every little exception, but I would never be able to make everyone happy with these strategies.

We all have our own lists of traumas. For every person in the Claremont community who was deeply affected by “Cabaret,” there is a different reason, a different trauma, a different history. In my own case, the pink triangle imagery and the persecution of queer men in the Holocaust was the main upset.

But there were Jewish people in that audience, people of color, other LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, Romani people, people from all walks of life affected by the Holocaust. Every person who watched “Cabaret” came to it with their own set of experiences and came away with their own opinions and reactions.

In the end, the only way we can truly make content warnings function is on a case-by-case basis: work by work, person by person. There are no rules, only guidelines. It’s a learning process.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ‘20 is a public health major from the San Francisco Bay Area. They like to sprint around the Mounds while singing along horrifically to their music.


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