Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

The trouble with trigger warnings is: how would you know when to stop? It isn't just that triggers (the sensory inputs that revive experiences of trauma; the violent siblings of the Proustian Madeleine moment) can be erratic. For some people, a description of the violence that traumatised them will leave them unscathed, but a taste, a smell, a colour or a texture might summon every horror they've known. How can any system of warnings predict the strange and painful networks of memory? But even if you restrict the trigger warning to only the obviously violent, to depictions of sexual aggression and racism, how much is there in the canon of literature that could be considered non-triggering?

The Bible would have to wear the warning, of course: too much begetting without consenting, and a lot of shedding of blood. Shakespeare too. There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape ("Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me") and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother's life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.

The great works of the Restoration, then. Pope's The Rape of the Lock parodies a society incident in which a young rake violated a beautiful woman's hair in retaliation for slighting him. The wit of the poem comes in the bathetic contrast between the epic ornamentation Pope uses and the perceived smallness of the crime – but really, and not to be a massive downer, we are talking about an assault and a more than passingly creepy one. Cutting away a lock of a woman's hair assumes a right to her person that is rooted in the deepest woman-hatred. And then there's Swift, both a great satirist and a great misogynist: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" he cries out, revenging rejection by dragging the desired woman into the humiliations of the grotesque. (At least Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was able to pay Swift back with her imperious and much funnier reply.)

To the romantics. Byron, of course – there's no shortage of triggering moments in Byron for victims of sexual violence. The novel appears about this time, and is reputedly a more female-friendly form, but Fanny Burney's Evelina is riddled with hate for women, especially the unmarriageable ones: in one scene, two elderly ladies are humiliatingly forced to race for gentlemanly entertainment. Jane Austen is surer ground, assuming we see no violence in the marriage market that she delineates with satirical clarity. Our contemporary expectation that women are people and not chattels would call such bargaining "financial abuse", and so Austen must be blazed with content notes too.

We should find safety in the reputed primness of the Victorians. But Browning's Porphyria is erotically strangled, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is raped – in decorous circumlocution, but repeatedly, until she has finally had enough and stabs the source of her abuses (Hardy blames the President of the Immortals for Tess's travails, but I blame the patriarchy) – and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a cavalcade of sexy sluts getting violated right in the vein. Wuthering Heights is an anatomy of familial violence, and a highly disturbing one. Racist too, with the focus on the exoticism of Heathcliff's dark gipsy skin and his bestial affinity with dogs.

As we get past the suffrage movement and into the 20th century, things should be looking up. Actually, not so much. The Waste Land plays on rape as a metaphor – and Eliot has no concern for the inner life of the female character he has fictionally despoiled; he doesn't want sympathy for her, her wants her as a symbol. The Great Gatsby ambushes you with antisemitism. Of Mice and Men, with the tragic, nameless Curley's Wife who exists only to menace men with her sexuality and be killed by an absolutely blameless character, because who could help killing a woman like that? Lolita, of course: how great, how elegant, how jewel-like in its precision, how absolutely stuffed with woman-killing and the sensual pleasures of child rape. Sylvia Plath's Ariel with its savage recreations of male violence – definitely triggering.

Where are we now? Practically contemporary. We could study Margaret Atwood's work, with its anatomical exploration of the marks left by violence against women – The Handmaid's Tale is the obvious classic (TW: rape, sexual assault, extreme patriarchy). Or one of my favourite novels, Alasdair Gray's 1982, Janine – a luminous descent punctuated by wild and lurid fantasies of sadism against female bodies. The problem is that what the trigger warning would highlight is something that is simply endemic in our culture: violence against women is just so much background hum, a cracked neck here, a severed tongue there, an aggressively inserted cock here and here and here.

There is nothing exceptional about this content. Wanting to be warned that it is coming is like wanting to be warned that there may be some exhaust fumes in the air you breathe. Well of course there will be – what do you want to do, live on a Hebridean smallholding in isolated purity, breathing in a clean, cultureless atmosphere? And with so much literature being subject to the trigger warning, if they are introduced to university syllabi (as has been proposed), what's to stop the lazy student from feigning trauma and skiving off two-thirds of the set texts? Not that English literature students need much institutional support for their skiving.

But a trigger warning doesn't have to be a do-not-enter notice. It could be a road sign, simply informing travellers of the kind of place they're about to enter: welcome to our village, twinned with patriarchy since publication date. And for every one of the works I've named above, I could write you an elaborate defence of the misogynistic content, contextualising it, explaining its artistic necessity or the way the author is interrogating patriarchy rather than simply replicating it. In some instances, I'd even believe what I was telling you.

That's not the point, though: the point is that this is what our art is made of, and until we notice that, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence? Trigger warnings are crude. They are patronising. Yes, they suggest that you the reader need to be protected from art. But get over all that and see them instead as beads on an abacus, counting up the many destructions of humanity that have gone into making our white, male canon: tick-tick-tick-tick – until at some point the frame topples over, and we realise that we must make something new and different if we can ever live beyond violence.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.