Why We All Need To Get Over Spoilers

Reading this with your eyes half closed for fear of plot spoilers? There's something wrong with you...

Photo: Entertainment Weekly

Warning: the following article contains some serious plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and other film and television franchises. Read on at your own risk!

Last month my partner and I were enjoying a romantic dinner in a candlelit restaurant. A little boy walked in and piped up in a carrying voice: "He killed Han Solo!" The father looked appalled, while a few of the patrons giggled nervously and looked around to see if any offence was caused. I hope none of them were planning on seeing the film the following day.

This struck me as hilarious, but then I'd already seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you haven't (and you're apathetic enough about the Star Wars franchise to keep reading), Kylo Ren stabs Han Solo, his father, with a lightsaber. It's the film's showcase moment.

Everyone seems to have their own Star Wars spoiler story. Anyone who saw The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 will appreciate the legend of that one mean person who shouted down the cinema queue "Darth Vader is Luke's dad!" My own spoiler horror story was when someone told me, while queuing to see Fight Club, that Edward Norton's character, Tyler Durden, had a split personality.

Online, spoiler culture (and spoiler-phobia) is everywhere. My Facebook feed is crowded on a weekly basis with pleading requests from friends and family:

No Dr Who spoilers, please, it hasn't aired here in the US yet.   Please note that [so and so] hasn't seen Sherlock, so don't give anything away in your statuses.   No Star Wars spoilers, for the love of god – I didn't get a chance to see it over Christmas!

On Facebook, people are routinely unfollowed and sometimes even unfriended in a fit of righteous pique.

Plot privilege

This phobia around spoilers is a direct consequence of the complex ways in which we now consume media. Watching a television show "on broadcast" has become a rarity in a world of competing on-demand platforms and Netflix marathons. With tablets and smartphones we can also choose not only when to watch shows but also where to watch them.

But with this freedom comes great responsibility, and there is a growing expectation that if we've watched a film or TV series that has been recently released we keep our discussions spoiler-free. To paraphrase Tyler Durden's famous Fight Club rule, we just shouldn't talk about it.

For critics this can be irritating. After all, how can you properly review something without giving away elements of the plot? In 2006, Jonathan Rosenbaum expressed concern about what spoilers meant for film criticism, arguing that spoiler culture privileges plot and narrative at the expense of other forms of style:

Why is it supposedly a spoiler to say that Touch of Evil begins with a time bomb exploding but supposedly not a spoiler to say that the movie begins with a lengthy crane shot?

If this were true ten years ago, it is far more of an issue today. "Spoilers" are all about plot.

Spoiler etiquette

But far more interesting is the etiquette which has grown up around this spoiler culture, the rules of which are being constantly negotiated on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. What is the statute of limitations on a spoiler, for example? Is it after a film has completed its cinema run? X-amount of months after people have been given ample opportunity to binge-watch a series on Netflix? Nobody seems to know for sure. Even the BFI's Screenonline website has a "beware spoilers" disclaimer on synopses of films which were released up to 70 years ago.

Whether the rules apply to adaptations of books is a bit of a grey area. Game of Thrones fandom has its own vociferous spoiler culture. [Editor's note: Lifehacker learned this first-hand, ironically in a post about how to avoid GoT spoilers.] To be fair, the plot of the TV show differs from the books enough to make certain plot points surprising even for people who have read them. It's hard to know if long-time fans of The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter books experienced the film adaptations differently from those who had never read them.

This irritation around spoilers is a new phenomenon. Older novels (the works of Charles Dickens, for example) sometimes contained brief plot outlines at the beginning of each chapter, which effectively set up the narrative landscape and left the reader free to enjoy other elements of the story. As Henry Fielding wrote in Joseph Andrews:

What are the contents prefixed to every chapter but so many inscriptions over the gates of inns … informing the reader what entertainment he is to expect, which if he likes not, he may travel on to the next.

But perhaps the rise of spoiler culture says less about the ways in which media consumption is changing than it does about the ways in which we, as a society, are engaging with popular culture – on an ever more simplistic level. Aren't we all taking this just a bit too seriously?

Laura Mayne, Post-doctoral research associate in British Cinema History, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments

    So long as there is an alert before the article, I have no issue with spoilers. It's when people slip them into conversation or an article without warning, I get pissed off.

      Agreed, my mate literally blurted out the end of Dead Calm in one sentence and then proceeded to say that what he said was not a spoiler.

    Agreed about the necessity of an alert.

    Spoilers become more problematic when Australia encounters delays between the release of a show/movie overseas and when it's received here. With TV shows, this can be months between releases, all the while discussions about shows that others would think as reasonable to discuss end up being spoilt.

    Being spoilt changes the movie's intent to shock and surprise; efforts to construct a twist are wasted. Worse, when people discuss how a movie/series made them feel, it's typically from a position of the shock and surprise they felt-- a shared experience and something that a person being spoilt can't share.

    I had Dexter Season 4's ending spoiled for me, courtesy of the Dexter Facebook site while waiting for the DVDs to be released and it diminished my overall enjoyment. And all I could share of my reaction to this ending to my friends was to not subscribe to the Facebook group =)

    Last edited 10/02/16 12:07 pm

    Because we're Australians, and we'll never get to see things early enough for them to not be spoiled, because that's not regionalised distribution works.

    Holy crap, grow up already. Spoilers are the type of thing that 5 year-olds worry about. Be an adult and accept that not everything in life is exactly the way you want it.

      I find spoilers actually make me want to watch the show more!

      I doubt 5 year olds give a damn - they'll be excited for any news about the thing that they care about. It's once you get older and actually care about how you consume the media that you start to care about spoilers. Shock and surprise are totally valid tools to use in telling a story - how many stories, whether they are books, movies or games, are out there that are far more entertaining because of the nature of their 'twist'? If I want maximum enjoyment out of a piece of media, I don't want what should be a surprise spoiled for me - I understand there are plenty of other people who feel the same, so I try and avoid spoiling them myself.

      Etiquette is easy enough, say "Hey, we're going to talk about Game of Thrones. Is anyone not up to date?". Boom, easy, everyone is happy. Rather than a friend of mine, who as part of a conversation about spoilers, said "Yeah, I hate when people spoil stories, like when *huge bunch of GoT spoilers", sitting right across the table from another couple of our friends who had just finished watching season 3. It's one of her blonde moments that we still tease her about.

      I'm grown up. What's wrong with wanting to enjoy a show and be surprised at something you didn't know was going to happen? Not not everything is the way I want it but I can choose not to want to see or hear about spoilers.

    It depends, ill never know if there was any shock value in the afore mentioned star wars force awakes spoiler because some knob gobbler plastered it in a completely unrelated forum so when the moment came i knew what was going to happen so i can only assume i lost some of the surprise factor was lost.

    Major spoilers i hate if they do not have proper warnings, some movies i don't care about but if its one i've been psyched for years about i like SWTFA, then yes i get quite pissed when people spoil the surprise, you only get one go at it.

    What about basic consideration for others rather than indulging your own little thrill in discussing things to some selfish schedule?

    A friend of mine recently posted on social media that he felt enough time had passed so he would now freely discuss The Force Awakens on his feed. A number of defriendings later, he eventually backed off when someone pointed out that they had three kids and in the occasional blue moon that they might get a babysitter and be able to *gasp* actually go out for an evening, they might like to watch the film unspoilered.

    Not everyone is in a position to race in to see the latest big thing within the first nanosecond of its release. Personally, I wait till the noisy fan-gasm brigade have gone through before catching a film. Some people wait till the end of the season of GoT to have a binge watch. Why should I have my experience of a film/series spoiled because someone else deems that I should have seen it by now?

    I've seen the argument that way back in Dickens time, book chapters told you what would happen. Yeah, so? They also sent children to workhouses. They did wacky stuff back then, why should it apply now when we're meant to be oh so more sophisticated?

    It's not hard to give warning of spoilers, and I would think it basic courtesy and respect for others. Show some self-control.

    I can appreciate someone's desire for a plot to not be spoilt. However I personally don't mind spoilers at all and knew about several SW:TFA spoilers before I set foot into the cinema and it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the film.

    I think part of the issue is that when people are exposed to spoilers without warning they take offense to the fact that they were not given the chance to opt out of them. Being forced into something against your will is always going to rub people the wrong way. That being said, waiting till after a film's cinema run before discussing plot points and still being crucified for it smacks of entitlement and I think it's fair that you should expect some spoilers this long after a film's release.

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