Americans dominate the Anglophone internet, and Americans hate spoilers. “WHERE’S THE SPOILER WARNING, ASSHOLE?” is a relatively mild and restrained example of the incandescent rage Americans unleash when they deem themselves “spoiled” by innocuous scraps of advance narrative information about TV shows, films and other popular entertainment. The aforesaid information can usually be gleaned from a cursory or even an accidental viewing of a trailer, a general article, a synopsis or a publicity picture, like for example “in Avatar that Australian actor who isn’t Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman nobs a blue space cat lady, flies dragons and fights a battle against baddies.”
These latter infractions are considered bad enough in their own right, but something about another individual letting the information slip seems to trigger particular ire. Catching a glimpse of a character’s elbow in a blurry screen capture causes some people to speculate wildly about what it could mean, leading in turn to heart-rending anguish if their hysteria online is anything to judge by. Others, with the probity and prissiness of a heroine from a Victorian novel, announce archly that they’re avoiding certain places until November because they’re so excited about season 93 of some asinine sitcom and they don’t want to be “spoiled” by knowing that Chad kisses Muffy at the prom.
Most absurdly of all, people even complain about spoilers for things that were issued years or decades ago, in some cases before they were even born. They howl about spoilers for unavoidable cultural artefacts that most literate and media-aware adults in the developed world (and the USA in particular) can reasonably be assumed to have seen or at least be aware of. “Dorothy follows the yellow brick road?!?! THANKS FOR THE SPOILER WARNING MOTHERFUCKER YOU RUINED THE MOVIE.” So why do Americans have such a visceral need to delude themselves in order to enjoy their own narrative media, and why do they defend this desire so violently?
The combination of American cultural and consumer products having hegemonic ubiquity and the English language’s role as a de facto common tongue for so many people in the world makes it easy for English-English speakers, other Anglophones and most of all for Americans themselves to forget just profoundly warped and alien American culture and society seems to the rest of us. Over a century ago Oscar Wilde quipped: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between.” The observation still stands up today. The schizoid love/hate relationship of the USA with the United Kingdom is particularly fraught and truly Oedipal on both sides. They want to fuck the old man (“adorable accent”) and to burn down nasty daddy’s castle as well (“snobs”), sometimes both at the same time. We think they’re old enough to do their own thing when we think about them at all, but they still seem to have a peculiar urge to either gain our approval or shock us with their contempt for what square old farts we supposedly are. In neither case are we very interested any more because they left home a long time ago, but they keep on trying.
The USA’s ingrained Puritanism leads to a society wallowing in euphemism, doublethink and linguistic dishonesty; food is “super-sized” or “fun-sized” and nobody ever visits a toilet, they use a “rest room.” Objects are “pre-owned” or [gag] “pre-loved,” not old or second-hand. People are not old either, they’re “elders,” and obese people are merely “larger” or “husky.” American genitals are “junk,” and the potential viewing or even touching of this shameful “junk” is what finally galvanised some mild resistance to the Gestapo tactics of TSA bullies at American airports that have been unrestrained sado-playgrounds for the same power tripping ignoramuses for the best part of ten years. The USA is nonetheless one of the world’s primary sources of pornography. Recent research shows clearly that prehistoric Homo Sapiens was freely fraternising (and copulating) with Neanderthals and other types of people who weren’t even strictly human and hardly resembled any person or so-called “race” alive today… but there’s still a category of American porn called “interracial” [sic] as if it’s an obscure fetish rather than a biological fact so unremarkable that every living human’s DNA shows evidence of it.
Nobody dies in the USA; they “pass on.” Companies are treated as if they had the rights and the worth of a human being, but a great many Americans apparently believe that a person should just fuck off and die if they have the audacity to suffer from illness, disability or injury without the money to pay extortionate medical fees to profit-making companies; an extraordinary, inhumane and revolting moral position that’s nearly unique in the developed world. Americans seem to communicate and think almost entirely in platitudes, tropes and quotes from advertisements, movies, TV shows or—worst of all—semidigested chunks of garbled Christian doctrine. What happens in high school seems to be the defining imprint and rite of passage in the lives of most Americans, and many of them apparently remain psychologically stalled at high school throughout their lives. What they become in high school is what they remain. Most Americans I’ve ever known rather quickly got around to talking at length about what they did and who they met and what cliques they were a part of at high school. Conversely, most European adults I know (including myself) can barely even remember anything of note that happened to them at school. They might have one or two particularly nice or nasty recollections of specific incidents, or of a teacher they particularly respected or despised, if they really wrack their brains. The few isolated things I recall from school don’t have any great bearing upon my life and mentality as a mature adult because most of what you’re occupied with when you’re sixteen is teenage bullshit that doesn’t matter to anyone but yourself at the time.
And of course— infamously and bewilderingly to the rest of planet Earth— graphic depictions of fictional humans slashed, dismembered, tortured, beaten, riddled with bullets or killed in various other ways are considered mainstream entertainment while images of real life warfare and violence, breastfeeding, non-sexual nudity, sexual swear words, sexual relations between consenting adults and even chaste kisses or hand-holding between two consenting adults of the same gender are all considered controversial, problematic, taboo and/or “NSFW.” Incidentally, Americans, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the internet at all if you’re meant to be working, unless your job genuinely involves looking at the internet… in which case everything you look at is presumably by definition “SFW.” There, problem solved. What kind of Puritan work ethic Puritans are you, anyway? “Get a job” is a grave insult to Americans, not a neutral suggestion.
To most people who aren’t Americans (and in fairness, to many exasperated people who are Americans) the USA’s culture is bizarre, bewildering, adolescent, perverse in every sense of the word, hypocritical, shallow, morally bankrupt and belligerent.
So there’s a certain amount of inevitability in the fact that this Puritan “protect me from what I want” culture has produced the ultimate big baby phenomenon of “SPOILERS!” It’s their profoundly American combination of self-regard, entitlement and wilful, blinkered naïveté that drives spoilerphobes to doublethink themselves into a mindset in which every story is their story and the activities of fictional people become important enough to abuse, castigate and even threaten violence against real human beings. Returning to the much-berated Avatar, in the wake of this film’s release in the USA came a rash of reports regarding people who suffered profound depression and even suicidal thoughts because after the film finished they were forced to confront the fact that they would never go to Pandora, upload themselves into a cartoon character and nob a blue space cat lady. This is perhaps the ultimate spoiler and so it provoked a particularly extreme and self-lacerating form of spoiler rage in the most pathologically American Americans: Spoiler warning… your life is not as interesting and your everyday emotions are not as vivid as those that exist in works of fiction because said works of fiction are expertly, explicitly designed by a massive, multi-billion dollar industry to be more interesting than your normal life and to manipulate you into heightened states of emotion and catharsis.
Even the most cursory foray into literary theory, Structuralism, Formalism, or even— may the All-American blue-eyed Baby Jesus preserve us— into the revolting world of creative writing manuals draws us inexorably, again and again, to the notion that every story has already effectively been told over the past few millennia of literacy. Vladimir Propp’s typology of folk tales identified a mere eight basic characters, and 31 “story functions,” for example. Joseph (Hero With a Thousand Faces) Campbell, James (The Golden Bough) Frazer and Jung were similarly parsimonious in their assessments of how few distinct plotlines and characters truly exist. The notion that awareness of a narrative’s outcome “spoils” it is infantile, absurd and most of all untrue. Even the hackiest of hack writers— perhaps especially the hackiest writer— puts stories together with the aim of using his or her skills to come up with absorbing and entertaining new wrappers to clad the very few possible bare narratives and viable characters that actually exist.
If spoilers ruined in any substantial manner anybody’s enjoyment of or immersion in entertainment then nobody would still be going to the theatre for Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus Rex after centuries or millennia. Nobody would have a favourite book or film. Stories about the lives of historical figures would fall upon especially stony ground because our knowledge of what actually happened would “spoil” them; most people with a rudimentary grasp of history know that Martin Luther King and Julius Caesar were both assassinated and we all know the basic and immutable factual outlines of their life stories. It doesn’t detract from our fascination with retellings of their extraordinary lives and achievements. Anyone who’s read (or told stories) to very young children probably already knows that far from abhoring spoilers they will often instinctively insist upon hearing the same stories repeatedly… and occasionally beyond the limits of adult tolerance, too.
Biographies, glossy fictionalised biopics about famous people or events, and historical or costume dramas are in fact thriving genres of entertainment. If spoilers spoiled anything then King Lear, or Pride and Prejudice, the Sherlock Holmes stories, or A Christmas Carol wouldn’t be adapted and revived every few years. Of course there will always be people who are partially or entirely new to these canonical works of drama or literature, but this doesn’t change the fact that these works are canonical precisely because nearly everybody knows something about the storylines and characters contained in them. In the case of Sherlock Holmes we even know the outcomes of the complex procedural detective mysteries that he takes part in, because they’ve been in print for more than a century. There’s an undeniable pleasure in discovering a book or film you’ve never got into before, but trying to wall this kind of experience off from everything else is ridiculous and futile. It’s like vowing to eat any given type of food once, because having a banana for the first and only time was great but now bananas have been spoiled so you can’t enjoy them any more. In reality, if a banana is tasty and it’s serving a purpose in your life then it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve eaten one previously; you don’t even think about all the other bananas while you’re eating a specific instance of that type of fruit.
You don’t have to take my word for it, or Jung’s, or Campbell’s, or Propp’s, or Robert McKee’s. Other than the few I’ve mentioned, there are many other convincing accounts and typologies documenting the fact that anybody literate and culturally aware consciously or unconsciously knows the basics and the possibilities of every narrative that exists or ever will exist. Spoilerphobes really need to grow up, and shut up. “Oh great, VladPropp1895, now I know how every story ever told on Earth ends… YOU COULDN’T PUT THIS UNDER A SPOILER HEADING, ASSHOLE?!???”