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The other day, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she appreciated how Orange Is the New Black's fifth season presented a polygamous Muslim character in a nuanced, non-stereotypical way. Although I haven't watched OITNB in a couple of years, I was excited to hear more about this rare glimpse of positive representation. Unfortunately, the very first comment on her post shut down the discussion altogether: "OMG, girl, spoilers! Hush!"
Now, my friend didn't give away a major plot point—all she did was mention her enjoyment of an unusually relatable character. Instead of engaging further on how more media could do right by Muslim women, the conversation immediately hit a wall because she didn't follow what's become the number one rule of social media: Do not disclose anything, however minor, about a piece of media that someone might not have seen yet.
This development frustrates me, in part because I fundamentally don't understand it. I can't imagine liking a story less because I knew how it ended in advance. A good piece of fiction should have more to recommend than the element of surprise. While I feel totally neutral toward spoilers for things I enjoy, I appreciate finding out that something has a disappointing twist ending before I waste an evening.
I should've looked up spoilers before seeing the recent film It Comes at Night, which was marketed as straight horror (my favorite genre) but was really more of a psychological thriller (I'll pass). For the first few weeks the movie was out, everyone was extremely cagey about discussing its ending. Thus, I was totally caught off guard that instead of a monster or a zombie apocalypse, the film depicted a descent into paranoia and madness culminating in the execution of an entire family—mother, father, and three-year-old son.
I'm the mother of a toddler, and I went to see It Comes at Night with a fellow horror fan/parent. If we'd known how the movie was going to end, well, you couldn't have paid us to sit through it. We both left the theater feeling disgusted, manipulated, betrayed—and furious that no one had cared enough about reactions like ours to so much as hint at the ending in a review.
Sure, I could've tried to find a plot synopsis, although there's no guarantee I would've been successful. Also, to my knowledge, there isn't an MPAA rating that signifies "a young child dies violently in the arms of his screaming mother." I just don't think a creator should ever spring that on his or her audience. Nobody's "right" to be surprised and entertained by the murder of three people ought to supersede my ability to avoid it if I want to.
When Poussey Washington died on Orange Is the New Black, the internet was alight with black women and LGBTQ women furiously protesting the gratuitous killing of a character who meant so much to so many. Others defended the show for its choice to spotlight correctional brutality, believing it had the potential to provoke necessary social change. However, both sides of a crucial conversation were repeatedly shouted down by fans who insisted that neither the danger of exploiting racial trauma for entertainment nor the responsibility of creators to shed a light on systemic abuse were as important as the fact that Poussey's death had been "spoiled" for them.
With a new season of Game of Thrones currently airing, shocking plot twists and gruesome spectacles are at their annual peak, and so is social media fervor about spoilers. A friend of mine recently threatened to unfriend anyone who spoiled Game of Thrones—"like, in real life." I thought about all the times the show has used rape, domestic abuse, torture, or murder as a plot point, and all the people who might really need to talk about those things when we see them. But they're silenced or scolded if they try, because other people's entertainment takes precedence over their pain.
I remember coming to school the day after the season five finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ready to cry my eyes out with my friends over Buffy's death. It sounds minor now, but at age 13 it might have been the most significant loss in my life. To have been socially proscribed from commiserating about it would have genuinely pained me. (For the record, I've watched that scene a dozen times since then, and its emotional impact is not lessened by knowing it's coming.)
When did we collectively decide that watching TV or reading books must be solo undertakings, untainted by the thoughts of others? For me, talking through what I just saw and hearing other people's interpretations is an enormous part of the joy of engaging with fiction. I'm not saying my preferences should determine everybody else's, but I'm not ready to accept that they make me a pariah.
The insistence on being surprised by a piece of fiction has become almost tautological: It's bad to spoil something because that spoils it. Rather than accepting that no public conversation can occur until some predetermined amount of time has passed, I'd like to question why we're so fixated on preserving the shock value of our media—and who might benefit from more of a heads-up. For many viewers who live with real-life oppression and trauma, seeing the same kind of violence enacted on screen can stir up emotions that need to be processed. And when you deny them the space to do that, you could be spoiling a whole lot more than just a movie.
Follow Lindsay King-Miller on Twitter.