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  1. Culture
22 February 2024

Our obsession with “spoilers” reveals everything wrong with pop culture

The anti-spoiler fixation shows the sad reality of contemporary media: most of it relies on cheap bids for attention.

By Sarah Manavis

How much does a spoiler ruin a great film, book or TV show? The answer can vary, but typically comes down to one thing: how good the work is. When (spoiler alert) Logan Roy died in Succession, a plot point that was spoiled for millions of fans watching on a transatlantic delay, yes, the shock was dulled. And yet the power of the episode remained, carried by unparalleled performances and remarkable direction. Conversely, when the actor Tom Holland accidentally revealed a surprise death in the Marvel Universe, it sparked an uproar among fans: for many of whom, a long-running franchise was ruined – the action-heavy, twisty plot being the core reason for watching.

Anti-spoiler culture has fuelled a whole industry based on preventing any element of a story becoming known before an audience dives in. Films and books are now heavily marketed as containing big twists and shocks, and there is a growing obsession with keeping these things secret by any means possible. 

Last weekend, in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg for her Sunday morning BBC programme, the actor Ralph Fiennes made this argument for the theatre, saying that trigger warnings, which are used to alert audiences to potentially distressing content before a performance, should be removed because audiences should be disturbed and, more importantly, surprised by what they see. “It’s the shock, the unexpected, that’s what makes an actor (in) theatre so exciting,” he said, making the case that warnings of sexual assault or violence broadly spoil the twists a story may contain. Speaking to Kuenssberg to promote his touring production of Macbeth – a version of the classic Shakespearean tragedy set in modern times but adhering, largely, to the original dialogue – he added that warnings for things that could “affect people physically”, such as strobe effects, should still be flagged.

Trigger warnings, a hot-button culture war of the 2010s, have become a less popular topic of criticism in the last several years. Along with “snowflakes” and avocados, it has become a dated reference when swiping at the perceived sensitivity of younger generations. Broadly, our views on them have also begun to soften – many have concluded that the value of trigger warnings for those who need them is outweighed by any downsides. We understand trigger warnings better now, and the extreme and involuntary reactions certain content can provoke in some viewers.

Putting this tired debate aside, Fiennes’ argument against trigger warnings also hangs on a misunderstanding about what makes a good story: that shock and twists are the only things that make a piece of art valuable, even entertaining. That knowing of certain events in a story will ruin a narrative’s momentum – that tension and surprise is where it finds its power. The irony will not be lost on many that Fiennes made these comments while promoting his production of Macbeth.

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Twists can, of course, be successful plot devices and have defined great works with intelligent structures. But shock twists have also defined some of the laziest and most gratuitous films, books and TV in history – the story relying on them to justify an otherwise dull, mediocre work. The same goes for gratuitous gore and violence when done for the sake of shock itself. Rather than some precious narrative feature to be preserved at all costs, twists are arguably the cheapest trick you can base a story on.

This argument also fails to grasp what a trigger warning reveals. Usually, they simply state that there will be depictions of things such as “sexual violence” or “self-harm”, with no further context provided. What story is truly spoiled by these such content guidance, with no further information about who, what, where, when, how or why? These warnings – particularly for work already marketed as dark and gritty – give about as much away as those for flashing lights.

It’s particularly half-baked logic coming from someone touring a play which is more than 400 years old. Having caught Fiennes’ impressive performance in Edinburgh, I was no less disturbed by the violence or moved by the ensemble cast having known precisely what was coming.

Our anti-spoiler obsession reveals a sad but plain reality about contemporary popular culture: that much of the most popular media we consume relies on cheap bids for attention. Spoilers are far less detrimental when a story is well told, each scene full of entertainment, depth and meaning. Trigger warnings do a world of good for those who need them at the expense of no one else – the only stories they can spoil are ones so devoid of craft or complexity that we should question whether they’re really worthy of our time.

[See also: We’ve forgotten what skin looks like]

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