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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what is the statute of limitation on spoilers?


This week’s question is swiped from an article at WhatCulture last month:

What is the statute of limitation on spoilers?

WhatCulture’s James Garcia doesn’t offer a definitive answer: it might be somewhere between “five minutes after something awesome was on TV and it’s your own dumb fault if you missed it” and “no more than 15 years cuz if you haven’t seen it by then, it’s your own dumb fault.” (I’m paraphrasing; those aren’t direct quotes.) But the sweet spot in between is hard to find. And it all depends on context, too. A discussion at a pop culture Web site might have a less stringent statute than, say, a watercooler chat at the office. Or maybe it’s the reverse! Maybe we should be more attuned to possibly spoiling a film or TV season finale when we’re talking to others who are really really into film and TV, and less concerned when talking to a coworker who’s not that big a fan.

What do you think? Is it once a movie has come and gone from cinemas? Once a TV show or film has been out on DVD for a while? Is it reasonable to expect that those who don’t want to be spoiled will make an effort to catch whatever the spoilable thing is at an early stage of its availability? Just what is — or what should be — the etiquette of spoilers?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • It’s specific to the individual and their circumstances. Generally I feel like if the person has had the chance to see the movie, show, or read the book or whatever, and decided to put it off, then they’re out of luck. Like if they have the last episode of Game of Thrones on their DVR and just haven’t bothered watching it, then I have no sympathy. But if the same person hasn’t been able to watch it because of work or some other reason, then I’m willing to avoid spoilers at their request without quibble.

    So, the longer it’s been, the less willing I’d be to sympathize. If you told me to shut up about Game of Thrones right now I’d expect it to be because you were in a coma for the last 5 months.

    Though I’d never spoil something just for shock value… but if it comes up in conversation? Let’s just say I’d rather not be the person you put in charge of your enjoyment of pop culture.

    Some things, though, you can’t avoid spoilers for, and that’s a shame. My wife had to stay up well past her normal bedtime (she gets up really early) to watch Breaking Bad’s finale because her co-workers just blab about it the next day without bothering to check.

    So, short answer: a week?

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, context. How new is it? How spoilery are the spoilers? What’s the audience? The trick when writing for publication is that one can’t negotiate things (I was recently in a discussion in which someone said “oh, hang on, I haven’t seen Game of Thrones season 3 yet” and we just moved on to other topics of conversation) so it behoves one to be a bit more careful.

    I think it would be reasonable to have a warning at the top of the text saying “I’m going to discuss details of this (film|book|etc.) and if you want to come to it fresh you should stop reading now”.

  • Danielm80

    I think that anything which gets referenced over and over again in pop culture is fair game. I wouldn’t feel too guilty about spoiling Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green or even The Sixth Sense. For anything else, I’d try to post some sort of warning. Everything is new to somebody.

    Of course, I got attacked over on another thread for posting spoilers with a spoiler warning, so I recognize that some people are more vigilant than I am.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    2 weeks – 1 month for TV episodes, 6 months – 1 year on movies, 3 – 5 years on books.
    Essentially, enough time that the other person has adequate access to the medium, and has been actively trying to find the time to experience it for themselves. Beyond that, maintaining an individual’s pristine pop-cultural environment is their own responsibility.
    The movie window is shortening as the window between theatrical closing and video release is also closing. Whereas the TV window has expanded due to the increasing use of DVRs and streaming services. Premium cable shows should be treated like movies.

  • bronxbee

    i like your time line proposal…

  • Jess Haskins

    I just watched Soylent Green last week with my roommate, and Planet of the Apes a short while before that. In both cases she didn’t know the ending, and was trying to figure it out as the movie went on while I was practically rocking in place with my hands over my mouth trying not to say anything. (“Wait…are they on Earth?”)

    I wanted to tell her that those two spoilers were right up there with “I see dead people,” but then I realized I might be ruining that one for her, too.

    (Side note, we’ve decided that whatever we watch next, it definitely won’t have Charlton Heston in it. We’ve had just about enough of him.)

  • Or you could be like me, and love the hell out of GoT, but refuse to pay for HBO, and also refuse to go the illegal route. I’ll be watching it when it comes out on Blu in February. Good thing I’ve already read the books, right?

  • I’ve never seen the original Planet of the Apes. You just spoiled it for me! *runs away crying*

  • LaSargenta

    If someone hasn’t read/seen/watched/played it, it is their responsibility to shield themselves if it is so important to them.

    If the twist in the tale is the best thing or most important thing about it (whatever form it takes), then, imo, the thing isn’t that great. The Crying Game is a really well done movie. I deeply enjoyed most Neil Jordan films, whether or not I knew the plot points. I know what happened in Psycho, and maybe the shock value is gone (long ago, off into the sunset) before I even was born, but, I can watch it and value it.

    It is so annoying when people insist on being present for a watercooler session but then control what is talked about by shrieking “Spoilers!!! AAarrgh!!!!!”

    Guess what? Beowulf dies killing the dragon. Medea kills her children to take revenge on Jason. Eve eats the apple.

  • Too me it’s all about home viewing, and access for the average consumer. Stuff like Game of Thrones should be a set amount of time after it comes out on dvd/Bluray. Maybe 3 months or something.

    Even movie/tv geeks aren’t able to see everything right away.

  • I think it’s entirely personal and individual. There are movies from 30 years ago that I haven’t seen and would be upset if someone spoiled it for me. Why haven’t I seen them? NO TIME! And when I DO get time I almost always pick something newer over something older. Mostly so I can stay somewhat current and participate in the occasional movie discussion.
    I’ve done all I can to avoid Breaking Bad spoilers just in case I decide to start watching the show.
    I can’t stand those total assholes that go around posting spoilers to brand new shows/movies/games with no warning at all. Who gets pleasure out of something like that? Sure, it’s not life altering, but why mess with someones entertainment? I just don’t get it.
    And, no, a spoilery type moment should define what a show or movie is about, but it IS a big part of the experience.
    Plus, I’m seeing some pretty cool young geeks out there latching onto old movies and shows. It’s a good thing most people don’t discuss anything beyond a few weeks old.

  • Bluejay

    I think some consideration should be given to children who haven’t had a chance to experience certain films (shows/books/etc), no matter how iconic they are to the general public. It’s kind of sad when kids learn from their parents or older kids that Vader is Luke’s dad, or that Dumbledore dies, before they’ve read the books or seen the films themselves. It’s not their fault that they were too young or weren’t around yet when these stories gained cultural currency.

  • My point exactly. I hate to deprive them of the experiences we had.

  • Beowulf

    Wait….I’m dead?

  • Beowulf

    Heh, heh….the Klan rides to the rescue of the poor whites in “Birth of a Nation.”

  • Drave

    I think it’s funny that you chose the image you did, because what IMMEDIATELY popped into my head when I saw the question was “After the Simpsons parodies or references it.”

  • Bluejay

    Or maybe after NPR references it?


  • LaSargenta

    As I said before, if the twist is the *best* thing about a story, then the story is really crap.

  • Bluejay

    I’ve been thinking a bit about this, actually. You’re right: A good story must have more going for it than just the twist. But I don’t think surprise or shock value is any less important a quality; the thrill of finding out “what happens next?” is one of the fundamental delights of being told a story.

    Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this. There’s a lot to admire: the books are well-written (according to those who’ve read them; I haven’t); the HBO series is well-produced, well-scripted, well-acted, well-scored, and so on. General consensus is that it’s a quality story, period. You’ll enjoy it even if you’ve already been told what happens to everyone.

    And yet, I submit that the shock value of the deaths of certain characters is essential to a full experience of the power of the story. Character X’s death is meant to be devastating; but it’s at its most devastating if you didn’t see it coming. It shatters your expectation that Heroes Always Survive in a very visceral way. (The GoT producers seem to get this, and I understand that some plot twists on the show deviate from those in the books, so that fans of the books can get surprised as well.)

    Used well, the power of surprise isn’t a cheap trick; it’s a very effective tool in the narrative toolbox. And if you take it away when it’s not supposed to be taken away, then I submit that you’re diminishing the experience of the story — even if only slightly, and even if that diminished experience is still a very good one because of the story’s other qualities.

    So what does that mean for me, in terms of the QOTD? I guess that means I personally don’t have a statute of limitation on spoilers. I realize that information is everywhere, and it’s not always possible to shield my friends or family from spoilers; but to the best of my ability, until she’s seen Kane for herself or she tells me she doesn’t care, I won’t tell my daughter what Rosebud is. People deserve to experience stories fresh and firsthand, whenever possible.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t think of it as a cheap trick; however, after the first week, perhaps of the release of Psycho, most people in the US and UK surely knew that it was not about a woman who had stolen money from her employer. So, what kept people going to see it?

    And, frankly, if something is already a story in a book, people have read the book. What makes those same people go see a movie or watch a series of the books made “flesh” (or rather, pixels)?

    I personally don’t go out of my way to rub people’s noses in what happens in a story. But, I get really pissed off at anyone above the age of 10 who insists on being present for a chat about something and then screams or moans at us for having let the cat out of the bag. In addition, there are loads of things that are referenced in people’s writing (or stories). Allusions. Found in poetry, novels, plays, screenplays. A broadly educated person catches all or most. If you don’t completely understand it, but you are aware that it is an allusion that comes from another particular story and haven’t seen or read it, does that count as a spoiler? Even if the allusion requires some knowledge of the context to be effective? (Lady Macbeth washing her hands, etc.)

  • Bluejay

    And, frankly, if something is already a story in a book, people have read the book. What makes those same people go see a movie or watch a series of the books made “flesh” (or rather, pixels)?

    Not everyone has read the book. And if you have read the book, you also probably wouldn’t appreciate a film that just literally, ploddingly transcribes the book. You want a film that freshly interprets the book, that adds filmic elements that the book couldn’t provide… in other words, something you haven’t seen. A new experience.

    I get really pissed off at anyone above the age of 10 who insists on being present for a chat about something and then screams or moans at us for having let the cat out of the bag.

    Sure, I’d get annoyed at such a person too. But do you know folks who really DO that? Who INSIST on being part of a conversation that they know will include spoilers they’re trying to avoid? If I’m trying to avoid spoilers for a show, I try to steer clear of conversations about it, IRL and online. On the other hand, if I’m just generally hanging with friends and the conversation spontaneously turns to a spoilery show, it’s common courtesy to check to see which friends have seen it and want to talk about it, and which friends want to remain spoiler-free, and shape the conversation accordingly. And if you’re discussing spoilers online, just include a spoiler warning at the beginning of your post or comment, and don’t put the spoiler in your headline. Common courtesy and easily done.

    In addition, there are loads of things that are referenced in people’s writing (or stories). Allusions. Found in poetry, novels, plays, screenplays. A broadly educated person catches all or most.

    Yes, of course. But how does a broadly educated person come to understand those allusions? By being taught those stories — in other words, experiencing them. And yes, if you figure it out from context or footnotes and you find out endings to older stories without having read them, those are spoilers. I’ve already admitted that you can’t always avoid them. I would simply PREFER to experience stories firsthand when possible, which isn’t always.

    Who the hell sees Double Indemnity these days without understanding a lot about it before the opening scene?

    Uh… ME. I’ve never seen Double Indemnity and I have no idea what it’s about. I look forward to seeing it someday. Please don’t spoil it for me.

    We can’t replicate the experience… There is always something older than ourselves, some experience we can’t have because the sell-by date is long gone

    Only because people keep talking about old stories. As someone else on this thread said, something is always new for someone.

    My daughter recently saw a behind-the-scenes video for the upcoming Rocky musical, and she found out that Rocky doesn’t win the fight. It’s not the end of the world, obviously, but I’m a little disappointed that she now knows that, because it means she’ll never see the film with the frisson of not knowing, and she won’t worry for or root for Rocky with the same emotional intensity. She may still GREATLY enjoy the film, but seeing it with foreknowledge is clearly not the same experience. AND the spoiler wasn’t inevitable; if she’d only not seen that video clip, she could have had that unspoiled Rocky experience. So, a minor lost opportunity.

    If it turns out to be worth it, it will be good without the surprise.

    I totally agree, and I think I’ve said that too. But good WITH the surprise of a fresh, firsthand experience is even better.

    I’ve just read MaryAnn’s review of Matterhorn, where she says:

    I don’t want to say more. Even to reveal what the title refers to would be a bit of a spoiler, and would diminish it, for it only takes on its fullest significance very close to the end.

    It’s pretty clear from her review that the spoiler isn’t the only thing that makes it a good film; apparently it peels away veneers of hypocrisy and respectability and offers “a sense of grand overarching truth.” So, clearly, in her eyes it’s a solid film that will be rewarding whether it’s watched today or a decade from now. But the spoiler is still clearly an important part of the story, and worth keeping secret, so that the full intellectual and emotional impact of its reveal is undiminished for the viewer.

    Surprises have value. It’s impossible to always preserve surprises, but whenever possible, we should. That’s my point.

  • Bluejay

    Don’t know why my last few sentences are in italics. Formatting oops.

  • LaSargenta

    Well, I think MaryAnn’s comment in the review is totally appropriate since no one except people who’ve gotten to go to a film festival (italics intended ;-) ) could possibly have seen that movie yet. Kinda apples and oranges.

    In a general way, yes I agree with you, but I mostly think it is impractical. There’s too many ways of experiencing a story these days and that includes the same story in different modes (like how the ending of The Golden Compass movie totally fucked with the tone and characters’ motivations or apparent ethics considering the complexity of how that was handled in the book). So, if someone only saw the movie and I complain about the movie, I have to check with them as to whether or not they plan to read the book first? Yeah, maybe we can say it is only a matter of politeness, but, well, sometimes conversation flows and stuff comes out.

    But do you know folks who really DO that? Who INSIST on being part of a conversation that they know will include spoilers they’re trying to avoid?

    Actually yes. At work. Bunch of us sit around one of the conference tables at lunch. I frequently don’t because easily 70% of the chat is about tv/pop culture items that I have no interest in, or certainly, not enough of an interest in to actually discuss. (And I have no fucking clue how anyone gets the time to watch all this stuff…maybe this explains why some are a bit flabby.) But, if I don’t hang out there, I miss the other 30% that is office gossip and actually necessary for me to deal in this company. We have a “30 second rule” that can be called on any topic, for any reason, and you don’t have to say why — after 30 seconds, if you don’t like it, call for a topic change. I’ve grown to like the rule. BUT, I’ve noticed that some will call it after 5 seconds screaming SPOILERS!!!!! AAAAARrrrggggghhhhh … I’m MEEEEEEEELLLLLLLTING!!!!!! These are always about topics I can’t give a fig about, so I don’t care one way or another…listening to chat about Walt’s motivations or Al Swearengen’s ethics is just the price of admission for knowing the rumors about people being fired or who’s likely to get promoted or contractual claims on some large job or changes to our benefits. But, it seems like an awful lot of fuss.

    Don’t worry, I won’t tell you anything about Double Indemnity except that it really is a great movie and well worth setting aside time for. It is on my list of Movies That Deserve Seeing Multiple Times. And when I was a kid, I tried to convince people that Barbara Stanwyck was my mother, although that wasn’t based on her character in that film.

  • LaSargenta

    Well, it emphasised them nicely…

  • Bluejay

    So, if someone only saw the [Golden Compass] movie and I complain about the [ending of the] movie, I have to check with them as to whether or not they plan to read the book first?

    Well, *I* would. :-)

    Yeah, maybe we can say it is only a matter of politeness, but, well, sometimes conversation flows and stuff comes out.

    Oh, yeah, sure. Communication is always messy and imperfect. And if spoilers happen, the world keeps turning. But I think efforts at politeness and consideration always count, and are always appreciated.
    I have now added Double Indemnity to my Netflix queue. Thanks!

  • LaSargenta

    I just got an email from the library telling me Liion In Winter is available for pickup. I think it will be my 7th or 8th time seeing it. Will be the pixie’s first. But, he’s been subjected to “What shall we hang, the holly or each other?!” out of my mouth every Christmas since he was born. He may think that is just my words…little does he know…

    Hope you enjoy the movie. I wonder if MAJ has a post/thread about it somewhere in the archives. *wanders off* EDITED TO ADD: SHE DOES AND IT IS LOADED WITH SPOILERS! AVERT! AVERT! https://www.flickfilosopher.com/2001/01/double-indemnity-review.html

  • ruth waterton

    Insane levels of spoiler phobia have pretty much ruined DW fandom for me. I feel it’s got totally out of control. People like to rub their nose right up against the shop window and then moan when they see the goodies inside. If I hear a reliable spoiler before a show has aired then I’ll not pass it on without due warning, and I always try to take care for a few days after a show has aired, mindful of the fact that people may not have caught up yet. But I find it pretty hard to believe that so many people (a) are crazy enough about a show to frequent forums on it (b) haven’t yet gotten around to viewing it somehow. Get it in proportion, please. It’s annoying to be spoiled, nothing more.

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