Sunday, February 28, 2016

Should we protect our children from spoilers?

We live in an age of excessive spoiler awareness, whether it comes in the form of trying to avoid having things spoiled for you, or watching your own behavior to guard against the inadvertent perpetration of spoilers.

It's not surprising, then, that these tendencies spill over even into areas that sort of don't make sense, like the example I'm about to give you.

But that doesn't mean I'm even sure that my instincts shouldn't have kicked in to prevent spoilers from reaching their targets.

One of my very best and oldest friends (who will actually probably be reading this) sent us a late Christmas package that we only just opened, more than two weeks after it actually arrived at our house. This friend and I joked about how it was truly telling that it took me two weeks to open a box we'd received in the mail -- not because that reflected badly on me, but because it was in some way a realistic assessment of how busy we both consider our lives to be. (His share of that, I suppose, was sending us a Christmas package in late January.)

We finally set aside a Saturday morning to open the package, Saturday having been chosen as the best possible time for the contents of the package not to distract our kids from another imminent task, like going to school or going to bed. So after morning TV we finally turned our attentions to it.

It was a great and very generous package of five total gifts, only one of which I will focus on today: It was a six-book collection of Little Golden Books, that classic children's series with the distinctive gold spine, with a Star Wars theme. Upon removing the shrink wrap, I discovered that the number of books was no coincidence. Each book contained an encapsulation of the plot of one of the six Star Wars films prior to The Force Awakens.

Great present, right? Especially for little kids with an inborn interest in Darth Vader and stormtroopers?

Yes and no. Don't get me wrong, dear friend who is probably reading this, I love the present. But I can't deny that my first thought upon seeing it was:

"Well, there goes the surprise of the great 'No, I am your father' moment from The Empire Strikes Back."

See, my kids have not yet seen any of the Star Wars movies. It's a subject of some debate in our house. I myself saw the original in the theater when I was not yet 4, so I've got one son who is currently 18 months older than that and has yet to see it. This may tell you what side of this debate I come down on, but I'll admit that I myself was taken aback by The Force Awakens, particularly, you know, that part when that thing happens. You know, the thing. That thing seemed too traumatic for my son to handle -- it was nearly too traumatic for me to handle, and I'm 37 years older than he is. So in that moment I became glad I hadn't succeeded on my plan to binge watch those movies with him in time for us to see The Force Awakens in the theater. (I just binge watched them myself instead.)

But what this does mean is that although my son is quite familiar with the names of these characters and knows some basic traits about them, he still has no idea what actually happens to them. I have thus been preserving these films as surprises to be unleashed upon him when that moment finally does arrive.

That's where these Little Golden Books become problematic.

As they are Star Wars-related content actually aimed at him, he's sure to go through all six within our first 24 to 48 hours of owning them. He'll know that Darth Vader is Luke's father from a little book with a golden spine, not from having one of the late 20th century's great cinematic surprises revealed during an actual viewing.

What I'm trying to tell myself as I prepare for the now-inevitable is that the value of preserving a movie's secrets for a child is pretty minimal anyway.

For one, I'm not sure that he doesn't already know those secrets. We do have a Star Wars book in which characters like C3PO and Chewbacca are introduced, not in story format but with short descriptions and arrows pointing at various features and little infographic boxes that say things like "Did You Know?" That book doesn't spoil anything, I don't think, but what about that little Lego Star Wars video we borrowed from the library a few months back? It wasn't one of the Lego Star Wars movies, and now that I think about it I'm not even 100% sure it was Lego. I think it was a parody-style adventure of characters from the Star Wars universe aimed at children -- and by that I mean something meta and inside jokey, where Darth Vader might make wisecracks about the trials of being a parent. You know, the type of thing that might sail over a child's head but is basically a spoiler incarnate.

And oh yeah, then there was one of the other presents in the package:

Yeah, that pretty much takes care of it without even having to read the Little Golden Book of Episode V.

As you're reading this post, those of you who aren't my friend are probably thinking "Remind me never to get you a present, Vance, if this is how you thank a person," and those of you who are my friend are probably thinking "Oh shit, I really fucked up." Nonsense. I do love the presents, and what I'm really doing here is grappling with the notion of how we are expected to preserve the purity of our child's viewing experiences when society is basically conspiring to spoil things for them all the time. Darth Vader and Son is actually displayed prominently at a number of bookstores we visit, and I've had it in my hand and flipped through its pages a couple times (which is one of the reasons I was so glad to get it). But that also means that this bookstore has no regard for a child who may have already seen Star Wars but not yet Empire, and who can reasonably recognize that little tyke in the picture as a snowcone-eating Luke Skywalker. Society no longer considers it reasonable or even possible to preserve the "No, I am your father" moment. Even by writing this post I am assuming you don't need to have that secret kept from you.

And it's nothing new. Many spoilers have become so normalized in culture that it's just assumed that people now them by this point. I mean, surely many of us saw Citizen Kane already knowing that Rosebud was a sled, or saw Soylent Green already knowing that (yeah, I already didn't spoil that in a post earlier this week because I actually did spoil that for my wife before we both watched it for the first time). Interestingly, I'm noting right now that Citizen Kane came out almost exactly the same number of years before I was born (32) as Star Wars came out before my son was born (33). God, that really makes me feel old.

So the point is, there are certain movies that come pre-spoiled, and I think Star Wars (or more correctly, The Empire Strikes Back) is probably one of those. When my son does finally watch The Empire Strikes Back, maybe as a present for turning six in August, it won't matter to him that he already knows the film's big surprise. He'll just love that he's seeing lightsabers and blasters and ships and stormtroopers. A spoiler involving a moment of soap opera melodrama would probably be lost on him whether he knew it beforehand or not, and he certainly won't be sophisticated enough to perceive it as a moment of ruined surprise that should cause him disappointment. In fact, you really only deal with that being an issue when someone becomes a blase early teenager, and all they want to do is express disdain and contempt over the fact that they were supposed to be surprised by something but were not. "Yawn, boring, already knew that," this teenager might say.

Well, my son will not be a teenager when he sees these movies for the first time. And the dopey grin he will wear will probably be unchanged by knowing that Darth Vader's sperm created Luke Skywalker, or even that Darth Vader was once a shitty little pipsqueak running around on Tatooine a long time before that.

In a way these books might even pave the way for an earlier viewing. Once he has grappled with the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and the likes in these books, the revelations of those plot elements in the actual movies will not shock him. It'll just be the glorious moving realization of that giant neon concept in his brain known as STAR WARS.

Maybe I'll convince my wife we don't even have to wait until he's six.


Wendell Ottley said...

I completely understand where you're coming from. Kinda sorta binge watching the series with my tweenage daughter. By that I mean, if I ask her to watch with me, she'll say no, but if I just put it on, she will eventually just plop down on the couch next to me. I purposely started with A New Hope, as it's now called, to avoid spoiling Empire. Still trying to figure a good time for dropping that one on her. Great post.

Don Handsome said...

Yeah yeah...great post. And your friend is a complete nutter for not seeing how he/she spoiled everything. If I were he/she, I would be bummed out right now...

But it IS sort of funny how your friend - who I can probably assume is a very sensitive and attentive person with kids of his/her own who have seen Star Wars - would assume that there are no spoilers that needed protecting here. I think the secrets of Star Wars are so ingrained in us that they don't feel like secrets anymore, yet I still stop to watch the big reveal at the end of Empire with the same sort of wide-eyed befuddlement that I brought to the film the first time I saw it. And I've noticed that my children (who have also seen star wars) are the same way. Maybe its not the secrets that need protecting...maybe its just the magic. Whenever your malnourished (cinematically, I mean) brood gets around to watching the Holy Trilogy, they will be absolutely blown away by it because it works on a gut level. My kids ALREADY knew the secret because they knew who Anakin was from cartoons, lego sets, readers, etc. and they were still really into it...because the surprise doesn't really matter.

So maybe you should just lay the hell off your friend and appreciate how awesome the artwork is in those Little Golden Books and how funny that Vader and Son book is...

Also...Merry Christmas! Love you.

Derek Armstrong said...

Star Wars was always called A New Hope, they tell me ... yeah, just like it was originally called Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Don, the artwork IS beautiful and we love the books. Given the various poorly written Ben Tens and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other similar books we've been forced to read lately, these Star Wars books are a real pleasure. They have gorgeous art and they are written with an economy that makes them downright elegant, while not focusing too heavily on characters dying (a lot of nice euphemisms there). They are an instant upgrade to our rotation of reading material, so thanks ... to whoever sent them to us, that is.