One of the remaining acceptable targets of derision – in fiction as well as reality – is the so-called “spoiled” person. The phrase is often used in one of three ways: 1. on its own (i.e. The child has been spoiled by her grandmother.); 2. spoiled brat (i.e. She is being a spoiled brat – let her calm down a bit.); and finally rather nastily as “spoiled rotten” (i.e. She was spoiled rotten growing up – blame her grandmother.)
No matter how one feels about the people so described, the word itself is quite alarming. The term “spoiled” is a synonym for “ruined”, “wrecked”, “damaged beyond repair”, “rotten”, etc. To put it bluntly, to label anything as spoiled means there is no hope for it to be restored. Spoiled food gets thrown out. Other uses of spoiled – for surprises, plotlines, performances, etc. – refer to something being ruined to the point of being nullified.
Added together, “spoiled rotten” is an oxymoron really only serving as a double condemnation. Someone who is “spoiled rotten” is considered beyond redemption in adulthood and doomed to a severe comeuppance in childhood. We are expected to cheer when a spoiled rotten character gets their comeuppance or meets their demise.
Writing off those who are supposedly spoiled rotten is a horrible thing to do, but it is understandable. Presumably, said person is highly frustrating, annoying, and selfish. They may even be intentionally mean to others. However, by considering them rotten, others cannot help them to change, and they really have little hope of being accepted if they do attempt to change if they perceive that everyone has written them off already. Nor does their horrible behaviour warrant the treatment that they often receive: lack of help when needed, truly horrifying experiences, and being laughed at and mocked for “finally getting what they deserve”.
Because they don’t deserve it.
Initially, “spoiled” refers to children, sometimes even endearingly. Despite the term’s implications, it is understood that a spoiled child can be redeemed. They will grow out of their selfishness. They will learn the value of money someday. “Spoiling” a child is even seen as a positive thing when done by grandparents or other relatives – giving treats and gifts that their parents may not be able to afford and leaving discipline to their parents.
What is missing is that for the most part, adults who are supposedly spoiled have been treated as such since they were children. Perhaps they are an only child. Perhaps they were ill for a long time during childhood, missing critical stages. Perhaps their parents gave them presents instead of love, leaving a void in their child’s heart. Perhaps they are truly brought up to believe that they are special and more deserving than others. Many of the characters that we are so happy to see get their comeuppance truly have a myopic view of the world that they live in. The visceral joy that the audience feels when they get their comeuppance has mostly to do with what elements the audience lacks.
In other words, it comes down to envy. The classic spoiled rotten character displays many characteristics that are envied by the average person:
- They are often only children. Growing up not having to share with siblings and having a lot of adult attention, only children can appear to have more material goods, parental attention, and opportunities to excel than those with siblings. While all children have to live on the schedule of others, only children have their needs met faster, rarely having to “wait their turn”. This can be seen as cheating, even if it is not the fault of the child (or even their parents). If they are not only children, they are often the youngest instead.
- They are often wealthy, or at least well-off. Paradoxically, children born into privilege are seen as cheating the system, even though they have no more control over the circumstances of their birth than anyone else, while those who make their fortune later in life are seen as rightfully earning it, even if they cheat others to do so.
- They are usually in positions of power, born into such by virtue of wealth, class, ethnicity, and personality traits. Examples include members of the nobility, slave-owners, children of powerful business moguls, and more. The system is (or seems to be) on their side, not that of the plucky hero.
What is problematic is that none of these traits are through the fault of the person in question. No one has any control over their parents, genes, place of birth, or spot in the social order. Furthermore, merely being an only child, youngest child, well-off, or offspring of powerful parents does not mean one is spoiled by default. It certainly does not mean that such a character is devoid of sympathy or beyond redemption. It is not enough to simply sigh, shake ones head, and cluck away about how it was their parents’ fault, either. It does no good to say “Well, she was beyond hope. Her parents spoiled her rotten. She was never going to survive in the real world.” That is treating a human being like an escaped pet.
Even those characters who are kind, polite, considerate, and well-behaved are accused of being spoiled, simply because of their privileged background, naivete, or perceived luck on the part of the audience. In this case, it is also a matter of how smart the audience feels: they are educated enough to know how privileged they are.
In sum, the term “spoiled” is part of our vocabulary and likely quite useful for describing children, but it has become so commonplace that it has lost much of its meaning and gravity. Really being “spoiled rotten” is a tragedy and must be deserving of compassion and education.
Even as much as it is cathartic to see the nasty little rich girl get her pretty dress ruined…or worse…