Do we partake in entertainment–watching films, playing games, reading books–in order to escape reality or help understand reality?
That question sure seems mutually exclusive, but it’s something that people tend not to think about most of the time until politics rears its draconian head: how often do you hear “I don’t want politics in my football” or “keep your feminism out of my games” or “stop pushing your agenda in my television.”
The people raising those complaints are definitely in the ‘escape’ camp. When they turn on the baseball game, they don’t want to think about their problems or muse about the recent topics in the news. They just want to watch some dudes play a game and engross themselves into some lighthearted entertainment. When they watch the newest Star Wars, they don’t want to see thinly-veiled political commentary: they just want to see Kylo Ren’s chest muscles gleaming in the starlight.
On the other hand, the best media helps us process trauma, connect with others, and explore what it means to be human. By definition, that cannot occur without tackling difficult conflict. Escapism isn’t only about politics, after all; some consume media in order to take their minds off a death in the family, or worry about disease, or to attempt to forget something unforgettable. Those who argue that we consume media in order to understand reality point out the utter silliness and impossibility for media to ignore troublesome or thorny topics, and assert that it is far more healthy to process a loss than to actively ignore it and allow it to fester.
I certainly empathize with the escapists’ point. Escapism is important in a modern culture where harsh news is just a click away and digital conflict can be prompted with a single scroll of a mouse. The world is full of awful things, and good things are a welcome and necessary respite. For instance, if you’re sick of Trump, it’s almost impossible to avoid him, so you probably don’t want to see pontifications on Trumpian policies anywhere or
I also empathize with the other point. We can process pain, loss, and difficulties through media. It helps us explore our emotions in a safe space, a space that is fictional. It lets us try out methods of coping by living vicariously through the characters, and so helps us decide what we ought to do in our own lives. Fiction also puts characters in situations that stress their humanity in ways that we never will experience; sci-fi and fantasy are particularly great at this.
However, I do not think that both ideas are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, we want to escape, and some media does a great job of escaping. Sometimes, we want to experience catharsis, to sit in emotion and process it.
But also I think that there can be a kind of catharsis through escapism. We can avoid our own problems by immersing ourselves in other people’s problems. And even if the conflicts happen to be similar to what we’re going through, it’s different because we actively recognize it as fiction.
Regardless, we keep coming back to fiction and other entertainment. It does something for us that we can’t or don’t get elsewhere. And what you get out of it is deeply personal. Maybe that’s why it is important.