Escapist entertainment isn’t the enemy

The Super Bowl just happened, and with it, that time of year where lots of people who don’t like professional sports make smug comments about “sportsball” (I thought this was funny and clever the first time I heard it, but that was hundreds of “sportsball” comments ago) and complain about people paying too much attention to the Super Bowl and not enough to more important things.

I’m not into professional sports. I followed them a little bit as a kid, but I never have as an adult. I actually didn’t know which teams were in the Super Bowl a week before the game, even though one of them was my home team. However, I get pretty tired of people complaining how pointless the Super Bowl and other major sports events are.

In 2012 I went to medic four days of protests at the NATO Summit in Chicago. It was deeply traumatic, and when I got back, I was reeling from it for quite a while. And over the next few months, I obsessively watched the A-Team. I loved watching the show, watched two or three episodes a day, in all its cheesy, poorly-acted glory. As my spouse pointed out, there was some obvious logic going on – at its heart, the A-Team is about a group of people resisting unjust authority, and that was something I sorely needed at that time. But there’s a lot of prestige media that has some sort of theme about resisting unjust authority, and there’s also no shortage of real-life stories (many of which I was actively avoiding at the time) about people resisting unjust authority that I could have been reading or watching. So why the A-Team? Because it was about resisting unjust authority and it was escapist, and it was fun. I wasn’t looking for something that hit too close to home. I was looking for something ludicrous and entertaining.

When I was in my early and mid teens I was a bit of a snob about media. I scorned summer blockbuster movies and anything in the “action” section of the movie rental store, and headed straight for the “drama” section, looking for serious plots about topics like war or the meaning of life. I didn’t watch popular TV shows. The music that I genuinely loved was mostly critically well-reviewed, but I’d deny that I liked top-40 type songs even when I kind of did. I would I read popular genre fiction – for some reason I never had the level of snobbery about books that I did about other media – but also forced myself to read a bunch of Serious Literature, even when I didn’t like it, because I believed that it was Good (this culminated in an ill-fated attempt to read Finnegan’s Wake, one of the few novels I’ve ever started and not finished). I had my more, er, mainstream tastes – I liked watching pro wrestling with my dad – but basically I was seeking out media that would give me Important Messages and Meaningful Experiences.

My tastes in entertainment are so much more escapist as an adult than they ever were when I was younger. Not that I don’t ever get Important Messages or Meaningful Experiences out of it – I find plenty of serious content that makes me think in Marvel movies and Dresden Files novels – but I no longer have much interest in gritty realism for the sake of gritty realism, or seriousness for the sake of seriousness. I like screwball comedies (well, some of them anyway) now. I like a lot more fluff and pulp mixed in with my serious, thoughtful content, I have to be in the right mood for anything really emotionally intense, and I care a lot more about pure fun.

What happened? My real life got a lot more gritty realism in it, that’s what happened. There’s the ordinary gritty realism like stressing about work, paying the bills, coping with one’s own or one’s partner’s illnesses and injuries. But beyond that, increasing activism introduced a lot of gritty realism into my life. I saw people in desperate conditions. I saw people in positions of trust commit violence against the people they were supposed to serve. Through hotline work, I talked to dozens, by now probably hundreds, of people who had been sexually assaulted or raped, some of whom were suicidal, or trapped in abusive situations, or children (or all of the above). Through LGBTQ legal helpline work I talked to people who had been discriminated against, who had been gay/bi/trans-bashed, who were being tortured in prison by guards or fellow inmates. I don’t want to make it sound as grim as it probably does, because I get tremendous satisfaction working with all those people, addressing their physical or emotional injuries, helping them recover or protect themselves or stick up for themselves or just make their own lives better. It’s amazing when that happens, when I know I’ve made a difference, and it happens more than enough to motivate me to keep doing it. But it can also be very intense. Hence, the appeal of escapist entertainment.

Other people have their gritty realities too – some, for reasons of class, race, and so on, have much less choice about certain gritty realities than I do. And in my experience, most people – geeks and committed activists, the two groups I tend to see complain about sports events a lot, no less than others – have their diversions, their escapes from regular life. Maybe, like me, you’re not into professional or college sports. Maybe instead you’re into a TV or literature fandom (or ALL of the fandoms!). Maybe you write fanfic or make fanvids. Maybe you do CrossFit. Maybe you really like knitting and crocheting, with yarn that you spun yourself. Maybe you really like tabletop RPGs, or board games, or video games. Maybe you’re a burner. Heck, maybe for you, artsy indie movies and award-winning “literary” fiction are your fun escape or diversion, and that’s fine too, I’m not trying to pull some sort of reverse-snobbery thing here.

I get that it’s annoying when the Super Bowl (or the World Series, or March Madness, or whatever) takes over everything for a while and you feel alienated and left out. But I don’t think being snobby about it serves anything. And I really don’t think assuming that other people are silly, unintelligent, uncultured, or brainwashed, because of their entertainment and hobbies, serves anything. Escapist fun isn’t wrong or mockworthy. And it’s not inherently the enemy of caring about what’s going on in the world.

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2 comments to Escapist entertainment isn’t the enemy

  • astringer

    With all due respect, I think that part of the resentment of sports is not that it’s silly escapism per se, but rather that it’s silly escapism that nevertheless demands to be taken seriously. The A-Team is not a billion-dollar business that snarls traffic during sweeps week, and I’ve never been late to work because the city is throwing a parade for its actors. I’ve never been told that I should start following Babylon 5 to help advance my career. No one gets emotionally invested in the outcome of a knitting contest, and I’ve never had to ask someone to stop leaving a tabletop game every few minutes to check the most recent knitting competition results. Children don’t grow up wanting to emulate their favorite Dungeons and Dragons players, and schools don’t have programs devoted something as completely divorced from academics as Dungeons and Dragons. The President of the United States doesn’t call to congratulate the winner of Pokemon tournaments. And so on. I’m fine with silly escapism, but this is escapism that’s become part of the culture that other people are expected to pay attention to and respect. I don’t begrudge other people their escapism (and hope that they don’t begrudge me mine), but I don’t want to be involved in it.

    • lirael

      I think these are mostly reasonable points (I might dispute a few – I don’t have a problem with grade schools having sports any more than I have a problem with their having music or political or anime clubs, and while we don’t have parades for our actors, in some cities, movies being filmed regularly cause inconvenience to local residents), but your complaints aren’t really the complaints I’m responding to. I see a lot of people making generic “Look at me, I’m so cool for not knowing anything about ‘sportsball'” comments, and also, I see some number of activists every time there’s a major sports event who complain about how society pays so much attention to sports and not enough to sociopolitical issues.

      Contrast those with all the people on the Internet, some of whom are themselves sports fans, saying “Mayor Walsh, where are your priorities that you are placing more importance on a football parade than on getting the T running properly again or clearing snow out of the streets and crosswalks in poor and working-class neighborhoods?” (okay, most of them are using harsher wording than that). Or “It is bad that high school football coaches are paid so much more than teachers in some places.” Those complaints aren’t “The people who like sports are bad and wrong for liking something so frivolous.”

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