The case against pure escapism

Is there a phrase more ready to suck the joy out of the room than “it’s pure escapism”?

Alright, perhaps not everyone dislikes it as heartily as I do. But there’s no description of any form of entertainment more guaranteed to put me off indulging in it or extending the conversation with the person in question. As a review it’s unhelpful and as an analysis it’s dismissive.

For a start, to describe something as ‘escapist’ is to rip the guts out of storytelling; to deny it has any other function, like education, inspiration, cultural examination or provoking a discussion. It’s as if the presence of a bunch of explosions or an overblown declaration of affection precludes any other function than blunt, brute feeling. Frankly, it’s an insult to good craft. As dull, stupid and manipulative as some films, books and TV shows can be, they’re rarely so entirely one note – and if they are, then they’re surely too clunking and foolish to help you escape anywhere.

If you mean “I didn’t think it was well made, but I got something out of it anyway” then say so. After all, I read all 2,100 Mary Sue pages of the All Souls trilogy for a reason. I can’t remember what it was, but I have to believe it was a good one.

There’s also more than a whiff of misogyny about it. While action movies certainly fall prey to the ‘escapist fantasy’ trap (where it’s often used to excuse questionable plot points – like, say, an intimate scene following the revelation of abuse), these dismissive terms are also frequently levelled at the light-hearted and romantic. They seem to be code word for “I don’t think I’m supposed to like this <insert female interest here> but I actually did a bit” and set the scene to damn the art with faint praise. Like using the term “chick lit” unironically or referring to your favourite TV show as a “guilty pleasure”, it marks us out as unable to enjoy certain stories – generally ones aimed at women – without feeling the need to justify ourselves and throw the creative under a bus. That is, perhaps, where we get to the kind of discussion that assumes that some of the more powerful consequences of a woman-centred, woman-led production like Russian Doll can only have been achieved by accident.

And really all these points ladder up to the big one: that you can smell the privilege a mile off. ‘Escapism’ is often used to excuse a problematic film. As with everyone who has ever engaged with entertainment, I enjoy plenty of things that come with a side order of some pretty uncomfortable isms; generally speaking the only way forward is to admit to it and recognise the cultural conditioning that surrounds that enjoyment. It doesn’t kill the enjoyment – if it did, our entertainment industries would be considerably more diverse already – but it does make it likely that you will make more thoughtful viewing, reading and listening choices in future and perhaps create richer art yourself. At heart, it’s unkind to the target, and complicit in the offensive culture, not to at least acknowledge that there are reasons why they might be less keen on it, and why your enjoyment of it doesn’t balance that out. But, as my lovely friend Deborah pointed out in a Twitter chat about this very subject, brushing sexist jokes, homophobic caricatures or ableist narratives under the carpet because it’s an ‘escape’ really only makes it one for those who never consider getting away from those things in the first place.

Obviously, then, it is not about denying the power of entertainment as a means of escape. It’s about recognising that when that escape is central to our recommendation and recall of a film, it both takes all the wind out of its sails and encourages a culture of seeing art – particularly art produced for screens of all sizes – as disposable. This, ultimately, cannot be good for the diet of cultural output we’re asked to consume; if ‘pure escapism’ is a goal for anything other than a meditation retreat, then it is likely to be bad art. We don’t need to set the bar for consumption high with every single viewing; if after a long, hard day you’re watching something merely to float along on its least challenging level, no-one can call that unacceptable. But if you’re creating it – putting blood, sweat, tears, time and money into it, engaging other people in it and expecting satisfaction from it – then where does your spark and energy and passion for creating something of quality come from? How do you even have an idea if the entire story is just about feeling like you’re somewhere else?

‘Pure escapism’ is how we get to the argument that people want ‘entertaining stories without any politics’ as if stories are told in a vacuum and politics do not affect every minute of our lives whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. We reveal the dark and dangerous undercurrents in children’s stories – just think about Red Riding Hood critically for a goddamn minute and then watch The Company of Wolves – as if it’s a surprise to us to discover that a simple tale can hide multitudes. J.K. Rowling, for all her relentless retro-tinkering, did not fail to put a very clear moral at the heart of Harry Potter, and it’s astonishing to me that people could read it or watch the films and assume that there was nothing more to it than a bunch of happy kids doing spells for no reason. Even those films that deliberately turn down the volume on drama – such as Paterson, which consciously eschewed any conflict at all – do so in order to make some sort of commentary (and can only succeed in it because most films centre conflict and its resolution as essential story beats). The idea that superhero movies – particularly those based on comic books created by Jewish men in post-WWII America! – are just explosions and occasionally snogs… I can’t understand where the people who watched them missed the overt discussion about different ways of seeing the world and the people in it, as pawns or as individuals of value simply by virtue of their humanity.

When we demand only art that doesn’t make us think, eventually we relieve ourselves of the duty of thinking. I can’t imagine that’ll lead us anywhere good.

[Header image: stock photography of a the back of a man’s head, with a TV screen in front of him.]

One Comment

  1. I have checked my brain at the door for some films just to get through them (Hardcore Henry leaps to mind as the standard-bearer for me). I admit to film snobbery in that I need a story of some sort. I need to engage with a film and I don’t particularly care what genre it is. I sit through the credits of almost every single film, marveling at the small city full of people who made it happen. And those aren’t even all of them when you think about it.

    I really appreciate this perspective because (yes, even with Hardcore Henry) I am always mindful of the number of people involved in creating whatever it is that I just got to consume. But I’ve never thought about the term ‘escapism’ this way. It really is deeply dismissive. If I like something or don’t like something, I need to use actual words to talk about it, not some hand-wave brush-off cover up.


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