Posts by Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein

I'm a blogger, social media manager, mum, film fan, feminist and food freak in any order you like. I will shoehorn Disney into any conversation. Follow me @mokuska.
Man watching TV with his back to the camera

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.]

What The Favourite can teach us about female representation in popular cinema

Women’s stories can be very different from men’s. But are women themselves? Popular female storytelling in film, particularly in the hands of men, is so often disappointingly predictable and narrow: strength is translated in the main as physical, motivation stems from trauma. When a director – with the best intentions – dismisses the impact of gender, race or sexuality, saying they don’t want it to get in the way of telling a human tale, it’s so often a recipe for disaster. At worst, women are written as walking mouthpieces for their issues; at best, their behaviour is still so often tightly laced into restrictive stereotypes.

Enter The Favourite, equipped to change the game with a nuance and subtlety that contrasts gleefully with its coarse dialogue and visually arresting style. Continue reading →

The pain chronicles part 2: back to the future

I should have called the last part ‘requiem for a disc’, shouldn’t I? If you’re joining me for the first time here and you really like extended medical stories about back surgery, do I have a 3,500-word treat for you! Otherwise, if you a) already read that, b) don’t care or c) just want to get straight to the stuff about how I live with pain now, two surgeries later, as well as yet more extended medical stories then do settle in.

I’ll start with a list of things that I used to do without thinking, and which now give me pause. This is not for sympathy, but relatability for those with a list of their own – and a chance for those with no list to maybe register how life might look different for that friend, relative, colleague or random stranger on the bus. Continue reading →

The pain chronicles part 1: surgery for a slipped disc

The most common question I get asked about my back problems is “how did you slip your disc?”. And I usually reply: “I stood up”.

Over the years I’ve told bits of the story, always in person, to individuals. I want to write much more about how I deal with pain now, what it means now. But to do that, I find I need to explain the history first. And it’s a good medical story. Who doesn’t love a good medical story? Continue reading →

2019: A new year, a new word

Usually I know what my word of the year is likely to be a good month or so before I get to writing my posts on the matter. This year inspiration has gone right to the wire; it only really hit me a day or so ago.

It’s my seventh year of choosing one, and you can read about years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 here (I don’t think I wrote about 2014’s Creativity or 2013’s Decisiveness). I still feel largely pleased with my year of ‘Do’, but I’m conflicted because the things I thought I would have done, I didn’t – and other things I didn’t expect to happen, did.

I don’t like to make excuses. Scratch that, I love to make excuses, but I know they don’t fly. When I think through last year’s mental To Do list, it’s mixed results. Continue reading →

Three Christmas wishes for my eight-year-old daughter

Child!

Oh, Child. I feel I should start this with an apology (and not for calling you pet names that drive you mad, because that’s still slightly funny). 🤷🏻‍♀️

I’m sorry you inherited my anxious tendencies. I still remember when it first became obvious my cunning plan to not be myself around you had failed: when, as a toddler, you started to charmingly call out “Be careful, Mummy! Be careful, Daddy!” from the back seat of the car.

Oops. Continue reading →

Why I still don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up

I’m no longer inspired by people who always knew exactly what they wanted to do.

Well, to clarify: I am inspired by their work, and their passion, and sometimes even by some of their process. But given than I’m 38 and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do “when I grow up”, I no longer seek out stories that start with “I told my nursery school teacher that I was going to be an actress”. Continue reading →