In defense of escapism: Why it’s OK to flip away from news
The line to ask Connie Britton a question stretched down the aisle at the theater in the National Museum of Natural History, where the “Nashville” and “Friday Night Lights” star was onstage for a Smithsonian Associates event. It was January, 10 days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Sarah Leavitt of Silver Spring, Md., approached the microphone: “I just wanted a little life advice tonight.”
Leavitt, 46, explained that she felt overwhelmed by a barrage of news since Trump took office, including the volume of opportunity for activism. A few days earlier, she bailed on plans with friends to see “Dirty Dancing” on the big screen — it didn’t feel right on the same night that people were storming airports to protest Trump’s executive order for a Muslim travel ban.
“I can’t understand how to talk about pop culture and how to be a citizen in this world that we’re in at the same time,” Leavitt said.
Britton responded, “I’ve been thinking about the exact same thing … I think we’re all figuring it out.”
Six months later, the Washington, D.C., news cycle rages on both sides of the aisle, with constant headlines about health care and Donald Trump Jr.’s emails.
And some still wrestle with the idea that it’s OK to step away. Binge-watch a show. See a movie. Listen to a podcast. Deep down, it’s easy to feel as though you’re doing something wrong for not focusing enough attention on serious issues.
After Britton’s response, the Q&A moderator, NPR writer and “Pop Culture Happy Hour” host Linda Holmes, had a metaphor to share:
“Did you see ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon? He’s got a big thing he’s trying to solve, which is that he’s stuck on Mars and he has to get back to Earth. And they spent a lot of time in the movie on the fact that he has to figure out how to grow potatoes on Mars. The potatoes on Mars do not actually get him back to Earth. He’s not actually solving the problem. But if he doesn’t have potatoes, he’s not going to live long enough to solve the problem and get back to Earth.”
She continued: “So, to me, my hope is, the songs that you love, the books that you love, the TV that you love, the conversations that you have about people that are kind of nourishing to you, help you — those are your potatoes … and you have to have that stuff in order to make it long enough to get back to Earth.”
Judging by the applause from the audience, Holmes’ words struck a chord. It was retweeted thousands of times and responses poured in, with sentiments along the lines of, “This made me cry” and “I really needed to hear this right now.”
When politics has seemingly taken over the culture, the instinct is for everything — even in entertainment — to have a political angle. Broadcast TV networks courted pilots for the fall that might connect to “Trump’s America.” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” are seeing record ratings as they zero in on the administration.
But many yearn for escapism more than ever. Even if some people are worried they’ll be judged if they admit they missed a major story to watch a “House Hunters” marathon, or turned off cable news in favor of reading the “Harry Potter” book they’ve already read 10 times.
Experts also emphasize the importance of letting your mind take a break. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, recommends not only seeking out entertainment that brings you joy, but doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment.
“If you sit and dwell and ruminate about troubling things in the world, your mood will decline, you’ll feel terrible, you’ll feel overwhelmed,” Reinecke said.
“We need pop culture. We need ‘The Bachelor,’ ” Thomas said. “The country’s separated right now, it’s split. There are people on both sides, and so there has to be a nice place for people to talk about things and read about things, and that is where pop culture and lighter fare comes in.”
“There are a lot of things to worry about right now,” Nicola Hassapis of Boston tweeted. “But taking 45 minutes to watch an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on Netflix shouldn’t be one of them.”
From left: Beck Bennett as Vice President Pence, Alec Baldwin as President Trump, Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway, Alex Moffat as Eric Trump and Mikey Day as Donald Trump Jr., on “Saturday Night Live.”