No shame in chan­nel change

Tun­ing out pol­i­tics and tun­ing in to pop cul­ture isn’t just a guilty plea­sure. Do­ing so can help keep our minds from ex­plod­ing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR

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 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, such as phone calls to rep­re­sen­ta­tives and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Women’s March. 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. “And I was just won­der­ing, how do you cal­i­brate your time, and think that we should cal­i­brate our time now in this new sit­u­a­tion?”

Brit­ton re­sponded, “I’ve been think­ing about the ex­act same thing . . . . I think we’re all fig­ur­ing it out.”

Six months later, the Wash­ing­ton news cy­cle rages on both sides of the aisle, with con­stant head­lines about health care and Don­ald Trump Jr.’s emails. Po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism is es­pe­cially alive in lib­eral ar­eas such as Wash­ing­ton, a city where a third of the peo­ple have protested Trump, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post poll. And some still wres­tle with the idea that it’s okay 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’s words struck a chord. And they hit a big­ger nerve the next day, when I tweeted a tran­script of her quote. 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.”

“To me, it en­cap­su­lated and dis­tilled a fairly com­plex idea into a sim­ple one,” said Mike Noth­nagel, 42, of Pough­keep­sie, N.Y. “The world is a chal­leng­ing and se­ri­ous place, but you have things you like that can help you nav­i­gate it.”

Ni­cola Has­s­apis, 28, of Bos­ton said she con­nected with the metaphor be­cause she has been try­ing to rec­on­cile the need to take a men­tal break — sit­ting out a protest, clos­ing Twit­ter — with guilt that ac­com­pa­nies the urge to step away from the news. Holmes’s quote, she said, “felt like a val­i­da­tion of the idea that con­sum­ing pop cul­ture doesn’t have to be this shame­ful thing we do when our fo­cus should be else­where.

“I think that’s some­thing peo­ple need to hear in the era of the 24-hour news cy­cle, par­tic­u­larly at a time when anx­i­eties re­lated to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion are run­ning high,” she added. “Be­ing an ef­fec­tive ac­tivist, ad­vo­cate and ally isn’t con­tin­gent on be­ing plugged in all the time, de­spite in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal pres­sure for peo­ple to be­lieve the con­trary.”

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. Katy Perry tried to be woke.

But many yearn for es­capism more than ever. Even if, as Has­s­apis im­plies, 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.

It’s a conundrum that has been around for cen­turies. Paul Levin­son, an au­thor and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and me­dia stud­ies at Ford­ham Univer­sity, says it goes back to the days of Plato, who was very crit­i­cal of mu­sic and po­etry be­cause he thought it dis­tracted so­ci­ety from more im­por­tant things.

Plenty of oth­ers ar­gue the op­po­site: For us to be fully ef­fec­tive as a hu­mans, en­ter­tain­ment is a crit­i­cal out­let, be­cause oth­er­wise we might just be ru­mi­nat­ing on all the prob­lems in the world, send­ing our minds into down­ward spi­rals.

At the same time, Levin­son said, he doesn’t want to sell leisure ac­tiv­i­ties short by say­ing the only value is to help pre­pare peo­ple for more “se­ri­ous” en­deav­ors.

“When peo­ple say, ‘Why are you go­ing off in this [fan­tasy land] when there are real crises out there?’ There’s no con­flict be­tween pur­suits,” Levin­son said.

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. Your mind won’t be in a good space,” Rei­necke said.

Kathy Doyle Thomas, the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief strat­egy of­fi­cer for the Dal­las-based chain Half Price Books, said that in ad­di­tion to nov­els be­ing an es­cape, she has seen an in­crease in cus­tomers shop­ping for books that will in­spire them — about peo­ple do­ing good work, or how to get in­volved in the com­mu­nity. If read­ers are more in­ter­ested in the “50 Shades of Grey” fran­chise, she ap­plauds that, too.

“We need pop cul­ture. We need ‘The Bach­e­lor.’ We need what­ever is the new thing, the new TV hit show, we need that,” 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.”

“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.” Kathy Doyle Thomas, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Half Price Books

Some­times, pop cul­ture of­fers the op­po­site of es­cape. Hulu’s adap­ta­tion of Mar­garet At­wood’s 1985 novel “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” about a dystopian fu­ture where women have no rights, de­buted in April; it re­cently landed 13 Emmy nom­i­na­tions, in­clud­ing out­stand­ing drama se­ries. Ear­lier this sum­mer, pro­test­ers ar­rived at Capi­tol Hill wearing the rec­og­niz­able “Hand­maid” uni­forms of red cloaks and white bon­nets, to protest the Se­nate’s health-care bill, which would slash fund­ing for women’s health.

Deirdre Costello, 34, watched the first three episodes be­fore she had to stop.

“The book was al­ways scary to me, but be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, the show hit home in a way that I found just too ter­ri­fy­ing,” she said. “I spent more time hid­ing un­der a blan­ket than I spent ac­tu­ally watch­ing the show, and I re­al­ized I just couldn’t do it.”

Costello, who lives out­side Bos­ton, said the three-month stretch be­tween the elec­tion and the in­au­gu­ra­tion left her ex­hausted: “I started re­ally tak­ing to heart nar­ra­tives about self­care.” Costello and her hus­band are still po­lit­i­cally in­volved — and can’t quite stop scrolling through news on­line while watch­ing TV — but make an ef­fort to choose shows with an el­e­ment of hu­mor, such as Net­flix’s “GLOW” or “Orange Is the New Black.”

“I need that time,” she said. “I need a few laughs.”

It’s a com­mon feel­ing — which is why quite a few con­nected so deeply with Holmes’s metaphor, need­ing re­as­sur­ance that it’s not only fine, but nec­es­sary, to tune out when the world is too over­whelm­ing. Tak­ing a break from cur­rent events doesn’t mean you’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion.

“We know ra­tio­nally that this kind of blackand-white think­ing isn’t real­is­tic or sus­tain­able — hu­mans aren’t ma­chines — but we buy into the false di­chotomy any­way. And not only do we beat our­selves up about it, we judge other peo­ple for it,” Has­s­apis said. “There are a lot of things to worry about right now, but tak­ing 45 min­utes to watch an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on Net­flix shouldn’t be one of them.”

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY RUNE FISKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY RUNE FISKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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