I, perhaps like many of you, have been in a funk recently. It’s hard not to feel down when the world feels divided, mad. Going on social media certainly doesn’t alleviate anything either, depending on your echo chamber of choice. And while we know how effective our favorite pop culture properties can be at providing an escape from all this nonsense, I’m worried that escapism may be failing us.
The way we approach our nerdy entertainment must undergo a philosophical change. Rather than thinking of our art as a distraction, we should think of entertainment as a weapon. Nerd culture may actually be giving us the social and emotional armature we need to deal with a world apparently descending into madness. Hidden in the scripts and code are practical concepts and tools can teach us how to be open-minded, compassionate individuals, a transformation that feels like the most effective coping tool.
When it comes to disengaging from reality, of course, we nerds have infinite worlds at our fingertips. Comic book movies have no end in sight. Star Wars is back and will continue, for better or for worse, indefinitely. Many video games are designed to last hundreds of hours. And we live in an age of television that is unmatched in longform storytelling. When it comes to having a night indoors, gleefully ignoring the problems of the world, tuning out politics in favor of fantasy, we have an embarrassment of riches.
The problem with escapism, however, is that it’s impossible. Sure, we can tune into Legion and zone out for a 70-minute stretch, but it won’t be long before we’re reminded of familiar circumstances. That’s the M.O. of sci-fi and fantasy fiction: it is a reflection of the real world. So just when you think it might be safe to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you may find that you’re watching a film about a younger generation spouting the rhetoric of the fascists that the previous generation fought so hard to quell, and all of a sudden you’re reminded of the real world, and you’re bummed all over again. But that should not be a bad thing.
Sci-fi and fantasy entertainment can actually arm and prepare us, provided we treat them as lessons instead of mindless distractions.
Consider Star Trek. The iconic show presents a wonderful world of warp-speed starships, holodecks, and other fantasy worlds we know we would love to live in. But Star Trek, much more than providing us a world into which we can escape, is explicitly presenting a form of social idealism. The characters in Star Trek (Next Generation most specifically) are all intelligent, reliant people who are eager to solve problems and have fundamental trust in one another. None of the protagonists are cynical, suspicious, or bitter; they are hard-working people who get along despite their personal beliefs, despite facing constant existential threats. They may be fantasy characters, but that is only because their aspirational virtues seem farfetched in 2017.
When I was young, I used to bristle at the word escapism. I wasn’t using films to escape necessarily. I was using them to remind myself that certain aspects of the world can be beautiful. I was embracing positivity, instead of escaping ugliness. The ideal worlds I was losing myself in were less about fleeing my drab reality, and more about expanding perspective. Making the shift was easy. All it required was a small cognitive pivot while consuming entertainment. Suddenly, I was looking at the things I love more critically and finding practical, practicable messages I had never considered.
In truly trying times, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment can actually arm and prepare us, provided we treat them as lessons instead of mindless distractions. Look to distant planets, medieval landscapes, and digitally rendered fantasy world for the mind-expanding ideas. Check out Ender’s Game, a story that lambasts war rather than glorifying it. Ponder the main characters in Star Wars — the heroes all love each other, and the villains all hate each other. You can even look at the glorious, clean, well-maintained alternate universe in Pokémon: Destiny Deoxys wherein we are given an idealized, inspiring, fully self-sustaining, wind-and-solar-powered metropolis as a setting. The fact that some of these concept are just out of reach right now shouldn’t be discouraging. They are hopeful. We have the means — emotional tools and weapons of logic — we just need to reach a little further.
Image: CBS; Lucasfilm