Given the current political climate, sometimes burying my head in the sand feels like breathing fresh air.
That’s how I felt yesterday when, instead of seeing I Am Not Your Negro – a documentary about the author James Baldwin and his vision of race in America – I saw John Wick: Chapter 2, Keanu Reeves’ newest piece of fun action schlock.
But as I biked to the theater, a thought occurred to me: “I have English and Film degrees, and a commitment to social justice. So why am I choosing Reeves over Baldwin?”
The answer, of course, is that escapism feels good. It also goes hand-in-hand with privilege, given that my life as a middle-class white cis man isn’t under attack. For those without my same privileges, escapism may not be an option. After all, how can you justify escaping into cinematic violence when you are the target of actual violence?
Critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would argue that pop culture like John Wick exists to keep society passive. As long as we’re entertained, we won’t stir up trouble, right?
But spending time with pop culture can also be an act of self-care, necessary for activists who want to keep fighting the good fight without getting burnt out. As feminist Audre Lorde once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Now, I don’t know that stylized action movies about international assassin networks fall under Lorde’s definition of revolutionary self-care, but they do provide a two-hour breather from the real world and, in doing so, restore one’s energy for activism. They stave off the exhaustion of carrying the whole smoldering world on one’s shoulders.
Avoiding activist burnout is hard, but it’s absolutely vital. And escapist pop culture can be one way to accomplish that.
However, a full retreat into escapist pop culture is good for no one. It can be rejuvenating when consumed responsibly. But, in excess, it shuts out one’s ability to engage with and change the real world. (The Guardian published a great article warning about this phenomenon). Taken to the extreme, self-care can become exactly what Adorno and Horkheimer feared – a weapon for pacifying the masses.
The question becomes, where do we draw the line between escapist restoration and escapist disengagement? I don’t have an answer, but I know that finding this balance will be necessary over the next four years.