Escape and Awareness

*This is an article I wrote recently to show to a local magazine*

I’m fascinated by my youngest sister’s character. We’re 8 years apart, but sometimes it feels like I’m several generations older. It becomes clearest when we’re talking technology: she’s never known a world without computers or television, but when I was a kid, my family owned neither.

She’s also into fantasy, something I worry about. I’m not gonna lie; I judge anime fans. Not because I think anime is bad in itself, or because I’m a product of a society that looks down on any costumed culture that doesn’t involve barely-dressed women posing as nurses or playboy bunnies; No, I’ve arrived at a general unease with anime culture very slowly, over the past six or seven years, and through various friendships and acquaintances with [some very good] people who are anime or fantasy fans. My distrust comes from the insular, protected “bubble world” that many fans create, settle into, and rarely leave– a world that has very little contact with reality, and that expands beyond any one series to whole cybercommunities with fanfiction, fan art, and other forums that blur the line between watching, reading, writing, and living. It’s a world that cares little for social action, much less social justice: a cozy little bubble that doesn’t challenge its inhabitants; it indulges them.

I’m not arbitrarily hating on anime, which is something that many Americans do. To these people, anime stands as a symbol for an “East Asian” takeover of American culture and commodities. These people will likely find it very difficult to admit that the escapism that anime provides for many American adolescents is no different than the escapism that American television offers– which affects far more American adolescents than anime ever has.

It would also be a mistake to group my bias with our general cultural distaste for what we have deemed “nerd games” — Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Second Life, etc.* That’s just a symptom of America’s need to preserve an [increasingly fragile] ideal of the socially-adept independent man. (Yes, “man”– how often do you see girls in mocking portrayals of D&D?)

So, I use anime as my first example because it has been most visible in my friendships with fans. But my distrust of anime is the same as my distrust of Harry Potter, and any series that spawns conventions, internet alter-egos, fanfiction, fan art, etc, etc. Basically, my gripe is with the escapism itself.

In many ways, the escapism into mainstream television is worse, because it doesn’t carry the social stigma that anime and fantasy do. However–partly because of that stigma–fantasy and anime are more prone to creating self-contained worlds on the internet or elsewhere, devoted to their dramas. This is changing, of course; I’ve read more bloody posts about Dancing with the Stars/So You Think You Can Dance in the past two days than I hope to ever encounter again.

This may sound like nostalgia for a time that I never knew, but I don’t think that this applies to fantasy from more than 30 or 40 years ago. Lord of the Rings definitely spawned a subculture, costumes and alter-egos included, but with less-developed mass-marketing techniques and the lack of internet, LOTR never created the full, daily, and self-supporting fantasy facade.

My sister doesn’t “do” anime, but she reads a lot of fantasy, and not much else. She’s a voracious reader (which is something my 12-year-old self can identify with), but the vast majority of her reading material is fantasy series. When I pester her to read non-fantasy, she complains that the Young Adult sections of the bookstores are all about sex, boys, or vampires. …Okay, fair point. The writing in the Twilight series is nearly as bad as HP fanfiction written by a 14 year old. Also, I’m a bit proud that she hasn’t branched from fantasy to vampires.

However, even after reading some books I recommended [The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime]**, my sister seems to have a clear aversion some basic literary tenets: unhappy (or ambiguous) endings, any narrative style that doesn’t start with a description of a medieval-esque village, any regular ol’ coming of age story… etc.

Some of this is just her age– and of course I felt the same way at her age. You want to believe that your own life will have a happy ending, so you read up on them. But my sister has an option that I didn’t have: of staying in that fantasy world way into her adolescence, into her adulthood. And yeah, that scares me.

I mean, okay, I read Dealing with Dragons in 2nd grade and definitely had a brief love affair with ass-kicking princesses, but then I displaced my mystery/fantasy attractions onto Celtic and Irish culture (cultural “oops!” moment), and then was kicked into reality when my family filed for bankruptcy. And I don’t think you have to stop playing dress up when you’re an adult– but at 20, you can dress up for a multitude of awesome reasons (themed party? mood elevator?) that do not involve impersonating a comic character.

Then, the other day, my sister said something that clicked: something along the lines of “I don’t want to read a violent book.. then it’s just like watching TV.”

Oh. Duh.

What else would explain the rise of all-encompassing escapist media cultures? Not only do they offer the option to leave your own life behind and enter into the lives of characters, but you can rewrite their lives and plots to bring your personally preferred ending into “reality.” In a sick, sort of ironically American way, we’re bringing up a generation that’s more saturated with “reality” than any before– in the sense that they’re being exposed to mindless sex, mass violence, and all sorts of subtle visual and psychological messages about the meaninglessness and futility of the world, way earlier than any other generation of Americans.

Sure, television in the 1950’s was a facade as well, serving to reinforce all sorts of gender and racial stereotypes. But at least then a kid came face to face with reality through a personal experience–actually having awkward unsafe sex, getting in a physical fight–instead of having it ingrained from birth by both TV/movies as well as the news, which supposedly covers real life.***

For me, this was an important message for me as a writer. It’s dangerous to write too sentimentally (readers will not be able to reconcile the text with their own lives), but it’s also dangerous to indulge in violence and meaninglessness in the name of “realistic” writing. For my sister (and, I assume, most American kids born after her) there is another, far more appealing option just waiting on the computer.

I highly recommend “The Future of Reading: Digital Versus Print,” an article from a series in the New York Times about “how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read.”

The good news is that my sister seems to be embarking on a fascinating quest to balance escapism with awareness. When I introduced her to I Love Lucy, she became obsessed. She even tried convincing her science teacher to watch it– though the teacher, a 30-something who would have grown up with the more contemporary relationship to technology, claimed she “didn’t like things in black and white.”

The even better news is that when my sister and I watch I Love Lucy, we laugh hard and then yell in protest when something ridiculously sexist happens. Has anybody seen the episode where Lucy starves herself to be thin enough to perform in Ricky’s show, and has to be carried off in a stretcher at the end? Yes, hilarity. It used to be just me pointing out all the sexism on the show, but lately my sister has been bringing things up as well.

Makes me proud, it does.

__________

*Although I struggle with an underlying distaste for these game cultures in general, my hunch is that this is more of an internal struggle with growing up under the “nerd” label, and with my own desire for escapism.

** (yeah, she’s sort of an advanced reader)

*** I’m clearly underestimating the detriment that white racist sexist heteronormative television had on earlier generations. I only want to point out that it may have been better than today’s media culture in at least one way.

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5 Responses to “Escape and Awareness”


  1. 1 CWS July 31, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Those are some interesting points you raised but I’m not quite convinced by your argument. All literature is escapist to some degree – it’s even possible to “escape” into non-fiction, if you’re simply talking about escapism as entrance into a different “world” than the one you’re currently inhabiting.

    If you’re talking about escapism as a flight from “serious” or worldly subjects like work, relationships, the looming inevitability of death, etc. then I think you need to start by establishing – as I don’t think anyone’s done, that:

    a) there’s some intrinsic merit in mentally engaging with those things deliberately and consistently

    b) that Fantasy or other genres of high-imagination don’t allow one to engage with said subjects

    and

    c) that “quality lit.” or “serious fiction” or whatever you wish to call it provides such opportunities and has more to say about the important things.

    I’d argue that a lot of people spend their lives in ignorance or denial of life’s harsher realities and that it serves them just fine from a psychological standpoint (better than it seems to serve those who masochistically embrace them), that plenty of genre fiction has questions of mortality and morality bound up in it, and that a lot of highbrow literature, especially of a modern nature, can be as fantastical as any werewolf or vampire story, since it tends to depict not ordinary life and its humiliations as experienced by the average person, but rather the relatively shallow pseudo-intellectual hang-ups of campus or coffee house culture.

    What’s important is that people enjoy their reading. If they do, let them be.

  2. 2 John July 31, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Great essay. I don’t have a younger sister to worry about as you do, but I do have nieces and nephews that are around that age. I was ten when the first was born. While not big “readers”, they have sensory tools like most pre-teens and it’s disturbing to see just how easily they get sucked into this weird lifestyle. The sex thing has gotten out of hand, to be sure. It dawned on me when my niece shared some of her favourite songs with me, and they all have sexual connotations.

    Violence has always been a part of life though, but the seeming acceptance of it is what bothers me most. My nephews can watch a man getting murdered, and laugh about it, which is not uncommon, unfortunately.

    I wish I could give them books to read, like 451, but I don’t think they’d appreciate it too much, or understand much of the implications. It is the youtube generation, and like you I just missed it and I too notice the huge gap between myself and those just young enough to have had constant contact with technology. It is just an overload of information, so they have no real chance at a childhood, and they are exposed to “adult themes” far too early. I certainly wasn’t comparing porn sites when I was in grade 3.

    Yet we are part of this generation, whether we like it or not. We were still young enough to have a sense of the evolution of technology, and have it adapt to our lives in a way we didn’t imagine. I certainly never considered something like facebook when I first went on the web.

    Which brings me to my point; reading proper literature is dying out. No one wishes to read those stories for exactly the reasons you mention. It’s not a matter of not connecting to it, but an issue of “what’s the point”. We can watch hundreds of youtube videos a day, but it takes days, weeks, sometimes months to get through dense books. (Ulysses, I’m looking at you!) It’s just not in the cards for most. I’ll take solace in the fact that a few of the “just before overload” era seem to hanker for something more, something substantial.

    Again, great essay. Don’t be afraid of the “nerd” label, we’re the cool ones at the end of the day. We can actually comprehend reality.

  3. 3 Cole July 31, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Re: John

    Thanks for your comment 🙂 I think anyone who has lived through a cultural transition, like the one from print to digital, probably has a more complex perspective on it; unlike most kids, we can imagine things existing in a different way!

    Your point about violence is well-taken. Although there are many positive aspects of the internet, studies have repeatedly shown that it has had a negative effect on our perceptions of violence and tragedy.

  4. 4 Cole July 31, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Hi there, thanks very much for your feedback. You raise some good points– including a few that I was planning to write about in the post, but I decided against it because I didn’t want the piece to get too lengthy.

    Hopefully I’ll be able to write a more thorough expansion on the subject sometime, but for the moment here are a few brief stabs at your critiques:

    – While you’re right that all literature is escapist in some sense, I still assert that there’s a difference between “escaping temporarily into a novel” and “spending vast amounts of your time in an alternate ‘world’ of internet communities, role-playing, and fan-fiction, all of which extend way beyond the scope of the original book, and as a result can very seriously distance you from the physical world.

    – I never claimed that you should engage “deliberately and consistently” with “serious” things like work, relationships, or death. Part of my point in this post was that our generation is over-saturated with “worldly” things like violence, social drama, tragedy and death. And having those subjects constantly on your brain is absolutely unhealthy. I am arguing that there are multiple ways to counteract that over-saturation: some people choose fantasy escapism, and others turn off the TV and start a garden. I’m advocating for the second option, because it engages with reality (as in, the real, material world; the one that supplies your food and water) in a far healthier way.

    – I agree with you 100% that plenty of genre fiction has questions of morality and mortality in it, and that highbrow literature is often fantastical. Yeah, we’re on the same side for this issue; you should hear my rant about the value of science fiction and how its marginalized in the literary world.
    As stated in my post, I only take issue with escapism itself, especially the form that it takes today. The “world” of internet communities, role-playing, and fan-fiction is absolutely sustained by marketing, often exploits kids’ time and money, and definitely has a negative effect our functionality in the “real” everyday world. For example, did you read about the Korean government’s aid for gaming addictions, after a couple’s infant child died from neglect because the parents were constantly “living” their role-playing life instead? (article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/world/asia/29game.html).

    – Highbrow literature doesn’t necessarily tackle these issues in a healthier way, but at the very least it expands the reader’s grammar and vocabulary (don’t make fun of this point; I think this actually is a significant and valuable difference) and unlike fan-fiction, the reader doesn’t get to play God (which I think is a good thing). The primary difference between fantasy/anime and “highbrow literature” is that “highbrow literature” doesn’t try to sell a thousand marketing gimmicks, nor does it often result in alternate worlds that end after the book is done. That difference is what my post is talking about– other than that, I couldn’t care less if people choose Twilight over Jane Austen. (Actually, I might even choose Twilight over Jane Austen..)

    Phew. Thanks for your critiques; they were very helpful! I’ll make sure that the updated version of this piece covers the points that you raised.


  1. 1 Reflections: London Fashion Week « The Orchard Trackback on September 27, 2009 at 5:38 pm

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