Escaping Escapism

“The problem with escapism, then, does not lie in escapist stories. It lies in readers who try to build a home inside them.”

Reeling from a particularly vicious head cold this midterm season, I set myself up in bed with Tylenol, Kleenex, popcorn, and a movie my roommate had recommended. As the opening credits began to play and the cold medication began to kick in, I established my expectations for the film. Like any other early 2000s rom-com, I guessed that Serendipity would be easy to follow, funny despite its undeniable cheesiness, and guaranteed to have a happy ending. I was not disappointed.

Serendipity follows the lives of Jonathan Trager and Sara Thomas, who meet one Christmas, go on a date together, part ways, and spend the next decade pining over what might have been. The title is drawn from Sara’s firm belief that fate directs all seemingly chance occurrences. This belief leads her to announce that she and Jonathan will find each other again if they are truly soulmates, and to leave New York without giving Jonathan her phone number or even her last name. Jonathan—fascinated by this living embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl stereotype—spends years trying to find Sara. Eventually, through a string of “serendipitous” events, break-ups, and near-misses, the pair manages to reunite.

I expected to move on from the story not long after the credits rolled. Yet one aspect of the film stood out to me, even through the Tylenol haze: the way that Jonathan’s best friend, Dean, reacts to the love story. For the majority of Serendipity, Dean plays the stereotypical rom-com best friend—baffled by the main character’s suddenly adamant belief that true love will conquer all obstacles, supportive despite his friend’s apparent mental breakdown, so loyal that his own dreams and goals are swept aside for plot purposes, and, by and large, forgettable. In the last twenty minutes of this movie, however, Dean suddenly breaks free of this cliché and asserts himself as an independent character.

After watching his friend risk everything for love, Dean tearfully confesses that his marriage is crumbling. When Jonathan asks why, Dean gestures to a book with Sara’s phone number written on the inside cover—a book that Jonathan spent a decade seeking inside every used bookstore in New York City—and replies, “Not enough of this.” Witnessing his friend’s committed, arational love inspires him to change the things that once seemed outside of his control. He abandons the apathy that led him to take his wife for granted, vehemently rejecting the fear of looking foolish that had previously kept him from asking her for another chance. In his final moments on screen, he buys a dozen roses and sets off for home, determined to fight for his marriage with the same devotion he saw Jonathan embody while scouring New York for any trace of Sara.

As the credits rolled, I found myself ignoring the main characters and reflecting on Dean, particularly because he struck me as the direct inverse of another stereotypical rom-com best friend. In Sleepless in Seattle, Becky astutely states to the main character, “You don’t want to be in love; you want to be in love in a movie.” In one line, she summarizes the key conflict of the film, revealing the implicit belief sabotaging her best friend’s happiness. It would be an insightful, beautiful moment if Becky did anything whatsoever to apply that revelation to herself. Yet, while her best friend leaves the movies behind to pursue the man she loves, Becky remains glued to the television, reciting Cary Grant films word for word and ignoring the problems in her own life. In sharp contrast, Serendipity features a best friend whose insight into the main character’s life actually leads to change. Dean does not observe Jonathan’s story passively; rather, he chooses to direct its lessons inwards and reflect on its implications for his own life. Briefly allowing himself to live another’s life and chase another’s dreams becomes an active exercise in diagnosing his shortcomings and planning ways to overcome them.

Much like Jonathan’s story provided a wake-up call to Dean, Dean’s decision to change his life inspired me to reevaluate my own. Specifically, I began to wonder if uncomfortable self-recognition, not disappointment in the writers’ decisions, motivated my frustration at Becky. It gradually became apparent that I needed to ask myself not if I’ve acted like Becky, but how often. How often have I used movies as a way to check out from reality, ignoring their direct applications to my own life? How often have I tried to live vicariously through characters, without reflecting on the reasons that I adore their stories? How often have I viewed the on-screen lives and friendships I love as mere fiction, rather than asking myself if I can replicate the aspects that inspire me? The more time that I spent questioning myself, the more I came to realize that I was analyzing my relationship with escapism.

Obviously, escapism is a loaded term. Negative connotations surround the genre, and escapist stories are often dismissed as childish wish-fulfillment rather than meaningful literature. Initially, it seemed that my only option was to reject escapism as intrinsically harmful, throw away the rom-coms, and have my head examined for the inevitable side effects of such long exposure.

Yet as I thought about escapism, a half-remembered quote came to mind. I googled the fragments I could recall and found J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” where he wrote the following:

“I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

Tolkien acknowledges and rejects the arguments against escapism, reminding his readers that stories can bring relief and hope to those trapped in painful or uncomfortable circumstances. Despite its detractors’ arguments to the contrary, escapism is not inherently shameful. Indeed, for the audience that engages with escapist media to inspire self-reflection and active change, it is “very practical, and may even be heroic.” Tolkien’s analogy vindicates prudent audiences, who recognize the agency they possess even in miserable circumstances and who use fiction to inspire themselves to keep fighting. However, his vindication does not apply to every audience. Those who consume escapist media just to hide from reality are not “tr[ying] to get out [of prison] and go home”—they are closing their eyes as tightly as they can, settling down comfortably inside their prisons, and telling stories about other worlds to avoid acknowledging it.

The problem with escapism, then, does not lie in escapist stories. It lies in readers who try to build a home inside them. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, especially in childhood. As a homeschooler in a small town, there was little to do besides read (particularly during Arizona’s infamously cruel summers), so my life revolved around novels. However, rejecting fiction in its entirety because it once consumed so much of my life would be just as extreme as embracing escapism without reserve. Rather than attempting to escape escapism itself, I need to intentionally apply prudence to the fiction I read, ask myself what in particular appeals to me in these stories, and determine which aspects of that answer are replicable in my own life. Viewing escapism as a source of inspiration and an educational tool may be the way towards a healthier relationship with both fiction and reality.

Although there is nothing wrong with enjoying film and literature in moderation for their own sake, exclusively consuming escapist media is a symptom of a deeper issue. When our circumstances are so stressful or unfulfilling that we’d rather live someone else’s life than face our own, it may be wise to step back and ask why. To borrow Aristotelian language, escapist stories are not goods in themselves, but means to a particular end. By presenting us with the lives we desire and inspiring us to pursue those lives, they goad us beyond dissatisfying second-hand observation and towards the rewards of intentional action. Although there is a laundry list of potential applications for this lesson—like pursuing deeper friendships if you find yourself fascinated by the camaraderie of the Fellowship of the Ring, or performing a tragedy with a local theater group to bring life to the dark academia aesthetic of your favorite Instagram accounts—the key point is that fiction merely illuminates our end goals, but was never meant to secure them. Although stories build our appetites, they only show us the way towards what we desire. We need to take the first steps on our own, confident that we will eventually attain something far more fulfilling than the stories we read.

Ceanna Hayes is a senior studying politics and Latin.

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