The Stakes of Escapism
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the struggle between escapism and realism in pop culture. Last month, I made a post about Marvel’s summer event Secret Empire, in which I expressed a lack of desire to read it given the way its thematic content (Captain America has secretly been a Nazi all this time) intersects with the sheer unpleasantness of the present-day world (the US presidential administration is made up of actual Neo-Nazis). And I wasn’t the only person to make such a statement. In a sea of highly critical (and deservedly so) responses to the summer crossover, I would have thought opting out on the grounds of simply not being emotionally up to it was pretty innocuous, but the response nevertheless drew the ire of Secret Empire scribe Nick Spencer, who asserted that it was an “irresponsible, cowardly” argument.
Spencer’s comments sat with me a long time, and I found myself coming back to them at odd moments. One of the core components of the “not now” argument is that it’s not a value judgment on the work in question. In fact, it goes so far as to suggest the work has merit—just merit that you’re currently unable to assess because it’s not what you’re into right now. It’s about as impersonal a response as you can get, and yet it was taken very personally. Understanding Spencer’s backlash in the context of the escapism-realism tug-of-war sheds light on the stringency of his reaction. There’s a certain creative demographic for whom storytelling is all about stakes. Everything has to have real stakes, real consequences, real tragedy in order to have meaning. People who reject the necessity-of-stakes argument by pointing out that an obsession with stakes can actually hurt one’s craft, or who are simply emotionally tuckered out from the ceaseless onslaught of stakes, are often implied to have a less authentic (or dare we even say less intelligent) relationship with the creative world and its output.
Author Joe Hill, relating the phenomenon to his personal experience of writing, identifies stakes-free storytelling as a trope that he calls “the dog lives.” In his deconstruction of this trope, Hill notes that there’s a market for a happier brand of fantasy escapism but states categorically that it’s not what he’s selling. Which, by the way, is totally fine. We, all of us, must write what we have in us to write, and every creator has the right to set the terms of what they are selling. The flip side of that, though, is that the audience has the right to declare what they are, and are not, buying, and it’s that flip side that content creators often seem unclear on. In fairness to Hill, his concerns with whether or not “the dog lives” have mainly to do with artificially uplifting endings that fly in the face of authentic storytelling. In equating stakes with quality, however, he fails to address the very real problem of the boring similitude that comes from ceaseless stakes and stakes-raising narratives. As author Kit Walker has noted, many writers fail to understand that tragedy’s narrative power comes from its ability to disrupt the norm of everyday life. Consequently, when a story is nothing but unending tragedy, that ability to disrupt is compromised and the tale loses its affective power.
Solemnity vs Seriousness
John Cleese has a wonderful talk on creativity, during which he comments on the dangers of mistaking solemnity for seriousness—an issue that has (at one time or another) plagued most, if not all, of human endeavors…
As Cleese points out: solemnity, which is all-too-often read as a sign of seriousness, is a relatively pointless attitude that “serves pomposity” and protects the self-important from having their egotism punctured. Humor, on the other hand, is “an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems no matter how serious they may be.”
Now, more than ever, I think we need to remember that.
Final Thought: Anne of Grimdark Gables
Anne with an E, the new Netflix series that adapts L.M. Montgomery’s beloved tale for a newer, more serious, more stakes-obsessed era, was released last week to almost diametrically opposed reviews. About half of the critics love prestige-tv veteran Moire Walley-Beckett’s updated take on Anne, which takes the subtle allusions to her abusive childhood and makes them grimly explicit. The other half feel that Walley-Beckett has ruined Montgomery’s vision of an Anne able to find joy in her new life by over-emphasizing on the unrelenting tragedy of her past.
So I guess I know what I’m watching this weekend.