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Pop Culture when life sucks: Escape, wallow, or run headfirst?

This post is an exploration of how we often use pop culture to maintain our sanity amidst insane circumstances. Some of us turn to familiar TV shows and wrap ourselves in them like a warm blanket. Others lean into the anger and pain - blaring their Rage Against the Machine music at ear-blasting volumes.

This post is not intended to make light of the current climate in our country or the challenges many of us are facing. We too find ourselves marching in the streets and calling congress. We encourage everyone to get out there and get involved however they are able. However, we can’t let ourselves get burned out! This post is, in part, an exploration of how we use pop culture to maintain our sanity amidst all the insanity. If you need to take a night (or a day, or a week) to watch as many episodes of your junk-food show of choice – we wholeheartedly encourage everyone to do that.

Alix: So… I’ve been feeling a bit hopeless, down, horrified, saddened, and <insert vast array of all possible negative emotions here> since the election. I found myself muting the talking-head voices (when I needed to) post-election with one of my go-to comforts: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So my question for the rest of the team is, what media (music, books, movies, TV) do you retreat to when you need to escape painful reality? What do you turn to when you need to ((perhaps metaphorically)) wrap yourself in a warm blanket and ignore the outside world? If you don’t do this kind of retreating when your world sucks – how do you react and why?

For me – Buffy is that blanket right now. I’ve already gone through the entire series since the election. And I may or may not have started it over again. I have tried and failed to find other things to wrap myself up in – but nothing feels as soft and comfortable as Buffy does.

Why Buffy? I’ve seen the series many, many times by now. It’s familiar and I love almost everything about it.* I love the characters, I love the dialogue.

I love the Scooby gang. I love the silly demons who play poker with kittens. I love that Buffy kicks ass while being super girly and into fashion – her femininity does not detract at all from her badassness. I love Spike and the progression of his character (HE FOUGHT TO GET HIS SOUL BACK! HE DIDN’T HAVE TO BE CURSED TO BE A GOOD VAMPIRE! Spike > Angel!). I LOVE that the series ends with them releasing the slayer power to all potentials – no longer will that power be in any way controlled by men. I could go on. A lot. Really.

So – this is what I apparently want to watch when I feel like the world is ending – a show in which the apocalypse is always nigh but Buffy and her Scoobies are always there to stop it.

*Are there some things that are problematic about the show? Sure. Example, Tara shouldn’t have been killed as a plot device for Willow. But that’s not what this post is about right now.

Art: When the world gives me lemons, I escape into Parks & Rec. I was not an original adopter on Parks & Rec. I’ll admit that I was not a fan of The Office and this felt like a spin-off to me when it first aired. NBC had paired the two and I just felt as if it was something else I could miss.

Years into it, Alix told me “you really should give this a shot.”

(Alix: It did take a few years. And I did tell him repeatedly 🙂 But I was MORE than happy to re-watch from the beginning with him.)

I need to take a slight diversion real quick, from the pilot of The West Wing, I was a huge fan of that show. I loved the characters, the plots, and the dramedy of it all (at least the Sorkin seasons). I also believe in government and its potential to help people. I did not know that those things made me a perfect candidate for the energy and optimism of Leslie Knope, but when I met her I was hooked.

We are currently living in a world where power and popularity are the coin of the realm. However, I like to think of myself as a Leslie Knope, a public servant doing what s/he can to make the world a better place one moment at a time. When I want to feel better about it all, I think about how she eventually wore down Ron Swanson and he finished his life working for the federal government.

Andrew: When the world is going to hell a lot of people hide from it. Not me. I tend to handle things differently. So when I am angry you can find me listening to Rage Against the Machine or Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys, or watching movies like Fight Club.

When I am down, I’m generally wallowing with The Smiths and Joy Division. Or I am watching dystopian films such as , or the “life sucks” season Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season Six), or the unmitigated dystopian parts of Dollhouse.

As you can imagine, given our current political sitch these days, I am swinging between being angry and wallowing. I’m not delving into just one series, or musical genre, or one movie. I’m delving into a multiplicity of pop culture artifacts that touch the multiplicity of my emotional states.

I run toward the emotion I’m feeling. It’s a different kind of catharsis, I suppose. I run to it. I run through it. I get it all out. I get it over with. And once I am done, it’s time for me to move on and get back to work to make this world better, one little step at a time.

In the meantime, you can find me jamming in my car to “Killing in the Name Of” and “No Feelings” and “Never Had No One Ever.”

Joan: Whoa nelly have we hit on a topic I could go on about at length.

Recently I’ve been having a lot of health problems and because of this, I’ve realized that I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). While this may sound like froofy new-age stuff (and really, what’s wrong with froofy new age stuff so long as you can test it empirically?) it’s a documented phenomenon that about 20% of human and non-human animal species have a heightened sensitivity to outside stimuli.

Not all HSPs have had the health problems I’ve had, but it’s not a stretch to say I have “The Feels.” Lots and lots of them, and media has always been a major tool for understanding my feelings. To give you an idea, a sampling of playlists:

And so on. And yes, the two sleep playlists are different. I also make playlists to evoke moods when I’m writing. I did my MFA in Screenwriting and for my thesis, I wrote a story set in an alternate history Ireland that featured privateers and ship battles and PatriotismTM!

As part of the process, I created a playlist to sort of find the tone of what I was trying to write. It had a lot of Irish Folk and Yo-Yo Ma (for the deep, wood and string sound) plus film soundtracks from works I wanted to emulate likePirates of the Caribbean, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and Master and Commander.

I also follow this principle with other types of media. When I’m furiously frustrated about some individual grievance and I have no one to vent to, I pop in Mass Effect 3 so I can shoot some bad guys. It’s cathartic, and it helps me feel like I’ve regained control of my emotions by channeling them through a skill that requires dexterity and concentration. I’ll often also use The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for this — I like to play archers.

Finally, to the point that Alix actually started us on, what do I go to when the world is overwhelming and I just need some joy to counterbalance the existential dread? Two TV shows, both of them have something to do with animals.

The first, I discovered a while ago and it’s called Too Cute. It’s an Animal Planet show that follows litters of puppies and kittens from birth to about 8 weeks when they are adopted. They try to include other animals too: if the pups are farm dogs, you might see a horse, pig, rooster, donkey etc. They cover lots of different breeds and varieties of both cat and dog, including mixed breeds and rescues.

Alix: I LOVE TOO CUTE! PUPPIES AND SLOW MO AND EXTREME CLOSE-UPS! And now I have to find a Too Cute puppy video to embed….

Joan: Ha! Not the only one! So if you don’t understand the appeal of cute puppies and kittens I’m not sure there’s anything I could say that would help.

Thus, my last piece of media and one that quickly converted me into a megafan — My Little Pony. While I still haven’t done all my homework on the Brony phenomenon (and I suspect their reasons for enjoying it might differ from mine), I love it for it’s unrestrained celebration of female friendship in all varieties.

My Little PonyThe show manages to consistently feature more female than male protagonists and extras while male ponies — colts and stallions — are more in the background, a perfect inversion of the typical status quo. Of the “Mane Six” we have the protagonist, Twilight Sparkle as well as Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. The six together are the inadvertent guardians of “the Elements of Harmony” or as we might call them, the aspects of friendship. They are magic, honesty, generosity, laughter, kindness and loyalty, respectively.

Episodes explore how those qualities can be exalted and abused or subverted and how the six together can use literal magic to defeat threats to their kingdom. If you’ve ever enjoyed a YA Fantasy novel like Harry Potter,Eragon, anything by Tamora Pierce, Phillip Pullman (Alix: Loooove Phillip Pullman) or Garth Nix, it’s worth a shot. Especially if you dig diverse and differently empowered heroines and stories of female friendship.

Added bonus to My Little Pony: endless horse puns (Cloudsdale, Manehattan, Fillydelphia) and pop culture references. See if you can spot Weird Al or Patton Oswalt. I defy anyone to be grumpy after a Pinkie Pie episode. I’m not sure it’s physically possible.

Adam: I might be the oddball here. I know there are times when I just need to escape into some sort of media, but I am not sure there is one consistent go-to. Often, when something (like, say, this past general election) happens, I guess I go the other way. I run head first into whatever is pissing me off or getting me down. I want to understand as much about it as possible, find ways to tear it down, or work to develop a countermeasure of some sort.

For example, since the election, I am watching even more of “all the news.” I remember when I was learning chess and reading Sun Tzu (don’t ask). Chances are, I was also reading The Prince. The common denominator was always “know your adversary.” It is that learning that I seem to take into realities that challenge my “calm.” So, that is what I guess I am doing. I want to know everything I can about each nominee, each policy initiative, even every crappy-ass leak that occurs. I need to know what is going on so I can, if needed, act accordingly. I also turn to my classes – I use them as a way to test ideas, get feedback, and see what makes sense.

With all of that said, I typically have generic go-tos that fit any occasion. Babylon 5 is one of my all-time favorites. I have the whole thing in a perfect little file on my home cloud drive. Angry music like Ministry, melodic things like Dead Can Dance, or even techno like 808 State work to help me amp or counter whatever mood is overwhelming me (perks and curse of being a DJ in a former life – LOTS of music on and in the HDD).

Wow … I might be a little too angsty.

Adam: In thinking about this more since I wrote the paragraphs above, I started to realize that my “escape” is in two forms: I start strategizing and examining the thing that is causing me strife, making sense of it and working through it metaphorically; the other way is me heading to the gym, lifting, running, biking, hitting things – whatever I need to do to get my blood rushing for a different reason. Granted, I am often still thinking about “that thing” – but it is my fuel at that point.


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