The line to ask Connie Britton a question stretched down the aisle at the theater in the National Museum of Natural History, where the “Nashville” and “Friday Night Lights” star was onstage for a Smithsonian Associates event. It was January, 10 days after President Trump’s inauguration. Sarah Leavitt of Silver Spring, Md., approached the microphone: “I just wanted a little life advice tonight.”
Leavitt, 46, explained that she felt overwhelmed by a barrage of news since Trump took office, including the volume of opportunity for activism, such as phone calls to representatives and participating in the Women’s March. A few days earlier, she bailed on plans with friends to see “Dirty Dancing” on the big screen — it didn’t feel right on the same night that people were storming airports to protest Trump’s executive order for a Muslim travel ban.
“I can’t understand how to talk about pop culture and how to be a citizen in this world that we’re in at the same time,” Leavitt said. “And I was just wondering, how do you calibrate your time, and think that we should calibrate our time now in this new situation?”
Britton responded, “I’ve been thinking about the exact same thing. . .I think we’re all figuring it out.”
Six months later, the Washington news cycle rages on both sides of the aisle, with constant headlines about health care and Donald Trump Jr.’s emails. Political activism is especially alive in liberal areas such as Washington, a city where a third of the people have protested Trump, according to a Washington Post poll. And some still wrestle with the idea that it’s okay to step away. Binge-watch a show. See a movie. Listen to a podcast. Deep down, it’s easy to feel as though you’re doing something wrong for not focusing enough attention on serious issues.
After Britton’s response, the Q&A moderator, NPR writer and “Pop Culture Happy Hour” host Linda Holmes, had a metaphor to share:
“Did you see ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon? He’s got a big thing he’s trying to solve, which is that he’s stuck on Mars and he has to get back to Earth. And they spent a lot of time in the movie on the fact that he has to figure out how to grow potatoes on Mars. The potatoes on Mars do not actually get him back to Earth. He’s not actually solving the problem. But if he doesn’t have potatoes, he’s not going to live long enough to solve the problem and get back to Earth.”
She continued: “So, to me, my hope is, the songs that you love, the books that you love, the TV that you love, the conversations that you have about people that are kind of nourishing to you, help you — those are your potatoes . . . and you have to have that stuff in order to make it long enough to get back to Earth.”
Judging by the applause from the audience, Holmes’s words struck a chord; and hit a bigger nerve the next day, when I tweeted a transcript of her quote. It was retweeted thousands of times and responses poured in, with sentiments along the lines of, “This made me cry” and “I really needed to hear this right now.”
“To me, it encapsulated and distilled a fairly complex idea into a simple one,” said Mike Nothnagel, 42, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “The world is a challenging and serious place, but you have things you like that can help you navigate it.”
Nicola Hassapis, 28, of Boston said she connected with the metaphor because she has been trying to reconcile the need to take a mental break — sitting out a protest, closing Twitter — with guilt that accompanies the urge to step away from the news. Holmes’s quote, she said, “felt like a validation of the idea that consuming pop culture doesn’t have to be this shameful thing we do when our focus should be elsewhere.
“I think that’s something people need to hear in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, particularly at a time when anxieties related to the new administration are running high,” she added. “Being an effective activist, advocate and ally isn’t contingent on being plugged in all the time, despite internal and external pressure for people to believe the contrary.”
When politics has seemingly taken over the culture, the instinct is for everything — even in entertainment — to have a political angle. Broadcast TV networks courted pilots for the fall that might connect to “Trump’s America.” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” are seeing record ratings as they zero in on the administration. Katy Perry tried to be woke.
But many yearn for escapism more than ever. Even if, as Hassapis implies, some people are worried they’ll be judged if they admit they missed a major story to watch a “House Hunters” marathon, or turned off cable news in favor of reading the “Harry Potter” book they’ve already read 10 times.
It’s a conundrum that has been around for centuries. Paul Levinson, an author and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, says it goes back to the days of Plato, who was very critical of music and poetry, because he thought it distracted society from more important things.
Plenty of others argue the opposite: For us to be fully effective as a humans, entertainment is a critical outlet, because otherwise we might just be ruminating on all the problems in the world, sending our minds into downward spirals.
At the same time, Levinson said, he doesn’t want to sell leisure activities short by saying the only value is to help prepare people for more “serious” endeavors.
“When people say, ‘Why are you going off in this [fantasy land] when there are real crises out there?’ There’s no conflict between pursuits,” Levinson said.
Experts also emphasize the importance of letting your mind take a break. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, recommends not only seeking out entertainment that brings you joy, but doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment.
“If you sit and dwell and ruminate about troubling things in the world, your mood will decline, you’ll feel terrible, you’ll feel overwhelmed. Your mind won’t be in a good space,” Reinecke said.
Kathy Doyle Thomas, the executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Dallas-based chain Half Price Books, said that in addition to novels being an escape, she has seen an increase in customers shopping for books that will inspire them — about people doing good work, or how to get involved in the community. If readers are more interested in the “50 Shades of Grey” franchise, she applauds that, too.
“We need pop culture. We need ‘The Bachelor.’ We need whatever is the new thing, the new TV hit show, we need that,” Thomas said. “The country’s separated right now, it’s split. There are people on both sides, and so there has to be a nice place for people to talk about things and read about things, and that is where pop culture and lighter fare comes in.”
Sometimes, pop culture offers the opposite of escape.
Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” about a dystopian future where women have no rights, debuted in April; it recently landed 13 Emmy nominations, including outstanding drama series. Earlier this summer, protesters arrived at Capitol Hill wearing the recognizable “Handmaid” uniforms of red cloaks and white bonnets, to protest the Senate’s health-care bill, which would slash funding for women’s health.
Deirdre Costello, 34, watched the first three episodes before she had to stop.
“The book was always scary to me, but because of the political climate, the show hit home in a way that I found just too terrifying,” she said. “I spent more time hiding under a blanket than I spent actually watching the show, and I realized I just couldn’t do it.”
Costello, who lives outside Boston, said the three-month stretch between the election and the inauguration left her exhausted: “I started really taking to heart narratives about self-care.” Costello and her husband are still politically involved — and can’t quite stop scrolling through news online while watching TV — but make an effort to choose shows with an element of humor, such as Netflix’s “GLOW” or “Orange is the New Black.”
“I need that time,” she said. “I need a few laughs.”
It’s a common feeling — which is why quite a few connected so deeply with Holmes’s metaphor, needing reassurance that it’s not only fine, but necessary, to tune out when the world is too overwhelming. Taking a break from current events doesn’t mean you’re not paying attention.
“We know rationally that this kind of black-and-white thinking isn’t realistic or sustainable — humans aren’t machines — but we buy into the false dichotomy anyway. And not only do we beat ourselves up about it, we judge other people for it,” Hassapis said. “There are a lot of things to worry about right now, but taking 45 minutes to watch an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on Netflix shouldn’t be one of them.”