Laurie Beckoff | March 27, 2018
Fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative genres are often pejoratively labelled ‘escapist’, accused of being too distant from real-world issues and allowing audiences to dissociate from reality to indulge in daydreams. They let us forget about the problems plaguing our society so that we can enjoy an action-packed adventure or a whimsical jaunt through a magical land.
Such an argument assumes a certain degree of privilege among audiences, sheltered from the harshness of the real world about which books and films should educate them. However, every reader faces challenges, whether internal or external, and can benefit from an escape. This escape does not necessarily present itself in the form of a mindless story unconcerned with difficult issues, but perhaps as a story that tackles such issues from an unfamiliar angle so that they are easier to engage with for those whose experiences could make them sensitive to certain themes.
Fantasy can spare audiences the pain of revisiting their own trauma while still discussing important and relatable topics. Someone who has lost a loved one to cancer may struggle to work their way through a story focused on a character confronting the illness. For a survivor of sexual assault, a story that involves rape can be immensely triggering. When someone’s life is already inundated with a particular form of trauma — from disease, bereavement, addiction, abuse, poverty, or violence, for example — a work that deals with the same issue directly may hit too close to home and make it difficult for them to engage with the work. While some readers or viewers find comfort in a story that touches upon their personal experience, others may withdraw when faced with a narrative that is very similar to their own life. If we need to close our eyes or skip to the next page, our engagement has decreased.
Allegory can help audiences engage with the emotions they are experiencing, such as grief, betrayal, or fear, by presenting those ideas in an alternative context and allowing audiences to escape from their personal situations. The Dementors of Harry Potter are symbolic of J.K. Rowling’s own struggle with depression and give readers a physical manifestation of inner darkness without openly discussing potentially sensitive details like self-harm or suicidal ideation. Harry’s loss of his parents, mentors, and friends can be cathartic for anyone coping with the death of someone close to them, but the magical causes of death are far enough removed from realistic circumstances that they don’t mirror any reader’s experience.
When serious issues are present in literal forms, the depictions run the risk of being excessive. There is a fine line to be drawn between catharsis and gratuity or voyeurism. At what point do we become desensitised to images of suffering if they appear so frequently and in such graphic detail in our media? When do such images become entertainment in and of themselves? In claiming to present a brutally honest portrayal of reality, media of all genres can make suffering into a spectacle rather than a source of identification, empathy, or education. If we revel in the blood and guts of Game of Thrones rather than reflect on how horrific life must have been for people in the Middle Ages, is the supposed realism in a work of fantasy really doing its job effectively? Embracing escapism can sometimes be more productive.
Fantasy is inherently escapist to a certain extent, but escapism does not necessarily have to be negative. After receiving criticism for his comments on the dumbing down of science fiction and fantasy, Simon Pegg clarified his views by discussing the great potential for these genres to engage with real-life issues that studios often fail to realise when they focus on spectacle over substance. Genres that build new worlds and ask audiences to imagine the hypothetical and unexplainable are well situated to serve as vehicles of social commentary and individual growth. The suspension of disbelief required by fantasy liberates the work from the rules of nature and society, allowing audiences to engage with allegory without bias and with serious subject matter without further trauma. Fiction, especially fantasy, offers a blank canvas for thought-provoking and cathartic stories. Whether the story is about wizards, aliens, or robots, set in the past, the future, or an alternate dimension, fantasy has the unique opportunity to provide just enough of an escape while still maintaining echoes of and parallels with our world, giving us the chance to learn, think, feel, connect, and grow without hindrance.
Laurie Beckoff is pursuing the MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Originally from New York, she received her BA in English from the University of Chicago. Her research interests focus on medieval magic and medievalism in modern fantasy literature, particularly Arthurian influence in Harry Potter.