Dearest Reader, Let Us Escape

Dearest Reader, Let Us Escape

Fiona O’Hara (She/Her) 

‘I burn for you’ 

There have arguably been no other words uttered with such passion, desperation, and presence that have had such an immediate resonance in western culture. The moment we see Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hasting and Daphne Bridgerton finally confess their feelings for each other, vanquishing the many misunderstandings and scheming of the previous episodes, there was probably an audible sigh of relief and swoon heard across the world. My voice would’ve been heard, despite a second UK wide lockdown in the dead of winter kept us trapped in our homes as the delta variant swept through society. Even on my second viewing to prepare for season 2, as our government is marred with scandal after scandal, COVID still lurking around every corner and our screens show a never-ending cycle of horror and devastation from Ukraine; I sit in bed, safe from the world, investing all my emotional energy into the fictional lives of the most esteemed members of the Ton…is there something wrong with me? 

There always seems to be a feeling of guilt surrounding certain forms of media. ‘The Guilty Pleasure’ is an idea that permeates certain genres of cinema, literature, and music. But especially in these unprecedented times, accusations of apathy and superficiality are thrown around left, right and centre. There will no doubt be those holier-than-thou moralists who try and shame those for finding comfort and entertainment in media that has been deemed too ‘frivolous’. We have all encountered that one guy who only reads the classics as they are more ‘intellectually stimulating’ than our current fare (insert eyeroll here). 

But in our current political climate, is it really a surprise that many of us are looking to find a space to truly relax and escape the fear and worry of modern life. Everyday we are bombarded with images of suffering, whether through war or disease. We are exposed to corruption, failing politicians and greedy billionaires jetting off into space while their employees die of COVID in their warehouses. The growing calls from climate scientists, shouting and screaming that we have little to no time left to redress the impending climate disaster. It really does feel that whenever we look at any screen all we see is a variety of ways to shout ‘THE SKY IS FALLING’ into the void. The average viewer is confronted with every disaster and catastrophe in the world in real-time, with the feeling they have no real agency to do anything about it. 

This has resulted in what some scholars call ‘Compassion Fatigue’. A term originally used to describe the burnout many who work in nursing and end of life care face, Susan Sontag popularised the concept to describe a phenomenon of modern news media; where we are bombarded with so many images of suffering, we have become numb to them, stating: ‘Does shock have term limits? … As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images’. However, recent scholars have criticised Sontag’s conclusion – notably Andrew Hoskins, in 2020 – suggesting that instead of apathy and numbness, compassion fatigue is the result of constantly being confronted with so much suffering and bad news that we cannot concentrate our concern on one specific issue. It is impossible to expect one person to actively care about every single issue our society is facing and still be able to function in normal life. It’s hard enough to get out of bed in the morning as it is. Many have decided that it is easier to stop reading the news, turning away to preserve their own mental health and wellbeing. 

It is no wonder then that we turn to media that shows us completely alternative worlds, especially back in March 2020, when we found ourselves stuck in our homes as this terrifying and unknown disease decimated the global community. And yet, what were we all watching? An unhinged man with a bleached blonde mullet and cowboy boots who invites us into his illegal tiger zoo, his ridiculous and confusing love life, and his plot to kill his arch nemesis Carole Baskin. And in the second lockdown at the beginning of 2021, it was Bridgerton that took centre stage, breaking all of Netflix’s records for most views in its debut week. Bridgerton, a series all about the trials and tribulations of the courting season in Regency era London, not exactly high stakes but still addictive. 

This act of watching the lives of those whose biggest worries involve what dress to wear to the ball serve as acts of voyeurism and aspiration: who wouldn’t want a life where your biggest concern was securing a proposal from a Prince, especially compared to the constant anxiety that the world is on fire? This is nothing new, as readers of the day turned to the novels of Jane Austen as the Napoleonic Wars uprooted Europe in the background; the desire to invest our time and energy in the somewhat mundane lives of others seems inherent to the human condition. While there are still plenty of dramas and comedies that satirise and dramatise our current climate, drawing important observations and making important statements; it is Bridgerton that outperforms them all. 

In a world where politics is so divided and polarised, it’s easy to see how this has extended into the media we consume, and while Britain is renowned for its political comedy and satire, the political tribalism of the time seems to have rendered it divisive rather than unifying as it was seen to have done in the past. What does seem to unify us all now is the desire to escape all this noise, to transport back to a world of pretty dresses, lavish balls, and a succession of courtiers. A world where we could maybe hear those sultry words whispered in our ear: I burn for you.

References 

Hoskins, Andrew (2020) ‘Media and Compassion After Digital War: Why digital media haven’t transformed responses to human suffering in contemporary conflict’. International Review of the Red Cross. 102(913): 117-143.  

Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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