Some people soothe their woes with drugs, alcohol or food. Others still seek therapy to address their issues. For me, there’s nothing more that I look forward to than, after a shitty day, climbing under the covers and getting acquainted with a good book, my go-to feminist websites or a TV show held so dear that it functions as a hug. Fortunately, I’ve never had a serious self-care emergency other than the urge we all get every now and then to hibernate on the couch and bingewatch Orange is the New Black or Grey’s Anatomy, shows that have gotten me through illnesses and breakups with friends and lovers. I’m not really one to talk about my feelings, so when I do need to work through them, catching up with characters I’ve come to know and love fills a piece of me that can’t necessarily be taken up by working through it with IRL friends.
Pop culture is my most treasured form of self-care. I make sure to carve out time every day to read—both blogs and books—lest my brain quickly turn to mush. I also try to stay abreast of my “stories” but I’ve found lately that saving TV shows to binge on a rare weekend with nothing to do shakes up my self-care schedule just so and lends a whole new appreciation to the contentment they can give me. (Similarly, a recent study showed that scheduling leisure time made it less enjoyable.)
As this article will surely contribute to, there’s a plethora of discussion of self-care amongst feminist websites these days as we realise the importance of taking time out and how that differs for each of us. Doctors have even begun prescribing novels to teens with mental health issues which is perhaps the biggest testament to pop culture as self-care.
I reached out to prolific tweeter and fellow TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday, the slot of Shonda Rhimes-produced shows on ABC in the U.S.) fan, Cheyenne, who told me she has ‘major depression and PTSD, so sometimes I have days where I’m feeling really down and just need some space.
‘Doing things to distract myself, like watching TV, are helpful,’ Cheyenne continues. ‘But depending on what I’m watching, sometimes it’s the opposite. I’m a huge Shonda Rhimes fan and I tune in every Thursday night to catch her block of shows, but there are some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal that I can’t watch because they’re too triggering or they’ll just exacerbate negative feelings. One episode in particular featured a shooting that was so similar to something I went through that it makes watching that episode hard for me…
‘Because of the dramatic nature of the shows, it’s possible for there to be something triggering in every episode, so sometimes I’ll avoid it all together. It’s a weird line to draw, because watching TV is both something I do to feel better and [it] can sometimes become something that makes me feel worse… As much as I love [both shows], it’s worth it to miss an episode or two if it means I’m healthier.’
I asked pop culture commentator Lou Heinrich, who’s recently written about rape on TV, how she navigates having to step away from pop culture when it actually jeopardises her self-care.
‘I wrote an essay for The Lifted Brow about my discomfort with rape scenes on screen after I could no longer face Game of Thrones, and after a certain scene turned me off Orange is the New Black,” Lou told me. ‘So, even though I use books and TV to escape from my worldly troubles during times of self-care, I often use their stories to examine that which I seek to escape.’
A similarly potentially triggering show that deals with sexual trauma that is somehow ripe for bingeing is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Hannah Giorgis, writing for the now-defunct feminist website The Hairpin, sees the show as catharsis for sexual assault survivors. ‘I can’t tell you when I began to occasionally find myself in tears mid-episode or when I first realised that feeling was perversely cathartic,’ Giorgis writes. ‘The first time a man touched me without my consent, I still wasn’t old enough to watch the show, but I’d found words to describe what had happened to me through its characters.’
Again, I’m lucky in that I’m not triggered by the traumatic scenes on SVU, OITNB, Game of Thrones and countless others, save for the constantly trying state of consuming pop culture while feminist, which Lou alludes to. For others, seeking out pop culture as self-care becomes a challenge in and of itself and, as Cheyenne attests, we have to know when to step away. For me, though, there’s nothing better than pop culture for escaping the challenges and mundanities of life itself, if only for a few episodes or pages (web and otherwise).
Image: Alex Munsell