Escapism Through Film and Television

A few weeks ago I went to see La La Land (2016) with some friends. I had heard great things and as a big fan of old Hollywood and musicals I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy it. Within the first minute I was hooked, absorbed, mesmerized. It was the music, the colours, the story; I was taken out of this tumultuous and anxiety-ridden world and plopped down into hipster LA, with dance numbers, montages, and beautiful costumes (Emma Stone’s Mia is my pale-girl clothing idol). I’ve had a hard time getting La La Land out of my head; between stress in life and work, and the constant sinking feeling I was getting in my stomach every time I checked the news, it was in some ways a good way to escape, while in other ways too good at letting me hide away from the real world.

The opening scene of La La Land, clearly an idealized view of LA traffic

My husband and I have frequent discussions and disagreements (mostly with respect to what new Netflix show to watch) about the best way to “escape” through television and film. He prefers to watch dark shows about murder (e.g. Breaking Bad, The Fall, Luther, etc.) because it helps to remind him how terrible the world can be and comparatively how good his own life is. I find I get too absorbed in the dark shows, having nightmares or day dreaming about the characters as if they were real. As a result, I use comedies to make myself feel better about life and escape from the real world (e.g. Friends, 30 Rock, Gilmore Girls, etc.). While we both use shows to escape in a similar way, our perception of reality and how we watch these shows is completely different.

A German study from 2001 looked at the use of television as a form of escapism. In 1998 the average German watched 3 hours and 20 minutes of television each day, however this average was extremely variable; while 27 million viewers watched fewer than 1.5 hours, 15 million claimed to watch over 6 hours a day, and 3 million over 8 hours (Henning & Vorderer, 2001). This paper focussed on the assumption that these strongly differing viewing habits may be related to a viewers’ need for cognition. Viewers who consume more television generally feel the need for less cognition; the idea of thinking with no distractions is unpleasant, causing the viewer to seek more stimulation in the form of television to distract them from their thoughts. As such, this desire for increased television viewing can be viewed as escapism.

“In its core, escapism means that most people have, due to unsatisfying life circumstances, again and again cause to ‘leave’ the reality in which they live in a cognitive and emotional way” (Henning & Vorderer, 2001)

Henning & Vorderer (2001) conducted this study on both male and female university-aged students and found that viewing amount was affected by the quota of work (time available) and need for cognition (desire to have free time to think), confirming that both sexes enjoy watching more television when they want to “think less”. Compared to 1998 when this study was conducted, the rates of television viewing per day are likely much higher in 2017 with the rise of online streaming (i.e. Netflix, youtube, etc.) and mobile devices (i.e. smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.), making it easier and easier to consume television (and other media) no matter the time or place. As a result, this ability to escape, and the desire to escape reality and think less is becoming more commonplace.

A 1987 study by Hirschman looked at how five defined motives (escapism, sensory arousal, cognitive arousal, mastery-control, and emotional involvement) could define television preferences in males and females. This study found that males tended to use all types of television programming as escapism, with comedy, variety specials, police-detective, and game-quiz genres being the highest. A positive relationship between news broadcasts and escapism was also found for men, something Hirschman theorized would not help either sex to “escape” from the real world. In fact, all types of television were positively correlated with escapism for all of the men in this study, which implies that these males seem to use all television as an escape, rather than any specific genre in particular. However for women, no types of television were positively correlated with the escapist motive.

This surprised me, not only based on my own experiences watching television, but also my friends’ and families’ as well. In fact, I’ve never noticed a gender-bias, but rather a personality bias in the use of television as an escape. So why did Hirschman’s study find this?  Well, Hirschman (1987) speculated that “for women, overall television viewing preference appears to be most strongly associated with the traditional female sex role”, that is she speculated that house-wives, who are typically at home during the day with the television on, have the opportunity to view more television so the impact of any specific type as an escape is diminished. So, the difference between what I notice now (in 2017) and what Hirschman (1987) found, may actually have less to do with sex-based preferences and more due to a shifting cultural landscape, along with a shift of television habits in the last 30 years.

While this initially surprised me, the more I thought about the way television was viewed in the 1990s in mine and my friend’s households, the more I could understand this gender bias. The television was often on but not necessarily playing anything desirable. In addition, whether it was a game show at lunch, the news at 5 or a re-run of Full House at 6, there was little choice in what to watch, perhaps making this specific use of television as an escape more difficult. It’s likely that the men polled in this study were sitting down to watch a specific program at a specific time, which prompted this feeling of escape, while women in this study may have just had the tv on throughout the day, never playing anything that they specifically wanted to watch.

In a way, this discrepancy and gender bias may not only have to do with the “defined” gender roles in 1987, but the ability we now have to follow shows and watch a show whenever and wherever we like. The ability to first record shows, then DVR, then Netflix and other streaming has made television easier to follow. Shows made 30 years ago didn’t expect the viewer to be able to watch them over and over, noticing plot holes or inconsistencies (e.g. the birthdays on Friends are constantly moving all over the year in order to accommodate whatever story is being told). As a result, shows created to “binge” like Jane the Virgin, or complicated shows, like Westworld or Lost, where you’re analyzing every twist were not what viewers were watching in 1987. These also happen to be the shows people often use as an “escape” now.

Ultimately, a preference for television or film as an escape is personal and up to each individual. Whatever genre best allows you to escape without being absorbed back into real life problems is probably the best for you, whether you want to relax after a long day, hang out with friends, or just veg-out and distract yourself from the world. It seems clear that the use of television and film as an escape is becoming more rampant with the increased availability and convenience of media, however we have to remind ourselves to not get too absorbed in these fantastical worlds and escape back into the real world every now and then. The world may sometimes be a scary place, but it’ll be a lot scarier if we don’t experience it, and work to make it a place we need to escape from a little less.


Henning, Bernd, and Peter Vorderer. 2001. “Psychological escapism: Predicting the amount of television viewing by need for cognition.” Journal of Communication 51.1: 100-120.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. 1987. “Consumer preferences in literature, motion pictures, and television programs.” Empirical Studies of the Arts 5.1: 31-46.



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