Pop Culture Did Wonders For My Mental Health In 2016

Photos: Courtesy of Netflix; Paramount Pictures.
Let's be honest: Movies and TV have gotten kind of a bad rap when it comes to how they affect our mental health. TV will rot your brain. R-rated movies will desensitize you to violence. Binging on Netflix is just another way to avoid your IRL problems.
But speaking as an avid consumer of pop culture (and, to be very clear, not a Ph.D. in psychology), I beg to differ: I’d say that movies and TV in particular played a pretty crucial role in nurturing my psychological well-being during what might go down as the worst year ever. And while that rather dramatic superlative is up for debate, I still don't think it's a stretch to say 2016 was a completely fucking terrible time. For women, for peace, for the U.S., for Europe, for democracy, for migrants, for the definition of the word truth.

I swear I'm not a delusional screen addict who thinks entertainment can solve our problems. But I am a big believer in the idea that TV and movies can be of very real psychological value to people. Yes, comedies help you laugh at life and laughter feeds your soul (or something like that). But I'm talking about a less obvious, less expected takeaway — but it took a year as tough as 2016 to help me hammer out exactly what. So here is exactly what pop culture did for me in the nearly-over hell year that was 2016. If you were watching the same TV and movies as I was, then perhaps you'll be able to relate.

A Serving Size of Brain Candy
As comforting as Wolf Blitzer's bearded visage may be, reading and watching the news this year was not exactly a breeze. It was more like an avalanche of awfulness — with stories of police brutality, pussy-grabbing and terrorist attacks breaking seemingly every hour, without cease.

So I (unintentionally) formed a habit of interspersing the gutting parade of tragedy unfolding on CNN with episodes of quite literally inconsequential fare like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Bachelor in Paradise. Watching shit that had truly zero impact on the world at large was a fun way to zone out.

But more than that, I discovered that indulging in this lighter fare made engaging in the soul-crushing stuff more... manageable. Letting my mind veg out on orchestrated drama and very funny catfights every so often helped me stay tuned in to the real news the rest of the time — instead of becoming so overwhelmed by it all that I shut it out. (Somehow I doubt Lisa Vanderpump and Kyle Richards have any idea how watching them struggle to elegantly sip camel milk in the middle of the Arabian Desert contributed to my civic engagement. But that's okay.)
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Photo: Courtesy of Bravo.
A Way To Process Uncomfortable Emotions
One of cinema and TV's greatest tricks is how sneakily therapeutic they can be. We humans tend to tote our emotional baggage with us everywhere we go — including into the movie theater and that couch in the living room where you binged The OA. Movies and shows can give us a safe place to cry, to release anxiety, to let yourself feel unpleasant emotions. That's why the experience of sobbing during a movie can give you such a visceral release. Maybe you needed to mourn your own loss, and the ending of Me Before You drew that grief out and helped you process it. Call it catharsis by proxy.

The day after Trump's election, I didn't want to tune out with an episode of Scream Queens or rerun of The Office. I wanted to feel the grief; I needed badly to cry. So I re-watched the Orange is the New Black season four episode where Poussey dies and sobbed like a baby.

But sadness didn't have a monopoly in 2016; it shared the marquee with anger — anger at the ignorance and lack of compassion regularly displayed by Mr. Trump and his supporters. During the last week of October, I saw Desierto, a desert thriller about Mexican immigrants risking their lives to cross the border into the U.S. I felt an incredible rage towards Jeffrey Dean Morgan's vile, xenophobic villain character who was hunting them down. (Spoiler alert!) After months of "Build that wall!" rallying cries, it felt really fucking good to see him get his.
Photo: Courtesy of STX Entertainment.
A Semblance of "Normalcy"
Often when we talk about escaping into a movie or TV show, it's assumed we're looking to lose ourselves in a world that is fantastical or unrealistic. But this year, the real world we woke up into every damn day seemed so off-the-walls insane that the internal logic of Ghostbusters made more freaking sense than, say, the rationale of the electoral college or the fact that our next president once brought up the size of his penis during a debate.

See, we humans have a hard time dealing when things make no sense. We like when our world is governed by a modicum of reason, order, predictability. So when Trump defied every poll by winning the election, and when Britain flouted every prediction by voting for Brexit, it rattled us with uncertainty and distrust. That's why vacationing in a fictional world that continually made sense in itself was very appealing. Being able to return to a consistent, reliable universe — even a consistently outlandish one full of death and violence, like Game of Thrones — was an odd kind of comfort for me during this wildly unpredictable, straight-up nutty election.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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A Simple Reminder That Right Here & Right Now Is Not All There Is
It was easy to succumb to a sort of collective tunnel vision in 2016. Things only seemed to get worse and worse; darker and narrower. And while we might intellectually understand that the world is not going to suck, everywhere, forever, it's hard to remember this truth when the narrative becomes so monotonous, so grim, so heavy.

And that's where maybe the simplest and most universal of entertainment's magical abilities come in. TV shows and movies reveal possibility. They expose us to different facets of the human experience, both beautiful and miserablesharp fragments of realities other than the one we are immersed in every single day. An intensely powerful film like Arrival reoriented my perspective on the rest of my life in under two hours. A heartbreaking drama like Manchester By The Sea can make you grateful for being spared from that particular kind of pain in your own life. And, of course, watching characters overcome hardships inspires hope in the uncomplicated way. You know how we love those happy endings.
Now, on to 2017. I'm looking for some new coping mechanisms — recommendations, anyone?

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