During the lockdowns of the early pandemic, I found an escape in “cottagecore,” a video subgenre that consists largely of young single women illustrating what it’s like to live in the woods. They build their own tiny homes or renovate cabins in the wilderness, undertake traditional crafts like making soap from tree sap or elderberry syrup from scratch, spin wool thread, and even weave ponchos from said thread. Throughout quarantine, in my small apartment in a crowded city, I watched them frolic among wildflowers, bathe in rivers, and tend to wood-burning stoves.
While isolation was mandated for many, these videos aestheticized it — perfect solitude, silence, and soothing spiritual equilibrium, bolstered by drone-shot videos of the mountains and valleys of Washington, or the forests of Minnesota, or the fjords of Sweden. Yet the women also spoke directly into the camera, directly to me. I was not a voyeur or an eavesdropper, positioned behind the fourth wall, but addressed in what seemed like real time, as if we were in front of each other. This combination of simulated human connection with the transportive negation of the limits of time and space made for a perfect technology for escapism. It made euphoria, resolution, and clarity seem simple, even as they remained just beyond my direct reach.
In historical critiques, reading was condemned not just as a form of insubordination but as an addictive process
Such escapism is often seen as problematic and lamentable, as if there were a duty to always confront reality on its own terms. Technologies that facilitate imaginative escapes have repeatedly been criticized as counterproductive, if not dangerous, facilitating delusions and vicarious evasions rather than problem-solving pragmatism. Escapism often implies a certain shirking of duty, or a refusal to address the roots of the problem that drives the desire to flee. It can even seem as though escapism inevitably points to the ultimate escape, the only place that’s truly free of life’s vicissitudes: Thomas Kincaid — whose surreal-verging-on-sinister paintings of homes and natural scenes could be interpreted as the apex of cottagecore fantasies — claimed that he painted “the places we would like to be forever,” which, as writer Alissa Bennett observed, sounds a bit like “Christian shorthand for death.”
But does indulging in escapist yearning make us less likely to carve out contentment and a satisfying life for ourselves? More particularly, do the new technologies of escapist parasociality — of which podcasts and short-form videos like the cottagecore ones are emblematic — really make us less likely to try to make emotional connections in real life?
Whenever a new technology for storytelling has appeared, concerns about escapism have appeared in tandem. As Alberto Manguel outlines in A History of Reading, Christian dogmatists and moralists were warning about how books promoted daydreaming and “the sin of idleness” as early as the ninth century. With the increase in solitary silent reading, the unmediated relationship to books also decreased Christian leaders’ ability to control the flow of ideas and censor what they deemed heresy.
Printed books, and the more widespread literacy that they supported, introduced a new kind of private experience, a time and place to dream and think outside the confines of prescribed social roles, threatening established methods of control. The advent of the novel was met with claims that they were inherently corrupting, making female readers in particular indifferent or hostile to their domestic duties and general decorum. “Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels,” wrote one commentator in a 1796 periodical. “The depravity is universal … I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread … I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemima.” Here the “escapism” prompted by novels appears explicitly as an escape from servitude and mandated domesticity. Defiant readers, this suggests, were most dangerous in how they threatened to model an experience of independence.
In this sense, escapism is mainly a problem for those being escaped from. To those who feel entitled to a person’s attention, their being physically present but mentally or spiritually elsewhere can be intolerable. It can incite a prickle of loneliness, much like someone looking at their phone during a meal might. By a similar logic, escapism can appear to absent us from ourselves too, making it seem that we are not really “there” for our own life, preventing us from accumulating unique firsthand experiences of our own. Instead of finding ways to live amid nature myself, for instance, I can simply watch others do it on YouTube, eating up minutes of my one wild and precious life. (Sorry, Mary Oliver.)
“Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels,” wrote one commentator in a 1796 periodical. “The depravity is universal”
Critiques of escapism easily slip between these positions, masking resentment of the escapee’s independence with concern over their harming themselves and others. In historical critiques, reading was condemned not just as a form of insubordination but as an addictive process that threatened the reader’s ability to come back from fantasy and into reality again. In 1807, English physician and poet Thomas Beddoes noted that his patients who were voracious readers experienced “increased indolence,” with “the imaginary world indisposing those who inhabit it in thought to go abroad into the real.” Users of escapist technologies are readily pathologized, and what would otherwise appear as political motives for adopting these technologies can be obscured.
As escapist media technologies evolved, similar anxieties about the flight from the social world and the need for “real” experiences persisted. By 1950, Americans were watching an average of almost five hours of television a day, and the discourse around escapist technology sharpened into condemnation of “entertainment” and the seductive nature of mediated simulations. Their more vivid representation of sociality — more insidious and convincing than what words alone could supply — seemed to pose an even more urgent threat to human contact, anesthetizing viewers into accepting a simulacrum of intimacy instead of the real thing.
In his 1960 Partisan Review essay “Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight MacDonald argued that mass culture, including television, “is not even entertainment … but distraction.” He warned that TV and mass culture offered “neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience,” cutting viewers off from their humanity and preventing them from going, as Beddoes had claimed more than a century earlier, “abroad into the real.” In Within the Context of No-Context (1981), critic George W.S. Trow similarly argued of television that “ ‘entertainment’ is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible. No good has come of it.” He referred to TV as “the grid of intimacy,” substituting itself for human connection while simultaneously making people more and more lonely. David Foster Wallace warned of a similar fate in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993): “The less time spent in the real human world, the harder it becomes not to feel alienated from real humans, solipsistic, lonely,” he argued. “To the extent one begins to view pseudo-relationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley as acceptable alternatives to relationships with real humans, one has commensurately less conscious incentive even to try to connect with real 3-D persons, connections that are pretty important to mental health … the special treat of TV begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original hunger subsides to a strange objectless unease.”
The “pseudo-relationships” that Wallace refers to have since been succeeded by “parasocial” relations: one-sided intimacies fostered through podcasts and video platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch. The handful of televised characters that Wallace warned of have been replaced by millions of videos and channels, many of which consist of a single nonfictional person sitting in front of a camera and talking directly to an audience as though it were a companion. There are a plethora of people ready to give us unceasing, steady eye contact through our screens, which changes how we identify with them and what sort of escapism the screen facilitates.
Where the cottagecore-like escapism of watching a film like Little Women played out as vicarious spectatorship, escapism via cottagecore influencers occurs in something closer to real time
In offering something much closer to direct interaction, parasociality promises an even more powerful illusion of connection than earlier technologies of escape. It doesn’t frame escape as absorption into a parallel fictional world — as with, say, watching soap operas — but as a real, albeit deeply asymmetrical, relation. Where once the cottagecore-like escapism of watching a film like Little Women played out as vicarious spectatorship, entering imaginatively into the girls’ narrative without the feeling that they were your actual friends, escapism via cottagecore influencers occurs in something closer to real time, creating an illusion of shared experiences more directly. Set to full screen, there is not much difference between one of their videos and a Zoom call or FaceTime. The escapism via pretending to be someone else through vicarious projection is more vividly blended with the possibility of knowing them. Parasocial escapism is not so much a retreat from intimacy into consumerism but a way of consuming intimacy as a product.
Parasocial videos may be explicitly aspirational — as with cottagecore — but often they are also of the mundane “real world”: people walking on the street, driving in their car, walking to a café, and not the sensational story arcs and implausible worlds of TV sitcoms or big budget Hollywood movies. The aspirational is blended with the procedural and relatable. Video-game streamers too recontextualize the pure escapism of the game they play within the mundane social structure of friends hanging out in a living room or bedroom.
YouTubers tell you a story, share intimate vulnerabilities, joys, triumphs, disappointments, worries. The viewer is trusted with this intimate knowledge without having to offer anything of themselves — they venture no vulnerability, they do not have to present themselves to be perceived, they do not risk rejection or disappointment. Watching parasocial videos is precisely a means to bypass these anxieties. It becomes not just an escape from loneliness but an escape from the burden of sociality. As Trow and Wallace argued, the escapist cure in this case may exacerbate the disease, training down our tolerance for the social discomfort we can now circumvent.
If earlier critiques of escapism were explicitly or covertly centered on obedience and social subordination — on the subversive potential of solitude taught by solitary entertainments — new critiques of the newer forms of escapism provided by parasociality platforms, which promise an escape from solitude itself, are perhaps more justified. Younger generations socialized during this emergent era of escapist tech are having less sex and are more lonely than older generations. Escapist tech still has the potential to help us cultivate individuality and interiority and explore and locate what we yearn for, find out what excites us, but it might make us lonelier first.