WandaVision and Toxic Self-Care

By Danny Anderson

[Spoilers (if that’s even still possible)].

Over the last two months, I was sucked into Wanda Maximoff’s hex like everyone else.

Many other people have, or will, write about the gripping meditation on grief that WandaVision provides. Still others (with far more patience than me) will spin out of Wanda’s alternate reality into their own tiny fantasy worlds where conspiracy theories and pop-culture analysis mingle to form “fan theories” about the show’s various Easter Eggs.

What I want to focus on here is how the series stands as a perfect and infuriating allegory for our times. In fact, WandaVision perhaps could only happen during the time of our Covid pandemic. 

One glaring feature of this social moment is the widespread acceptance of what we sometimes call “self-care.” And let me be clear here; this is something I fully support. Our economic system, and the values that emerge from it, have long created a pressure on people to simply endure what comes their way. Your value to society is determined by how stubbornly you “take it.” We have needed a radical break from such poison, and this moment has made it more possible.

The catastrophe of Covid changed things in this regard. There is now a much wider understanding about withdrawing from stressful and traumatic situations into therapeutic activities for the sake of coping. This is a good thing. Our collective life in pandemic has been existentially terrifying, and allowing frightened people to escape into comfortable spaces is humane and undeniably right.

That said, a bunker, while safe, makes for a bleak home. This is the gap that Wanda and Vision step into.

One of the most remarkable things about WandaVision, one of its bravest and downright shocking moves, is its function as a metacommentary on the Golden Age of Television. We live in the apex of streaming culture. It is the age of the binge watch. The Golden Age of Television has for 20 years prepared a place for us in this, our time of quarantine. Our virtual retreat centers have been long-established and in addition to the latest Netflix true crime binge, there is always a show on Amazon generating plenty of critical buzz. And don’t forget old friends like The Office or, if you missed it, Community. And Twitter! Oh, Twitter is the perfect forum to gush between binges. Like Wanda, one can live inside the hex of endless streaming.

There is an undeniably beautiful sheen to the community all this entertainment binges into being. And I’ll even go so far as to say that shows like WandaVision provide a powerful means of coping in this time. Vision’s eloquent line “What is grief, if not love persevering?” immediately entered the lexicon of American culture, achieving iconic status. And for good reason; it is gorgeous and true. 

But WandaVision’s great achievement is what it accomplishes right under our noses. It warns us of the dangers of the very escapism it provides. The beautiful community the show constructed around itself each Friday on Disney+ was shimmering and meaningful, but, in reality, just as false as Westview, Wanda’s made-for-TV home.

As the series unfolded, we discovered that in her Sokovian youth, Wanda Maximoff fell in love with American sitcoms, and was even watching one at the moment when the tragic events of her life began. When her grief collapsed into a vortex within her, in an explosion of creative energy, she invented Westview whole cloth as an escapist coping mechanism, its citizens drafted into serving her fantasy sitcom life. By the end of the series, Agatha notwithstanding, Wanda is the villain, having tortured thousands of the real Westview’s citizens, enslaving them to supporting roles in her happy, slapstick life. The comfort zone she retreated into turned out to be an existentialist nightmare. 

If nothing else, the show should give us pause to think about how much of our own television therapy might be crossing over into destructiveness. 

I work in higher education and part of my job involves working closely with first year students. In addition, many of my students are first generation college students who have not necessarily been prepared for the rigors of college by their social and economic heritage. Each year I witness the following scenario playing out again and again:

A student arrives on campus having not had a lifetime of preparation for the demands that college places on them. Often, financial demands make it necessary for that student to work a full time job in addition to school. Soon, the experience becomes overwhelming and the student’s stress in the face of these pressures builds up like steam in an over-worked boiler. 

Then it happens. The student will reach for the pressure-release valve that is a video game or re-watch of Friends.To this point, that is understandable and even potentially helpful. Rest and other breaks from work are, as I’ve said, good things. 

But what happens when we are confronted with the need to break away from our breaking away? In the common scenario outlined above, many students, who had convinced themselves that they were only going to watch for an hour or so, look up from the screen after the day is gone, finding that they are now that much further behind. The debilitating stress compounds and the next day finds another retreat into the student’s own Westview. Rinse, repeat.

This is, of course, not always the case. An episode of the Great British Baking Show has become a comforting way to close out stressful days for me and I, like most people, can stop at one under normal circumstances (I do have my days, of course). 

But particularly in the age of pandemic, haven’t you noticed an uptick in the totalizing rhetoric of retreat? The very good idea that we should normalize rest and self-care has begun to calcify into an ethos in which questioning the wisdom of extended retreat is greeted with social media call-outs and metaphorical pitchforks and torches. Yet what does WandaVision, currently, justifiably, at the pinnacle of pop culture, have to say if not, “your self-care can become toxic if you’re not careful?” 

The Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold, made a lifelong career of challenging the dogmatic assumptions of the England of his day. The fundamental value at the root of his criticism was an insistence on seeing a thing as “in itself it really is.” For Arnold, some activities and ideas are better than others at any given time. Understanding the time as it truly is, not how we would like it to be, is paramount. Being honest about reality is the first step in the pursuit of perfection. 

And let us be honest about the people sucked into Wanda’s made-for-TV life; they are mutilated by the process. Wanda is distracting herself, but everyone else in Westview is tortured. Throughout its run, the show offers occasional glimpses behind the facade of Wanda’s glimmering creation into the waking nightmare experienced by her victims. Entering into this false world exacts a toll, both psychological and spiritual. If we may, as Arnold might suggest, step back from the entertainment and look at the show in the context of our world, we might see much of ourselves in the people made subservient to Wanda’s vision. How are we like them? What parts of our lives are destroyed as we allow ourselves to be sucked into the distracting nothingness of entertainment? Please know that this question is aimed at myself as much as anyone reading this. WandaVision has haunted me with existential questions. What am I not doing as I’m relaxing to forget? How am I not living as I devote time to re-watching The Sopranos? How are my pleasures mutilating me?

In WandaVision’s finale, Wanda’s nemesis, Agatha, forces her to see the reality of her self-care as it truly was. Her horror at the moment she recognizes the torture and violation she terrorized Westview’s innocent citizens with is an iconic moment for the MCU, which often turns away from consequences too flippantly (though one can argue that Wanda should be punished by civil society for her actions as well). This was the ethical turning point for Wanda’s character and leads her to face the pain of her losses. Her act of self-improvement required her to abandon her space of toxic self-care. Westview is finally liberated from her fantasy. 

In all, I was both entertained by WandaVision and impressed with the audacity of its metanarrative. I doubt that the story’s arc will cause fewer people to lose themselves in television shows (quite the opposite, actually), but the lesson is there for those who want to consider it.

Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.

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