There are as many ways to binge-watch as there are people in this world.
November 27, 2013 | Cake | December 2013
As a symptom of an illness, bingeing is heavy with negative implications: gorging, stuffing, hiding, guilt. It’s to be done privately, to escape the outside world and feel better for just a moment. With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services encouraging binge-watching of television shows, the word took on a new connotation. We binge-watch to laugh, escape stress and connect with others. This new “model” of television has been praised as the new way to consume shows, but rarely do we explore the negative aspects of binge-watching. Through anecdotes gleaned from my Twitter followers, we will delve into the ups and downs of this activity that so many do but so few talk about.
I asked the question “Which shows have you preferred to binge-watch?”. The majority of answers tended to focus on hour long shows versus sitcom formats. Interestingly enough, only one person mentioned bingeing reality TV programs. Also, the only “procedural” type show that popped up was Law & Order: SVU, and that particular procedural focuses heavily on human interactions and psychology. There seems to be a penchant for binge-watching shows that are character-focused. Could connecting with characters while bingeing TV shows act as a surrogate for social interactions or experiences? Maybe “surrogate” is too strong a word, and what bingeing can bring us are experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise find in our social environment. I have a theory that by “experiencing” other people’s lives through fiction, we develop empathy, but that’s an article for another day.
Everybody Has A Binge-Watching Story
Binge-watching, in whatever form, is always an intense experience. For several hours a day, our brain is actively engaged, albeit on cruise-control. This intensity, and the resulting feelings, can lead to quirky situations, which frequently came to light in the answers to my little questionnaire.
Killmotion transformed a bad situation in a good one: “[T]he first time I really binge-watched (…) was after I broke my collarbone and couldn’t work. I was out of commission for nearly a month and I used that whole time to watch ALL 10 seasons of Stargate SG-1 in under 2 weeks. I ate, slept and breathed that show for the whole 2 weeks. It was a new experience for me and I LOVED IT”. Taylor, on the other hand, embodied what I call “The Converter”; we enjoy the experience of bingeing a show so much that we won’t rest until our friends share in the joy that is getting to know the characters that made us feel so much. She explains: “I used to carry my Gilmore Girls DVDs around with me and force my friends to watch whole seasons in one sitting. I was frequently uninvited from people’s houses”. I read tales of crying when said TV-binges were over, snow days, and starting to act or talk like a certain character (Trevor adds: “talking like Michael Scott probably isn’t a good thing”). In fact, many had quirky, personal anecdotes that had to do with bingeing. Rod, for example, prepared for the occasion. He says that he “literally went 24 hours watching a season; I had grocery shopped for the occasion, bought Slim-Fast and energy drinks, and sat in front of my T.V.”. For her part, Sara KG developed a pavlovian-like response; she says that she develops a “slight headache and some nausea” when she watches any part of Buffy Season 4.
One respondent, TVDoesn’tHaveAGender, shared very powerful thoughts with me about what I think is the most interesting aspect of binge-watching: the emotional appeal.
“You probably already know this, but that feeling of warmth and happiness binging away in my favourite TMNT blanket without a care or worry in the world is something I desperately try to pursue in my life, and that I don’t think I could ever live without. In a way, it’s my last connection to pure childhood, where I can emulate lack of responsibility and only pursue pure interest and gratification. Sometimes, it’s like a grandparent telling you stories, and you just can’t have enough. It’s just one of the few times where you can be by yourself, judge by yourself, appreciate stories being told to you and soak it all in. There’s nothing quite like sitting there and be told a magnificent story, because whether you like it or not, it can always make you reflect and learn new things.”
It’s the perfect sentiment because it encompasses the overall feel of bingeing. There’s a lightness to getting immersed in fictional characters’ lives; watching a world we intimately know unfold in front of our eyes. It affects our mood. Trevor tells us: “It might be because the shows I binge-watch are always shows that make me laugh, but I find that it really brightens my mood”. For some, bingeing is soothing, since it alleviates the stress of having to catch shows at the precise moment that they air. This is the case for GK Sutto: “Bingeing television helps me to alleviate the stress that used to accompany potentially missing that week’s premieres. If I get behind – oh well!”
Isabelle puts it nicely when she writes: “Thanks to Netflix, you can give in to the urge for ‘just one more’”. Binge-watching does indeed remove the waiting time between a cliffhanger and its resolution. In fact, some people prefer to consume their weekly shows this way, to specifically avoid the “cliffhanger hiatus”, which Killmotion describes as “agony”. TVDoesn’tHaveAGender explains their situation: “I just rarely have time to watch a TV show in a scheduled slot every week; therefore, it is easier for me to watch quality TV shows all at once since they hook you in very nicely and you feel as if you WANT to watch them all at once (no deferred cliffhangers, hurrah!)”. Mary Ellen adds: “There is something so satisfying when you watch the next episode [immediately] following a cliffhanger”.
Binge-watching, in this instance, seems to symbolize control; control over how we consume our TV shows. I think this behaviour can be a broader statement on the way we live our lives in a technologically-advanced world. Everything is so fast-paced that we expect feedback immediately. Since that isn’t always possible, but clicking “next episode” is, the gratification is immense.
Something else surfaced as I was reading the responses. Though bingeing can be an intense, fun, and liberating experience, it’s also a very personal one. Thus, there are some downsides to spending so many hours of our lives escaping reality through a screen. Kellie said: “Though I do enjoy TV, and have loved these shows, mostly it has been super bad for me as a functioning human to lay in bed all day, not participating IRL”. Interestingly, she was the sole person out of the 11 who answered my questionnaire that qualified the experience as a “negative” one. However, negative aspects were alluded to throughout many answers, like in Cathy’s: “I said positive because I enjoy it so much. I love TV. I probably watch too much, but I’m ok with that”. There’s the very real dimension of “wasting time” at stake. Sara KG elaborates: “Overall it’s been positive, but I wouldn’t do it now. Before I had not taken school very seriously and could afford to waste all that time in front of the TV. Now that I’m in grad school, it would be akin to committing academic suicide, which I’m not all that interested in pursuing”. Personally, bingeing is my very favorite method for procrastination, when schoolwork seems overwhelming. Conquering a 44 minutes episode is a lot easier than writing thousands of words on Michel Foucault’s resistance theory.
Imaged thus, bingeing seems to be a tool to run away from our problems; to put blinders on while the “real world” is put on hold. GK Sutto touches on this: “Years later, I would call off work to stay in bed watching hours and hours of X-Men and Toddlers & Tiaras. What can I say? I was the laziest and most depressed of the gay nerds, and who wanted to go answer phones all day when there was a world of entertainment – and a subscription to Netflix – right at my fingertips?”. I think, then, that there are real parallels between bingeing as a symptom of an eating disorder, and binge-watching TV shows, maybe ultimately exemplified through our feelings of guilt. I know I’ve frequently thought of shutting my laptop and moving rooms so that my boyfriend wouldn’t find me in the exact same position upon coming home: on the couch, pillow behind my back, laptop on my thighs. We try to rationalize our binges (“just one more”), say “not much” when someone asks what we did during the weekend. If tied to emotions of inadequacy, procrastination or depression, I feel like binge-watching becomes more than just a way to consume TV shows. It becomes a band-aid solution, while our problems live on. Thankfully though, binge-watching is much less harmful than an eating disorder, as it doesn’t actually seem to produce any major medical problems.
Practicality and Social Interactions
There may be a distinction to be made between “Marathoning” and “Binge-watching”, the former involving the presence of others. Since we explored the “adverse effects” of bingeing, it’s interesting to ask: would this mode of bingeing be less harmful given the social aspect? Perhaps less secretive? Does being with others affect our enjoyment of a show? Kellie said she “only really enjoys TV marathoning when she’s with a couple of friends”. But physically being with others isn’t the only way to enjoy TV shows with others. “Twitter has been the best thing about binge-watching,” says Cathy. “I made so many friends who have introduced me to new shows and have watched with me. Its so much fun when you can share it with people”. Many other responders credit Twitter for a sense of community while binge-watching certain shows. Though binge-watching is a very private thing physically, social media can provide company for this solitary activity.
Not only that, but it can also elevate our critical thinking of a show. By sharing thoughts on different episode with fellow Twitterers, our opinions may shift and sway and provide new layers to our understanding. Sharing helps, but Taylor makes the point that the format itself, bingeing that is, helps with our critical thinking, too: “Binging is almost like a meditative state that forces me to really make connections and think about the larger implications and themes”. Likely not all bingers are so astute.
When I started to write this piece, I went on all kinds of scholarly search engines, to try and ascertain if links between bingeing as a symptom of an eating disorder and binge-watching television had been established in academia. I couldn’t find anything, so I reached out to some professors with expertise in eating disorders, to pick their brains on the subject. I never got a reply. I think it takes a long time for “pop culture phenomenons” to reach the academic study sphere, and that’s a shame; as we’ve explored, binge-watching TV is a unique but shared experience, engendering both positive and negative consequences. In my opinion, it’s a worthy study subject in need of further analysis. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting on the couch with my favorite blanket, catching up with Arrow.
Author’s note: This article could not have been written without Kellie Hogan’s inestimable contribution.
Gabby is an Acadian who’s missing the sea and splitting her time completing her Master of Social Work at UOttawa and watching TV. She also writes for Fantastic Fangirls & Heroine TV and tweets at @gloryisben.
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