Whether admittedly or not, most people today inevitably possess a guilty pleasure. The term, which was popularized around the nineties, refers to a piece of media that, despite finding thoroughly enjoyable, one would not be exactly proud to voice their passion over at a dinner party with friends or when inquired the most terrifying question a potentially pretentious stranger could ask: what’s your favorite movie? Guilty pleasures exist across mediums (although not necessarily distributed evenly) and can cause the titular culpability for a number of reasons, ranging from technical mediocrity to objective trashiness of portrayed themes. Indubitably, there is an underlying truth about our society’s contemporary relationship with art hiding in the throwaway categorizing of what are (and what are not) guilty pleasures. Is guilt really necessary? Do we have to be proud of everything we enjoy?
Among the some of the seemingly-infinite guilty pleasures across mediums, are reality television shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County or The Bachelor, cheesy “chick-flicks” like How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days or 27 dresses, romantic novels like 50 Shades of Grey and Silent Heart, and even old-school boy or girl bands such as the Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls, or videogames that have come to be associated with (as ridiculous as it may sound) negative social status or even bad hygiene, like League of Legends.
Although these are just examples, it’s impossible to talk about guilty pleasures without noting the inevitable pattern regarding pieces of media that we tend to classify as “guilty”: they are usually directed and marketed towards women and teenagers. It seems like movies, books, shows, and even music that have females of any age as their target audience immediately get written out as lesser than, as if it was impossible to achieve absolute, admirable quality if the final goal is to please women. Surely there are men who would quickly list the Fast and Furious franchise, ten-hour binge videogame sessions, or some other supposedly “manly” thing as their own personal embarrassment, but there is certainly is assumption that, if made for women or loved by women, a piece of media or art is much more likely to spark guilt even in its very fans.
Recognizing our bias towards female-focused media begins to raise more questions about the ultimate why within guilty pleasures. Okay, so we find liking things made for women embarrassing. Is it because we think these things are bad? Is that the main driving force behind guilty pleasures–quality?
In many cases, that’s hard to believe. We can’t say rom-coms, for example, are, as a genre, inherently low in quality. There might be tropes within the genre that feel repetitive and even cheap, and maybe a considerable number of movies that fit into the category could be considered low in quality. This doesn’t mean there isn’t space within the genre to create something technically and narratively amazing, and it surely isn’t enough to categorize the entire genre as, in one way or another, shameful.
Alright, so quality isn’t the determining factor of whether or not a pleasure is guilty. What might lead us to an answer for what is, however, are the mediums that often (or not) host our guilty pleasures. Considering the impossibly gigantic sample, it is probably safe to assume the percentage of bad books out there is comparable to the percentage of bad movies. Most people, however, would probably have a much easier time naming five movies they would call “guilty pleasures” as opposed to the same for books. As a society, we perceive books as more intellectual–and more “work”–than mediums such as TV, film, or even music. We can still classify one as a guilty pleasure if it is too indubitably badly written or caters too much for women audiences, but, in general, we tend to be more lenient when passing judgment about what someone is or isn’t reading. Reality television, on the other hand, is almost unanimously (and even by its biggest fans) called a guilty pleasure, regardless of how different shows can be from each other and, especially as time passes, more creative ideas and genuinely intelligent and intriguing use of the structure emerge.
The contrast between books and reality television in this context raises the question: is what we most value in art, then, work? In order to be proud of enjoying something, does it need to be laborious, strenuous, often even tiring, to the point where it is barely enjoyable anymore? Do we crave to feel a sort of inaccessibility from the things we consume, to feel better about ourselves (and than other people)? Of course, requiring work and being pleasurable are things that can coexist within a piece of art–but the idea of “guilty pleasures” further implies that something being just pleasurable isn’t enough for it to be good, valuable, and worthwhile.
It’s impossible to ignore the insinuated connection between the many facets of what makes up a guilty pleasure. When we understand part of the “guilt” comes from an idea of content being “easy,” it becomes clear how this is traced back to society’s perceptions of female-driven media. The things that seemingly require less effort are not coincidentally the same associated with women audiences, which even further exposes the absolute fallacy on which the whole concept of a guilty pleasure is built upon. A cheesy, run-of-the-mill rom-com might require the exact same amount of effort as the average action film, but the first is much more significantly looked down upon as a piece of media than the latter. There is nothing wrong with the laid-back, enjoyable nature of these types of content, and either should evoke shame of any kind–but there is a denouncing logical flaw in the way we can often perceive one as better than the other.
When we talk about “guilty pleasures,” the discourse often focuses on the “guilty” portion. Because–especially as the language surrounding cancel culture becomes stronger and “guilty” even less likely to refer to something unacceptably problematic–it seems that the “pleasure” portion of the expression has just as important a part to play. Is that what is so, so embarrassing? Wanting to enjoy something with no concern for poetic justice, narrative balance, technical excellence? The fact that our society’s relationship with art is so intensely dependent on difficulty and labor is inevitably a symptom of the things we value, our each-year-larger eagerness to work, as if resting was, within itself, something shameful. Good, extraordinary, heart-wrenching art–be in the form of a movie, television show, book, or song–can often require attention, proficiency, strategy, practice, labor. But art is by definition subjective, and some of it has the extraordinary, heart-wrenching value of helping us turn our brains off at the end of a tough day. And sure, maybe a reality show where a guy needs to pick between thirty-seven women for the stranger he’s gonna marry in a month (and probably divorce in a year) isn’t exactly art, but not everything needs to be–and it sure still is a deliciously terrible watch.