Back in 2011, Dan Kois, writing in The New York Times, launched an ongoing series of debates about “eating our cultural vegetables.” His argument was simple: He sometimes finds “difficult” or “slow-moving” films or shows boring, and the older he gets, the less of a crap he gives about whether he “should” be watching intellectually edifying pieces of entertainment. He called this “aspirational viewing”—the cultural impetus to watch TV or films that others have deemed worthy of greatness—and bemoaned the time he had wasted on it in the past. Just go with whatever you find fun, he concluded. After all, no matter what art he consumed, “my taste remains stubbornly my taste.” Call it the Popeye argument: “I yam what I yam.”
Recently, however, a new target has emerged in these debates: the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” Jennifer Szalai kicked things off last December in The New Yorker with “Against ‘Guilty Pleasure’,” in which she essentially argued that guilt shouldn’t apply to the consumption of popular culture. Some ethical behaviors—like visiting a brothel, Szalai suggests—made sense being labeled “guilty pleasures.” But when it became an evaluation of art or entertainment, “guilty pleasure” became an epithet that let others know that “one takes pleasure in something but knows (the knowingness is key) that one really shouldn’t.” In other words, it’s a way to say “I know this is crap, but all the same…” The problem with these arguments is that pleasure isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.
The term “guilty pleasure” developed in response to the way the distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art are disintegrating. Sure, some separations remain: Opera is still considered the domain of the snooty, upper-crust types. (The maître d’ who tried to throw Ferris Bueller out of that fancy restaurant—probably a huge opera fan.) And the music of the Insane Clown Posse is basically ensconced at the “lowbrow” end of the artistic spectrum. (Even if your college roommate wrote an essay sophomore year called “Foucault And Alterity At The Heart Of Shaggy 2 Dope,” let’s grant the point.)
But by and large, mainstream culture has increasingly acknowledged that any kind of art, from graffiti to EDM, can be great if it possesses a worthwhile artistic vision. And as a consequence, Szalai notes, we are losing “middlebrow culture,” that strange admixture of high and low art, in which the American people were encouraged to broaden their intellectual palate to make up for all the trashy pop culture they consume—to mix in some opera and poetry with their daytime soaps, essentially. And once postmodernism became the standard-bearer for mainstream culture, the idea of separating “good” and “bad” forms of art disappeared; we lost that need to find “respectable” kinds of art to experience. A graphic novel has won the Pulitizer Prize, after all.
The idea is that we’ve gotten lazy as a result. Maybe we were taught that Mozart is great music. Instead, we turn on Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” and make excuses to others—“It’s a guilty pleasure,” we say, while surreptitiously practicing our twerk in front of the mirror. Szalai thinks using the term “guilty pleasure” encourages bad habits. It’s an ego-enhancing phrase that’s nothing but “a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation.” It’s the worst of both worlds, basically: We snobbishly put ourselves above such lowbrow entertainment while simultaneously (and condescendingly) proving we’re not above lowering ourselves to enjoy the pop culture trash, right alongside the unwashed masses. Just plain ol’ folks, in other words. It’s the semantic equivalent, for Szalai, of a Mitt Romney presidential campaign.
The problem is that Szalai is confusing “guilt” with “shame,” as though they were the same thing. They’re not. Shame is public; it’s a feeling based on how others see you and your behavior. Guilt, by contrast, is self-directed; it’s private, and has to do with how you, and you alone, evaluate your relation to the world around you. The former is what Szalai is railing against, and she sees the use of “guilty pleasure”—mistakenly, in my opinion—as an expression of that public judgment. But if you enjoy something, and there’s some guilt involved, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with other people. It’s because you yourself have issues with that piece of pop culture.
Adam Sternbergh, earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine, takes it even further: He advocates for banishing the word “should” from his vocabulary—as in, if he enjoys something (or doesn’t enjoy it), there’s no reason he “should” feel any differently. No matter what books, movies, TV shows, plays, or YouTube videos he watches, he happily proclaims, “I won’t feel guilty about it or regret it for a second.” He seems to think this will improve critical debate. Aside from the laudable goal of not castigating other people for their taste, I’m not sure how he thinks it will accomplish this.
Both Szalai and Sternbergh make smart, cogent arguments for why we shouldn’t feel pressured by others to feel bad for liking what we like. “If you want to listen to Rihanna while reading the latest from Dean Koontz, just go ahead and do it,” she encourages. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a nice thought—and has almost nothing to do with the use of “guilty pleasure” as a critical concept.
Szalai says to “go ahead” and enjoy anything: “Don’t try to suggest you know better.” But what if you do think you know better? Let’s take Family Guy as an example. It’s not hard to see Family Guy as both a fun, fast-paced joke-delivery system and an often poorly constructed, slapdash amalgamation of nonsense, regularly infused with a crass racism and homophobia that is critical and incisive at best, but deeply reactionary and pandering at worst. It can create a feeling of ambiguousness, in which a wobbly hit-to-miss ratio of unexpected laugh lines stand alongside a fairly ugly and retrograde assemblage of uneven plots and outdated stereotypes. It’s the kind of show you might find yourself turning to when you have a spare 25 minutes, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend to someone else as a “great TV show.” It offers a kind of lazy, easy enjoyment that doesn’t always sit well. It is, in other words, a guilty pleasure. (You may not agree: You may just love it or hate it, without exception, and the great part about “guilty pleasure” is that it in no way negates or belittles your opinion, any more than someone saying “I think Deep Blue Sea had a few plot holes” makes watching Samuel L. Jackson get chomped in half by a genetically enhanced shark any less awesome.)
More importantly, there are aspects of individual sitcoms, comics, or films that we might find ourselves deeply drawn to, despite the negative critical analysis we otherwise have of it as a whole. Calling something a “guilty pleasure” is not the same as saying, “That’s not art.” It’s an admission of the often ambiguous relationship many people have with pop culture: We regularly tune in to some things simply because they’re the pop culture equivalent of McDonald’s: There are dozens of better options out there, but this one is cheap, easy, and we know what we’re getting. It doesn’t challenge, inspire, or ask anything of us at all beyond our fleeting attention span. We know there are better things out there, and it’s a mental reminder that we haven’t lost the critical skills that make us richer viewers than we were in the past.
The idea that our pleasure is an all-or-nothing proposition feels like a peculiarly American one, stemming from a reaction to the Puritanism that shaped (and continues to shape) so much popular culture. Rather than condemnation for enjoying violent movies, or crude cartoons, or the soft porn of Fifty Shades Of Grey, we instead celebrate them, offering up homilies to our enjoyment. This isn’t a strengthening of the debate: It’s the critical equivalent of the “red-state/blue-state” partisanship of our politics. It asks us to cast aside doubts and uncertainties about the culture we partake of, and unequivocally name all enjoyment as good. And if, God forbid, we stop and acknowledge that a book we’re enjoying is predictable, or trite, or simply bad writing, then perhaps we don’t really enjoy it after all.
Better to retain the ambiguity that attends so much of what we consume, and be honest about the fact that sometimes we choose to consume entertainment that, to quote David Foster Wallace, we “feel superior to.” It’s not arrogance that leads us to recognize some pleasures as guilty, merely our own critical faculties. And if we don’t find anything particularly redeeming in Fifty Shades Of Grey, beyond our own—say it with me now—pleasurable titillation, what’s wrong with saying so?