Though Pajiba has embraced the concept in the past, I’ve never cottoned to the phrase “guilty pleasure.” At least, not in relation to the ways we spend our time and money on entertainment. I suppose the phrase does have some merit when talking about the food we consume. Certainly, there are things we digest (anything fried and/or covered in chocolate comes to mind) that are far unhealthier, in a very real and literal sense, for the human body than other things we can eat (I’ve been assured that most of these come in some shade of green). I would be willing to listen to an argument that attempts to place unhealthy viewing habits alongside unhealthy eating habits as equal malpractices for body and the mind, and thus society at large, but unless we’re discussing the broadcast schedule of TLC, I doubt I would be thoroughly convinced. For as long as I can remember, the concept of feeling remorse and shame for what we watch, read, or listen to just does not make any damn sense to me. And, trust me, I’ve derived pleasure from truly, objectively awful things.
From the outset, guilt is a tool of control that has always been used to curb certain behaviors, and even thoughts, that leaders of cultures find deplorable in some fashion. Much of its use can be fine when our goal is a nebulous effort to prevent the seemingly inevitable fall of this majestic societal structure we humans have built for tens of thousands of years. Some things really do contain existential threats to our cultures or countries; it’s why we have laws and a judicial system, after all. Religion and politics have used the tool successfully since the invention of civilization, and parents have attempted to mold their children with it, probably, since before we painted on cave walls. In so many ways, feeling guilty (as opposed to being guilty) really is the only thing keeping us from descending into total anarchy. That tingling sensation at the base of our skulls is with us every day, in nearly every aspect of our lives, at the most microscopic levels.
At it’s worst, guilt is also a weapon used by mostly self-selected arbiters of rightness against our most natural, base, and individual reactions to every kind of stimuli we might come across. This is when guilt is deployed, not for the greater good, but for the benefit of the individual in an attempt to elevate themselves over the masses. Drs. Phil, Drew, and Gupta are on TV and writing books lamenting all of modernity’s life choices, shaming us when we want a candy bar instead of a banana; luring us back to buy more stuff when we once again feel lost. We subconsciously know it’s impossible for everyone to achieve their dreams, yet Hollywood insists on punishing our psyches by portraying nigh impossible ideals we’re all supposed to subscribe to and strive for, because we keep watching. Many of us might not know how “good” music ought to sound without Lester Bangs or Rolling Stone magazine telling us from on high, helping create a cottage industry of snobbery. We’re even told that our toothpaste has to be approved by four out of five dentists before Colgate will sell it to us, so don’t you dare brush your teeth with anything else.
Since we live guilt with every day, why would we let anyone or anything but our own gut tell us what movies, shows, books, or music can bring us pleasure?
Really and truly loving Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise - much less the existence of the movies themselves - is not going to pull out the wrong Jenga piece and cause the whole shuddering Tower of Babel to fall around us. You can even get a weekly kick out of “The Big Bang Theory” or “Two Broke Girls” or “Glee” or “Pawn Stars” or “Tosh.0” or whatever new talent competitions are filling up 2/3 of the prime time schedule on top of your Baysplosions, and you still won’t come close to tearing asunder this precious, fragile global community we’ve built. We’re strong, we can endure it. You can bathe in the useless, regressive Twilight series or get a titter out of its erotic fan fiction counterpart, listen to Katy Perry sing about kissing girls and Taylor Swift croon morbidly about her most recent public embarrassment. Hell, you can dance your ass off to The Black-Eyed Peas if you want, the sun will still rise in the morning and the Dow Jones will likely be within 100 points of where it sat before you went to bed.
All of that only means you might have bad taste. But remember: What they say about opinions and assholes is undeniably true. Taste is only agreed upon by our pop culture consuming brethren, and everything is subjective. Only those people with sand in their nethers don’t appreciate the visceral appeal of the lower, more emotional arts, as well as the higher, brainier stuff. It’s one thing to give Drive Angry a chance, it’s another to immediately dislike every piece of popcorn fluff just on the principle. It pains me to say, but the tripe that comes out of MTV - from “Jackass” to “Jersey Shore” - isn’t the end of the world, because even they have “Daria” and “Awkward” and Kurt Loder. While Brett Ratner threatened to ruin my childhood’s favorite memories with X-Men: The Last Stand, nobody has died from a good Ratnerfucking.* That doesn’t mean we ought to enjoy everything shoved in front of our eyeballs and pounded into our earholes, and it doesn’t mean you can’t utterly hate something many others enjoy. But it does mean you have to think and feel for yourself, and allow others the same courtesy.
Wallowing in the worst entertainment has to offer doesn’t mean critics and peers have no part to play in our choices for consumption, or our appreciation of them, either. (Look where I’m writing; of course, I don’t believe that.) Earlier, I called those who would pass judgment “self-selected arbiters of rightness” and that isn’t meant as an insult or a means to disregard opposing views. We do choose which voices we think are valid by voting with our attention, and sometimes our money, but critics first have to choose whether and how to offer their voice before any of this can happen. Hopefully the critic is as passionate as we are about such-and-such art and believe in what they want to communicate about it, using their expertise and knowledge in the subject matter to convince us they’re the most right. But like the art they judge, not every one is subjectively as valuable as others. Anyone who makes you feel shameful and the need to repent for unabashedly loving, say, Roger Corman, or Troma, or The Asylum is not someone worth listening to.
The phrase “guilty pleasure” really should be reserved for those things which are actually terrible for us, our neighbors, or our society. Chocolate is the universal equalizer for every echelon of people, because it is delicious. It won’t kill anybody right away (unless one chokes on it, I guess), but too much of it and your health will plummet, and too many unhealthy people is bad for the community (see the rising costs of U.S. health care). So, should you feel guilty about eating that second Snickers bar? Yeah, maybe a little, and if that’s all you eat, then maybe a lot. But should you feel guilty about eating that Snickers bar while watching trash TV and listening to Now That’s What I Call Music, vol. 666? Nope, you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. You’ve earned whatever respite from the chaos you can get, and this is your time to do as you please. Get those tedious voices fretting about the downfall of civilization out of your head before it’s too late.
Unless you’re watching TLC. In which case, please do us all a favor and not reproduce.
(h/t to Sara Habein for providing some inspiration)
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbles on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. Growing up, it’s possible he watched too much MST3K and “USA Up All Night” with Rhonda Shear and Gilbert Gottfried.