Everyone should be free to like what they want to like.
I think that’s an idea that most people agree on. Few would quibble with the proposal that a person’s tastes is his or her own, and nothing to be ashamed of. Doesn’t it go without saying?
I think it’s an issue that goes a bit deeper than that, mainly because culturally we still often imply that certain art does not meet the standards of other art. The entire industry of criticism revolves around ranking films as thumbs up or thumbs down, fresh or rotten, good or bad, better or worse. Sometimes, we act as though we shouldn’t like certain films, or that it’s abnormal for us to enjoy what has been deemed lesser in the eyes of our peers. It’s with that in mind that I make the following suggestion:
The term “guilty pleasure” should be totally dismissed when discussing pop culture. We should stop using it. Completely.
For me, it’s a gross phrase. A guilty pleasure, according to Wikipedia, is something that one enjoys and finds pleasure in even though they feel guilty about it. I prefer Urban Dictionary’s brutally blunt definition: something you shouldn’t like, but like anyway. Therein lies the core problem: why shouldn’t I like this? Who decided that I shouldn’t, as an avid and serious music listener, take pleasure in listening to Carly Rae Jepsen or Taylor Swift? Why should I feel compelled to refer to the much-derided Sucker Punch as a guilty pleasure to avoid any scorn I could receive? Why should anyone feel guilty about something that brings them enjoyment?
The term “guilty pleasure” is reductive to meaningful art because it presupposes that someone should feel a certain way about something entirely subjective. It perpetuates the idea that some art is more valuable or important than other art, and that if you prefer or even just enjoy the ‘other art,’ your taste is somehow inferior. This idea is simply false.
Unfortunately, it seems that we are psychologically hardwired to feel shame and guilt when we like something that others may perceive to be a lesser work. We make excuses, because we’d rather lie about what these things mean to us than feel the powerlessness that can come from being perceived, however slightly, as an outsider. I always think of the Arthur episode where Arthur goes to a store to buy a Love Ducks CD, dressed in a trench coat. He asks the clerk if they have it, and the clerk goes on the loudspeaker to ask, “Do we have any copies of the Love Ducks CD for this boy?” Arthur, horrified and humiliated, spreads his arms and stammers that he has a baby sister, even though we know the CD was for him.
It’s wrong that Arthur (and us, by extension) have to feel this way. There’s so much richness to be found by cultivating a diversification of tastes. If you only ever experienced pop culture that has been deemed the most valuable and essential, you would enjoy some wonderful stuff, but I find that once you explore outside of that, you often find things you more closely connect with and become passionate about.
Zero Dark Thirty may be critically and culturally significant, but not many came away from the film loving the characters and storyline and then created fan blogs about it. Films by Tim Burton, many of them dismissed by some as excessive hogwash, still often deal intelligently with themes like death, identity and acceptance, inspiring huge, obsessive followings. And at the opposite end of the spectrum are films like the Twilight series, which many people love but some inevitably feel the need to qualify it as a guilty pleasure. It’s not necessarily that Zero Dark Thirty and Twilight are equivalent films in terms of quality, but they are just as valuable to their respective fans and therefore equally valuable and vital as pieces of art.
Expose yourself, with an open mind, to any and all types of music, movies, TV, art, literature and whatever else, free of inhibitions or doubt or preconceived impressions, and your enjoyment of pop culture will – I promise – grow. I know this from personal experience. In elementary school, when I was too young to know any better, I liked Hilary Duff and Pirates of the Caribbean. In high school, I switched over to Nine Inch Nails and Fight Club and balked at anyone that liked rom coms or Ke$ha. I remember sitting on the bus, coming home from some field trip, and “TiK ToK” came on the radio twice (I should note that I now love Ke$ha). Two girls sang along to the entire song both times, and I eventually turned around and told them to listen to real music before they start singing next time. Looking back on that moment now, I feel incredibly guilty.
There’s no specific instance I can point to when everything changed and I started trying everything and liking whatever I liked; it was a gradual progression. As I began to encounter more pop culture, I started to care less about how I would be perceived. The kid walking his high school halls in a Fight Club t-shirt and the guy walking his university campus in a Carly Rae Jepsen t-shirt are the same person, but the latter one is more diverse in his tastes and open to new experiences.
This is a long-winded and personalized way of saying that the concept of the “guilty pleasure” is archaic, regressive and restrictive on us coming to terms with ourselves and our identities. It’s part of a systemic problem in our society in which everyone not only feels pressure to fit in to a particular clique but also to avoid any semblance of inferiority, to steer clear of shame and embarrassment. To do so, we lie to others and ourselves about what art means to us on a personal level. No one’s taste is any lesser or invalid than anyone else’s, and no piece of art is any less valuable than any other – all that matters is if it’s valuable to you. Let’s remove the phrase “guilty pleasure” from our vocabulary, along with everything it represents, and just start loving the art we want to love, unequivocally and without exception.
A version of this article was originally published on Arbitrary Analysis.