Guilty Pleasures

“Guilty pleasures; Billy put, ‘half a melon heated up in the microwave’, very creative Billy!”

-Dr. Venture, The Venture Bros.

There’s something strange and off-putting about the term “guilty pleasure,” and for a long time I couldn’t put my finger on it. At first, the issue seemed to be that it is an overtly backhanded compliment. For example, I could say that The Sing Off is a guilty pleasure, because normally I loathe singing competition shows and am generally uninterested in reality television in general. What I’m saying is that while I find a certain medium irritating, this iteration is all right. It’s kind of an emotionally cheap thing to do, to avoid airing a real opinion about something by avoiding the word “because.” We say something’s a guilty pleasure and that’s the end of it because it leaves any and all reasons implied. I like The Sing Off because the judges display extensive knowledge of the subject matter and give constructive criticism to the contestants, because the quality of the performances is generally very high, and, emphatically, because it’s not a freak show. The latter, I refer to in the television sense of the word. I’ve been to a real Freak Show, and it was awesome. The television version typically showcases people you just end up feeling sorry for. The only time I’ve ever felt sorry for someone on The Sing Off is when I couldn’t decide which group had a better performance.

More damning, perhaps, is the idea that the “guilty” part comes from the idea that whatever thing you take pleasure in is not socially acceptable. I’ve heard “guilty pleasure” applied to everything from Britney Spears and colorful cocktails to ’80s hair metal and porn. Never have I heard it apply to something that might realistically cause a serious sense of guilt. For a complete list of actual guilty pleasures, consider Dan Savage’s column archive and imagine what it might be like to not be able to act on certain desires or to know that there might be one person in a hundred million with whom you could share your desires. That’s about as bad as sucking down lemon drops while listening to “Toxic,” right?

If we’re talking about the hangover, definitely.

The problem is a deeply seeded dishonesty, not just about the guilty pleasure in question, not just about what we find socially acceptable, but about our individual sense of guilt. If we’re lying to ourselves about what we like and don’t like, and are setting up obstacles to those things, those lies will mediate new experiences. I had a post some time ago about what is and isn’t authentic, and ended up being fairly inclusive about what was authentic or genuine, but this is one of the exceptions. When new sensory input is mediated by our own emotional and moral dishonesty, our experiences cannot be defined as authentic.

Whether it’s fluff, irony, desire, or something more sinister, let it be just that. Worry about the guilt later.



  1. I agree. “Guilty pleasure” stems from a person’s deviation from what he or she perceives as a socially acceptable standard of taste. Thus, the term’s usage is also socially dependent. For example, someone might be more readily inclined to admit to liking fantasy novels at a gaming convention than at an academic convention, where, if it were to come up, “guilty pleasure” would be the phrase deployed to account for it lest one’s inclusion in the group of “serious” literary scholars be called into question. The phrase would be unnecessary at the gaming convention, however, where the dominant standard of taste (one might assume) allows for the inclusion of fantasy novels. The case is the same for a person who might admit to genuinely loving Jello shots at a college party but then coyly dismiss them as guilty pleasures at a fancy cocktail bar. Through these discrepancies, we can see how an individual’s taste (and, by extension, morality) is socially determined (and malleable). And it’s because of the relationship to morality, I think, that the word “guilty” comes into play. The goal should be to reach a point where you can readily admit to liking things outside of the dominant standards of taste without feeling or feigning guilt or fearing exclusion from a group. If you can offer reasons for your peculiar tastes and can thus enrich the conversation about art and appeal to potential converts, so much the better.

  2. Art, I think you’re right, but I would add one observation: guilty pleasures justify one’s enjoyment of things only downward in the socially perceived hierarchy. I could claim Lerner and Loewe’s showtunes as a guilty pleasure, but I can’t claim Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier in the same way. Do we have a word for justifying our enjoyment of things perceived to be higher than the context of the group’s taste?

  3. Our need to justify something that we think is good, without the irony of “guilty pleasure,” is indicative of pretty heavy insecurity. It could be personal; the person liking the thing is afraid that they will be labeled as a snob or nerd and will be rejected from the group. It could also be cultural; homogenization of aesthetic standards, whether in small-group or on a national or global scale, can serve to isolate viewers of art. To bring themselves back into the fold and continue to talk about things they like, but perceive as of higher taste, people might use the term “highbrow.” That’s fine, but it serves to compartmentalize aspects of their personalities, isolating them from the things they enjoy in the same way that guilty pleasures do.

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