How guilty is your pleasure?—A social theory

20 Feb

Theory: Calling something a “guilty pleasure” is the best compliment you can give that thing. In public, at least.

I love meeting new connoisseurs—movie buffs, book worms, foodies, wine snobs, and even, to some degree, fashionistas. I love it because they all have different criteria for what they consider “true,” or the real substance of what they love so much, and they all, whether they admit it readily or not, have guilty pleasures. What makes a pleasure guilty seems to be that they “know better,” so declaring something a “guilty pleasure” is the social equivalent of saying “I like this, but I do know that technically it’s not as good as X,Y, and Z, so while I will continue to consume this with some enjoyment, don’t judge my quality by its quality. I’m better than it, really, I promise.”

Only connoisseurs have guilty pleasures. A lover of fine microbrews may occasionally drink his girlfriend’s (who, in this scenario, gives two shits about beer and therefore just buys something that is easy to drink and achieves the desired effect, because her self-worth is not at all tied up in this particular hierarchy) passion fruit Miller Lite and sheepishly admit that it’s pretty good with the hot wings. But—and the hypothetical lover of fine microbrews is adamant on this—it’s only a guilty pleasure. It’s not good the way his $12 four pack of saffron-infused stout from that independent brewery that he’s saving for the next time his brew-buddies come over, but it’s sweet and the salsa is very spicy and somehow he is managing to enjoy it despite himself.

I love the whole “guilty pleasure” concept for how revealing it is about our relationship to pleasure, identity, and social perceptions. What’s beautiful about guilty pleasures is that they are not remotely guilt-making. When we reveal that we enjoy something as a guilty pleasure, it is more humblebrag than genuine embarrassment.

There are a lot of forces at play when we talk about what we enjoy beyond what actually gives us various degrees of pleasure, because, wrong or right, what you like goes a long way to suggest what you are like socially. (Just look at every dating site ever and see what people use to describe themselves—primarily likes and dislikes.) I was recently told that, because of my defense of Kingdom of a Crystal Skull a few posts ago and that Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie, I was revealing myself to be “an awful example of a human being.” (Thanks, Justin.) Hyperbole aside, interchanges like this happen all day long—ranking of each other according to good/bad taste. Singularly, they are petty and not taken very seriously, but cumulatively they contribute to our social status and identity.

What you are a snob about can indicate part of your social persona—fun-loving, thoughtful, classy, active, creative, nerdy, etc. In book-world, your social identity is partly determined by the section of the book store that you want to be in if you run into your crush. (Sure, you may have the next Patterson book under your arm, but you’re browsing by the Best American display, you sexy-smart thing you.) The details of media hierarchy, everything from sports to poetry, is much debated within fan-circles, but there are often areas of broad consensus. Showing that you have taste is a way of showing that you are knowledgeable, but it is also a high claim for your own self-worth. What you like can be interpreted as what is worthy of your time and attention and what you dislike as unworthy. So when you say “I like this” or, God forbid, “This is my favorite,” you are actually saying “This is worthy of me, and I, it,” putting value not only on the thing in question, but also on yourself.

However, being a snob is socially-viewed as a bad thing, implying arrogance or, at best, a certain fuddy-duddyness. Because carrying this impulse to the conclusion means that if you dislike something, it’s beneath you, and, by extension, everyone who likes that thing is beneath you. This is an irrational idea and shouldn’t be directly acknowledged in polite society, but I think it’s pretty common in varying degrees, from convivial joking to rage-wars. (Consider the extreme interpretation of this, held by the social aberration of hipsters, whose behavior suggests a peculiar belief system: I like nothing that other people like. I only like the things that are way above everyone else’s heads and no one likes. Therefore, I am better than all people.)

For real people in the social realm, both good taste and open-mindedness are desirable qualities—thus the “guilty pleasure” is a way we can show both our knowledge of the thing in question and our discriminating tastes, while still revealing a laid-back attitude that is easy to get along with.

Having guilty pleasures is far healthier than sticking strictly to a standard, and not merely for the economic practicalities of rarity and value that would make it impossible. For one, a guilty pleasure can force you, if only privately, to reexamine your own rubric for judging the qualitative substance of the things you enjoy. Because if this passion fruit Miller Lite is somehow enjoyable, transcending the previous requirements of “worthy” of being enjoyed, then perhaps the rubric is a social construction, and not a set of preferences set by your own palate. Perhaps if you find something about The Crow: City of Angels or V/H/S wildly entertaining, then perhaps your perception of what it means to be a good movie is more complex and subtle than you first imagined.

Or, alternatively, you shouldn’t judge the quality of anything at 3 AM. This may also be a viable theory.

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