Two Brow Beat Bloggers on the Death of the Guilty Pleasure

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July 14 2014 9:43 AM
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“There’s Really Nothing to Be Ashamed About Anymore”

Two Brow Beat bloggers chat about guilty pleasures and the mysteries of taste.

Illustration by Charile Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Jennifer Lai: Not too long ago, Slate ran a piece called “Against YA,” in which Ruth Graham argued that we should feel bad about reading young-adult fiction for fun. Forrest and Aisha, you both blog about culture here at Slate. What happens when you like something unpopular or uncool? Do you have “guilty pleasures”?

Aisha Harris: I think my definition of a guilty pleasure is a bit different from most people’s. For instance, I may be embarrassed to admit that I’ve stuck with Grey’s Anatomy for 10 years—but I don’t feel “guilty” about it. But there are definitely some songs/movies/books that I kind of admire or adore even though as an [insert my specific demographic here], I shouldn’t.

Like, say the incredibly racist and offensive Gone With the Wind. As a black person, I should never admit I enjoy the movie as a whole and will watch it any time I catch it on TCM. But it’s just so epic and grand and beautiful and in some ways, arguably feminist (for white women, anyway) that I can’t help but appreciate it. And for that, I feel really, really “guilty.”

Forrest Wickman: Oh man, I love it when I like things that other people don’t like. That means I have an idea for a post or piece, and something to champion! Of course, I still need to be able to articulate why I like the thing, and make the case for it convincingly. Grey’s Anatomy vs. Gone With the Wind seems like an interesting place to start. I don’t see any reason you should feel guilty for appreciating Gone With the Wind! I think it’s certainly possible to appreciate those painterly matte sunsets, for example, without at all excusing the way it depicts its black characters.

Harris: To many people in the black community, however, that’s kind of sacrilege. You’re supposed to renounce everything about it—it’s not quite like old movies that may have an isolated blackface scene here or there (see Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, or the thinly veiled “When I See an Elephant Fly“ from Dumbo). The whole movie is told from the South’s point of view. Much of the film hinges on the beneficence of slavery, always and forever. Shade has been thrown upon me before for admitting that I enjoy watching that movie from time to time.

Wickman: Right. With Grey’s Anatomy, on the other hand, you have a more traditional (if less #slatepitchy) guilty pleasure. I’m curious: How do you think about or justify the time you’ve spent watching the show?

Harris: I suppose I justify the time I’ve spent watching with the consistently great performances that appear even within muddled, conflated plot lines. I’ve written about Meredith and Cristina’s absolutely amazing relationship before, and that was a huge part of it—though now that Cristina’s left, I don’t know how much more I can hang on to the show. (I also feel like now that I’ve put in this many hours/years, I may as well stick with it till the end ...)

Can you think of anything you’ve ever seen/heard where you realize just how gross or incredibly offensive it is, but you couldn’t help but enjoy it anyway?

Wickman: Of course. As someone who spends a fair amount of time listening to hip-hop, I feel like that’s territory I have to navigate on a daily or weekly basis. So when Kanye takes “Strange Fruit” and throws it into the palimony anthem “Blood on the Leaves,” for example, I find myself overlooking all the problems in making that kind of analogy. But I don’t know if I really feel guilty about it: I can enjoy that song for its music (that drop!) without endorsing its politics. (And I don’t mean to single out just hip-hop here. Goodness knows every genre has its regrettable moments—Slate’s Amanda Hess traced a different strain of misogyny in pop in the last few weeks.)

Lai: It makes sense, I guess, for Slate writers to say that it’s not difficult to like things that no one else likes. What about when you like something everyone else loves, too?

Wickman: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking stuff everyone likes, either! There’s a whole (currently prevailing) movement in music criticism dedicated to this. And when it comes to action movies, well, Godzilla and Captain America are among my favorite movies of the year so far, and I would also place them among the 10 best movies of the year so far.

Harris: Right—I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy the next Planet of the Apes movie, which is starting to get some pretty rave reviews, I hear, even though I still find the premise to be more than a little bit ridiculous.

Wickman: Its ridiculousness is precisely what has me excited for it! Monkeys on horses with shotguns!

Also, we should acknowledge that Slate’s own music critic wrote the great book of all time on guilty pleasures, defending the Greatest Guilty Pleasure of All: Celine Dion. And just last month, Carl Wilson’s predecessor did a similarly minded (and similarly great) defense at Vulture. I think the growing consensus among music and TV critics (with similar, if less prevalent movements among movie and book critics) is that there are no more guilty pleasures. R.I.P.

Lai: It sounds like both of you are pretty unembarrassed by your tastes then—do you doubt your own taste sometimes, or do you trust it completely?

Harris: Oh, I definitely doubt my own tastes sometimes. But at this point, I’ve met and talked to so many people about things that they love that I then found myself secretly judging them for, that I’ve come to realize that everyone is “guilty” of suspicious or just weird pleasures sometimes. But on the other hand, there will always be at least one person who will agree with you somewhere.

Wickman:  I honestly don’t think I could name any guilty pleasures I have. You could say that our job is in large part to think about what kind of culture is worthwhile to consume, and I’m usually overwhelmed by how much worthwhile stuff is out there, so I don’t often fall back on anything I’d feel guilty about.

That said, I don’t fully disagree with Ruth Graham. And that is because some things are just a huge waste of time. If people are spending all their days just fattening up on cultural comfort food, I do think maybe they should feel a little guilty about it. They could use some cultural vegetables to balance out their diets. So Aisha, I’ll never judge you for your Grey’s Anatomy, as long as it doesn’t become all you watch. We all need a little McSteamy sometimes.

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