Why It's Time to Drop the Term 'Guilty Pleasure'

What we really mean when we call shows like 'UnREAL' and 'Scandal' guilty pleasures

A scene from 'UnREAL.'
Leo Williams / YES

The television drama series “UnREAL” (which exposes the manipulations behind reality shows) is back on the screen joining an array of fun series with a light touch. So the time has come to talk about the groundlessness of the term “guilty pleasure,” which is frequently attached to these and similar programs. Applied to the enjoyment of works that aren’t sufficiently intellectual or that don’t come under the rubric of “high culture,” this term is one of the most superfluous and ridiculous in popular culture. It’s high time to remove it from the lexicon – with no guilt attached.

According to a 2013 New Yorker article by Jennifer Szalai, when the term first appeared, in The New York Times in 1860, it was used in reference to visiting a brothel. Until the end of the 1990s, it appears in the paper’s archive only a few times. But then it took off, via three main arenas in which pleasure and guilt tend to be intertwined: food, religion and art. From there the expression entered the heart of the contemporary struggle between “high culture” and “low culture.”

Middlebrow culture

Implicit in the term “guilty pleasure” these days is the assumption that viewers or readers are supposed to be embarrassed by the fact that they are deriving pleasure from an unpretentious, undemanding series, book or movie that isn’t protected by a critical consensus. If someone takes undeliberate pleasure in a work that’s been judged to be not sophisticated enough, and is simply unable to stop himself from enjoying it, he’s permitted to divulge the shameful truth only if he admits, with a wink, that it’s no more than a “guilty pleasure.”

According to Jennifer Szalai, the term also serves snobs who want to show that they’re still able to be one of the crowd. “So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch [the TV series] ‘Scandal,’ implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust,” Szalai writes. “Guilty pleasures,” she adds, belong to a diminishing “middlebrow culture,” which “at its best generated a desire to learn, to value cultural literacy and to accept some of the challenges it requires.”

In short, there is no correct and necessary hierarchy in culture. Cultural works are very different from one another in conception and in the means invested in them, in their aesthetic aspects and narrative depths, and in the connection they forge with the public. But in many of the films or television series that are considered guilty pleasures, the pleasure derives from the simple fact that they are entertaining, and a great many of them achieve this intelligently, refreshingly and effectively.

In fact, googling for series that are categorized in the current cultural climate as guilty pleasures turns up well-made entertainment. In addition to “UnREAL,” that title belongs to the popular series “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ drama of political conspiracy, and the captivating “Jane the Virgin.” In films, the search turns up “Titanic,” “Armageddon,” “Top Gun,” “Con Air” and “Grease,” among others.

One could easily talk about the many virtues and great enchantment of these films and explain that even successful entertainment requires thought and precision. However, there is no real reason to come up with excuses for the pleasure that’s derived from them. Those who tend to invoke the term “guilty pleasure” in this context, from some sort of embarrassment or because these works harp on the emotions or on aspects of their personality that they wish to hide – well, that’s more a matter for the shrink’s couch. Because it’s important to know how to surrender to pleasure, too, and above all to accommodate a broad range of cultural pleasures. The sense of guilt should be reserved for worthier and far more urgent matters.