It’s pretty common to hear people refer to something as a guilty pleasure. “Oh—yeah, I watch American Idol. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine.” Then they’ll flash you a guilty smile, shrug, and laugh at themselves, as if trying to assure you that they know that they shouldn’t be watching crappy reality TV. It happens every time someone mentions enjoying romance novels, Twilight, horror movies, or lifetime dramas.
Consuming media like this is often considered a shameful indulgence, like eating an entire box of Oreos.
When you ask someone what their favorite movie is, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear titles like Citizen Kane, La La Land, Pulp Fiction, and maybe even Star Wars or The Avengers. But how often do you hear someone openly admit that their favorite movie is, say, Batman vs. Superman or Fifty Shades of Grey? It seems like society as a whole decides what media is okay to like, and what stuff we should keep locked in the closet. However, reality TV, Lifetime movies, romance novels and even teen dramas are all booming industries that continue to bring in large profits to production and publishing companies. Obviously that means lots of people are still consuming them.
Why do people continue to like—and sometimes love—media that’s “bad?”
For the purposes of this post, we’ll be defining “bad” as anything that isn’t generally considered to be high quality media. This doesn’t mean that we actually think it isn’t good.
Sometimes, bad media is just plain old fun. Anyone who’s ever tuned into a soap opera knows that there is a whole lot of crazy sauce going on there. Characters die, come back to life, die again, and then get avenged by long-lost twins played by the same actor. In romance novels, sinewy, rich, and inexplicably devoted warriors rescue the heroines from the clutches of evil counts who plan to force marriage on them. In reality competition shows, men are expected to choose the love of their life after six weeks in a house with twenty women.
That amount of drama might turn off some people, but it’s harmless entertainment for others.
No one gets shamed for getting a thrill out of riding a roller coaster. Why do we shame people for getting a thrill out of watching a character on a screen fall in love with a vampire who struggles with his thirst for her blood?
If you don’t get invested in a film, what’s the point in watching? Whether you’re really dying to see how the story turns out, you really care about a specific character, or you just want to see who the culprit is, if you’re not invested, you stop watching.
But when you are invested, you can run the risk of being disappointed.
Bad media is safe in that way.
Bad media is full of tropes, familiar characters, and familiar situations, and that allows people to just let go, and get swept up into the story.
A lot of people like to bash romance novels for being cliché and always having a happy ending. “What’s the point in watching if you know how it’s going to end?”
For a lot of people, the happily ever after is just a reassurance that they can get as invested as they want, and it won’t end up disappointing them in the end. For others, the assurance of a happily ever after can be exciting. (ex. How can this relationship possibly work when Evangeline just realized that Mark has a secret baby???)
Bad media is low-pressure, in that way—it allows you to fully invest your energy in something without the risk of being let down. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you’ve just divorced your wife of twenty years, you’re probably not going to want to sit down and read Great Expectations so you can analyze the ways in which wealth is portrayed as a force that ruins the lives of each character. But you might turn on the latest episode of Ice Road Truckers and allow yourself to completely forget the world around you as you invest in the safe, comfortable life of another.
They can exist outside the realm of reality
In the last hundred years, fantasy, sci-fi and horror have managed to become more mainstream than they once were. The gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries (which were pretty much the predecessors to these modern genres) were a hot topic in society during their time, as many people believed they were trash that was corrupting the impressionable minds of young women.
In modern day, we still have a stigma against things that are considered “out of the realm of reality.” Over time, that’s changed from ghost stories and time-travel to romance novel heroes who have unwavering love and loyalty for one remarkably unspectacular girl, or a nobody from Texas who became an American Idol. These types of stories we tend to dismiss as fairy tales too absurd to suspend our disbelief.
But in some ways, don’t we consume media for that very reason? To experience things outside the world we live in now?
Even bad media represents human stories.
You mean to tell me that Chopped doesn’t demonstrate the ways in which people can shine or crumble under pressure? Or how nearly every horror film can be viewed as a representation of the ways in which partners dismissing each other’s concerns can be irreparably damaging? (“No, honey, there was nothing there. You’re just being paranoid! Go back to bed!”)
A lot of bad media is a form of wish fulfilment. Take a look at nearly any scripted pornography film and try to argue otherwise. (There aren’t THAT many TV repairmen willing to accept payments in sex…)
Maybe you really like watching America’s Got Talent because you’ve always dreamed of being a performer. Maybe you like reading comics because you wanted to be a superhero as a kid. Or maybe you read fanfiction because your favorite show got canceled and you need an ending.
Bad media allows people an outlet to explore ideas that they wish were obtainable, whether that’s because it’s physically impossible, or because it’s too “absurd” an idea to be found in “good” media.
If you’re planning to make an Oscar-worthy film, you probably won’t be writing a movie about Edward Cullen coming out of the book and falling in love with your self-insert character. But you can certainly find a lot of fanfictions like that.
There’s a lot of freedom in media that is typically considered bad.
When you’re creating something that you want to be revered as high art, you’re going to stay away from things that will categorize your creation as any sort of genre, you’re not going to try to do so in a medium that is typically regarded as unworthy of recognition (YouTube shows, podcast dramas, long-form improv, or video games) and you might not even want to make it too happy.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been many highly-esteemed comedies (The Graduate). But a lot of times, good media is really depressing and heavy (The Graduate does have all that existential dread…).
These five reasons explain why we like bad media, but they don’t really explain why we dismiss them as guilty pleasures.
Why don’t we have more intellectual discussions about “bad media?”
The people with the loudest voices shape the way we think about media.
Back in the olden days, that was the educated, the rich, and the powerful. If Queen Elizabeth liked Shakespeare, you saw a lot more Shakespeare. If the Pope wanted Michelangelo’s art all over the place, you saw more of that.
Over the last few hundred years, the general population started to shape what types of media were produced. Normal people started to voice their opinions, and some of those opinions started to matter more than others. (Which is also why media for the last however many years has primarily been for and by straight men. Add white to that recipe if you’re talking about Western culture.)
There are a lot of smart critics out there, but they can’t talk about everything.
Which means that a lot of stuff doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
And sometimes, critics have bad things to say about media, meaning it gets more negative attention than it deserves.
Thanks to the internet, there are more critics now than ever.
But that means you get to be one too.
If you like something, you’re justified in liking it. But maybe you need to explain why once in a while.
It’s Time to Start Embracing Our Guilty Pleasure
So, let’s stop calling things we like guilty pleasures just because other people don’t like them.
Too much of anything is always bad… like eating an entire box of Oreos.
But, consuming bad media is a lot more like having a serving of Oreos than the whole box. It’s perfectly justified, and can be a nice treat once in a while.