Wednesday a student was talking to me about anticipating that night's LOST season premiere while also expressing that the show must be a guilty pleasure. I was surprised that such a complex and popular program would get the guilty pleasure tag because the well-reviewed and highly-rated series is not the sort of disreputable entertainment normally associated with the term.
Then again, despite plentiful references to old philosophers and decades of popular culture, LOST'S science fiction and fantasy trappings banish it to dwell in the valley of genre rather than the hilltops of high art. As tends to get ingrained in us at an early age, if something is entertaining and accessible, it must be lightweight and can't be taken seriously. Difficult art that is less pleasing to the senses--stuff that feels like work to consume or is emotionally oppressive--has heft and merit.
In other words, fun is equated to the unserious and pleasures of the flesh and unpleasant means intellectual rigor. Certainly there is some truth in the thinking that pleasant, easy-to-watch fare lacks substance and skill and more demanding works display greater smarts and artistry, but intelligence, enjoyment, and craftsmanship are not (and should not be) mutually exclusive.
Two of 2008's most gratifying, thoughtful, and proficient films were entertainments for the masses in the forms of an animated children's comedy and a comic book action movie. Presumably "low" films like WALL-E and THE DARK KNIGHT may not have the sheen of high art--heavens, what self-respecting "important" movie would have frivolous ancillary products?--but existential explorations of loneliness and the limits of power thrive underneath their slick surfaces.
(While this blog entry is not intended as an indictment of yesterday's Academy Award nominations, that body tends to reinforce attitudes which consider prestige, somberness, and superficial seriousness more worthy of praise. The vacuous awards bait that is THE READER stands as the most egregious example.)
As a mass media consumer and critic I try to remain open to the potential of spotting artistic value in all films (or TV shows, books, music, etc.), whether the object appears to be studio schlock or art-damaged obscurity. So I don't put stock in the concept of guilty pleasures. I like what I like, and I don't feel as though it is necessary (or productive) to apologize for those preferences. Calling something a guilty pleasure only tends to marginalize it more.
Plus, when most people claim to reveal their pop culture guilty pleasures, they don't appear to feel any guilt about liking those things. Maybe there are shades of embarrassment in admitting these likes--the tough guy who enjoys romantic comedies or the literature professor with a weakness for Rob Schneider movies, for example--but guilt doesn't factor in.
Not that I'm going to change the dialogue, but I'd like to rename so-called guilty pleasures with the more precise label of disreputable favorites. All right, so that won't fit as easily on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or roll off the tongue as smoothly, but in my mind "disreputable favorites" describes what is meant when people talk about guilty pleasures. It's the stuff that mass audiences reject, critics pan, and cultural stereotypes proclaim we shouldn't appreciate yet we find ourselves enjoying anyway.
I say it's time to stop feeling guilty and start embracing the disreputable.