In defense of 'guilty pleasure': Why do we buy into elitist value judgements when it comes to the pop culture we enjoy?

'When used in the context of pop culture, “guilty pleasures” usually imply your (often surreptitious) enjoyment of that which the cultural cognoscenti would not approve of. My proposition is simply this: that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”; that if something brings you enjoyment, then others’ judgements about its quality should have little to no bearing on your experience of it,' writes Devansh Sharma.

Devansh Sharma June 25, 2020 09:52:25 IST
In defense of 'guilty pleasure': Why do we buy into elitist value judgements when it comes to the pop culture we enjoy?

Too Hot to Handle is your next guilty pleasure,” reviews for Netflix’s new reality show proclaim. This essay, however, is not about Too Hot to Handle. It is instead about “guilty pleasures”.

When used in the context of pop culture, “guilty pleasures” usually imply your (often surreptitious) enjoyment of that which the cultural cognoscenti would not approve of. A TV show or film or book or song that is termed “lowbrow” by elite gatekeepers/taste-makers, but which members of the audience find joy in nonetheless. My proposition is simply this: that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”; that if something brings you enjoyment, then others’ judgements about its quality should have little to no bearing on your experience of it.

One does not need a culture dietician to police — even for free — what one consumes.

At least part of the root of the concept of “guilty pleasure” lies in the virtue society makes of suffering/pain; by that yardstick, enjoyment for its own sake, especially if it doesn’t have educational or instructive value, is frowned upon. A piece of art or entertainment that doesn’t “elevate” you in some tangible or intangible way is held to be of lesser worth. And then there are the artefacts that lie on the fringes of “good taste” — artefacts that you feel a sense of embarrassment about when you profess to liking them.

But who decides something as subjective as what is “good”?

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In defense of guilty pleasure Why do we buy into elitist value judgements when it comes to the pop culture we enjoy

Still from Too Hot to Handle | Netflix

Entertainment rated low on the cultural capital meter is often accused of being devoid of a subtext. Yes, art cannot exist in isolation — it is made for a time and place which it needs to speak to/of. But why is subtext considered so vital, and can it only be sociopolitical?

There are instances when the author of a particular work is so invested in the subtext that the primary narrative itself is overlooked. But the most loved films in recent memory have been those that struck a balance between the two; the audience — even unaware of the subtext — is entertained by the film. The focus in this case is on the storytelling, and if you want to dig deeper, there is always a layer of commentary — sociopolitical or otherwise — to uncover.

I would argue that Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, that became the first Korean film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, became as globally successful as it did only because it managed to achieve this balance. Those members of the audience who didn’t read into its theme of an unjust social order were kept engaged with the twists and turns of the plot. Those viewers who did appreciate the film’s themes had an even more fulfilling experience. Other recent films that used genre constructs to slip in sociopolitical commentary include Ari Aster's Midsommar, Rian Johnson's Knives Out, and Amar Kaushik's Stree.

Not all films need to have subtext though to be considered “good”. Sriram Raghavan's Andhadhun released a few months after Stree in 2018 and proved incredibly popular with audiences by dint of its thrilling plot; no subtext or commentary was necessary.

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In an interview to promote the anthology Bombay Talkies, the filmmaker Karan Johar admitted that he tried to ape the styles of his peers Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee, who were also part of the project. He did this by “zooming in on objects more often”. That Johar’s films are considered “guilty pleasures” as opposed to the “art” of these other filmmakers speaks to the judgement we perceive as being attached to our enjoyment of certain things.

Take Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) that doesn’t have much in the way of the much-bandied “nuance” and subtlety. The emotions it evoked, however, resonated with a wide audience. Heartbreak, loss of a loved one, regret — these are themes that make for great storytelling, and their inclusion (along with the conviction of the performers and director) made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai a joy to watch.

If you reverse that logic, what of the artlessness or crudeness that some artefacts considered “high art” employ to make a point?

When I was watching Q's Garbage, I was taken aback by how repulsed he wanted the audience to feel with the exhibition of gore. Or when Lars von Trier's The House That Jack Built depicted the protagonist’s mutilation of his date’s breast, I realised the film simply wasn’t my cup of tea.

That is just what one needs to come to terms with — that individual tastes are different, and they needn’t adhere to a prescribed standard, and there is no embarrassment or shame or guilt to be felt in diverging from that standard.

Similarly, a high premium is placed on cultural artefacts that are innovative, whereas the familiar is dismissed. But if To All the Boys I've Loved Before, The Proposal or Kal Ho Naa Ho (only the first half please!) is what you want to watch, why shouldn’t you? If there are brownie points for innovation, surely there should be some for conviction.

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While the instances we’ve dwelt on so far can be simply explained away as matters of differing tastes (and neither being superior or inferior to the other — just different), there is the very specific category of “cringe” or “so bad it’s good” entertainment.

Rebecca Black's 'Friday', Taher Shah's 'Angel' and ‘Eye to Eye’, Dhinchak Pooja's 'Selfie Maine Le Li' have been tremendously popular, as indicated by their YouTube numbers. All are characterised by catchy tunes and wacky lyrics.

Or take the case of the Amazon Prime Video India Original show Four More Shots Please!: A friend, D, told me that he watched season 1 only for the frequent hookup scenes. Another watcher, S, said the show may not be "feminist enough" but "shock value toh hai boss". Similarly, shows like  Too Hot To Handle are presumably designed to titillate the audience. But to admit you sought the titillation (or in the case of cringe pop, the laughs) does not have to be qualified with an acknowledgement that perhaps you shouldn’t have enjoyed it.

“So bad it’s good” is definitely a grey zone. But if there’s humour to be found in a situation too bizarre, a script too convoluted, and actors who are hamming away to glory, what room is there for guilt?

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As a member of the audience, you engage with a piece of art/entertainment in multiple ways.

The engagement could be intellectual, where you dwell on what, for instance, a film says via what it shows: Darren Aronofsky's mother! could reflect the director's take on motherhood and nature, whereas Pawan Kriplani's Phobia might revolve around a protagonist coming to terms with the demons inside her head. Or you might work out the conclusion to the film’s plot through the clues it provides, before the narrative gets there (with an Abbas-Mustan thriller). Or as a subject matter expert, you may engage with the specialised knowledge central to a film’s story (say Christopher Nolan's Interstellar or Jagan Shakti's Mission Mangal) in a way that lay members of the audience cannot.

The engagement could be visual — the cinematography and aesthetics, the choreography of dance or action sequences, or the world-building through costumes, production design and VFX. Films like Shirish Kunder's Jaan-E-Mann and Anurag Basu's Jagga Jasoos may have been box office flubs but their striking, fluent imagery is undeniable. VFX was a great force in propelling the Baahubali franchise to its unprecedented success. Or consider the impeccable style of the evergreen “guilty pleasure” that is Shashanka Ghosh's Aisha.

It could also be spiritual — the very subjective impact of a piece of art/entertainment on a viewer. When you speak of actors who enjoy large fan followings due to their “screen presence”, despite the limitations of their craft, it is perhaps because their fans are impacted by them in this manner.

Or emotional — Emotional manipulation that elicits tears, laughs, fear, catharsis. Think: films that peddle pop patriotism, or daily small screen soaps.

There’s sexual engagement — When you watch a show or film because you have the hots for a character/actor; and also rhythmic engagement — which might explain why you like a Honey Singh song, or feel like dancing along to the ‘Macarena’.

Rhythmic engagement is difficult to explain; at one level it indicates that the organic rhythm of an individual matches with that of a film/show/song/book being consumed.

Rhythmic engagement is fascinating because it opens up endless possibilities of discovering one's fondness for a piece of entertainment. Rather than using a blinkered term like “guilty pleasure” to make sense of the inexplicable, you simply accept that the rhythm of what rocks your boat is unique. What could be more non-judgemental than that?

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