Comment: Stop the show trial, your guilty pleasure is fine by me

A few days ago someone asked my boyfriend what he thought of the television show Scandal, as she had watched two episodes and having not enjoyed them, was confused about the ecstatic reports she had heard.

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“Yeah, not for me either,” he replied. “That’s Anne’s guilty pleasure.”

Wait, what? I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying Scandal. Does a pleasure have to have an element of guilt in order to be truly enjoyable?

A guilty pleasure is most often defined as something one enjoys despite feeling shame for liking it – an indulgence that they feel others will judge them for. Something enjoyable yet embarrassing. Junk food, gossip magazines, blockbuster movies – anything seen to be “low brow” or lacking in moral fibre (or literal fibre, if we’re talking about food).

In the New Yorker recently, Jennifer Szalai described the rise of the “guilty pleasure” as an uncomfortable attempt to justify shifts in culture and tastes; “the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow—the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture’s pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment”.

That is one way to think about a guilty pleasure – as something that one enjoys despite the fact that is not generally held in high regard. You can also think of it as a routine-breaker. An indulgence that temporarily supersedes the everyday monotony of ritual and habit that allows for perpetual existence.

A guilty pleasure doesn’t have to be a cultural artefact. Even a moment stolen for yourself if you are a parent can be a pleasure laden in shame and self-recrimination.

The idea of a ‘guilty’ pleasure is intrinsically puritanical, so it is no surprise that it has been embraced with such fervour in the US. Religion and guilt are more closely tied than religion and guns, and for an increasingly secular society it is unfortunate but unsurprising that the enduring legacy of the pilgrims is an apparent need for self-reproach.

There are so many other things to feel bad about, it is wasteful to expend remorse on harmless behaviour that bring moments of happiness or relief.

Pornography, cigarettes, looking gleefully at the Facebook profile of the popular girl from school days who is now really fat. Drinking martinis from a sippy-cup in the shower. Taking an unnecessary sick day and sleeping until midday. These things might be pushing the boundaries of pleasure into shame territory (not the sippy cup in the shower thing though, that’s fine). But if you feel guilty because you’re an adult who enjoys reading young adult books, just settle down over there, crazy.

The things we enjoy help to define who we are. Feeling shame about pleasure is the only thing to actually feel guilty about. So unless you count morally heinous activities like watching child pornography or advocating hate as guilty pleasures, stop using that term. And stop feeling guilty.

Anne Treasure works in communications, is a recent survivor of the book industry, and exists mainly on the Internet.

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