So, it seems only fitting that I follow my post on pop culture binges with one on another element of pop culture consumption: guilty pleasures.
I have more than once had to explain to another person that I know a movie/TV show/book is bad, but I still love it.
“What?!” They exclaim as their monocles pop out. “You can love something even though you claim it’s crap? How is this possible?”
This is where we come across the concept of “guilty pleasures.”
We all know guilty pleasures in some form. When it comes to food, I imagine most of us have a guilty pleasure or two.
We enjoy consuming guilty pleasures even though we probably shouldn’t. With food, the reason why we should avoid our guilty pleasures is usually understandable as food-related guilty pleasures tend to be a little, teeny-tiny bit, absolutely horrible of us.
With entertainment, however, it’s a little more challenging to objectively decide what we supposedly should feel guilty for enjoying.
One barometer of “good vs bad” in entertainment comes from reviews. Specifically, review aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes are considered by many to be a relatively objective reflection of a movie’s quality. Movies have started advertising their Rotten Tomatoes score in commercials, and iTunes includes Rotten Tomatoes scores for the movies you can buy/rent from them.
However, many movies have succeeded in spite of negative reviews or rotten (fewer than 60% of the reviews are positive) scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
One easy example are the Transformers movies which scored three successive rotten scores of 57%, 20%, and 36%. Though the movies have gained plenty of negative criticism, the movies not only made money (a lot of money), but, according to the site’s poles of audience members, over 60% of the site’s non-reviewer members who saw each movie enjoyed them.
The opposite has also happened. Tree of Life earned a more than respectable 84% from the reviewers, yet only 59% of site members enjoyed the movie.
Personally, one of my all time favorite movies is Miss Congeniality. Yet, this is how it rates according to Rotten Tomatoes:
So, according to critics, this is at best a mediocre movie if not a bad one. So, should I feel guilty about liking it? After all, if we look at the audience score, I’m clearly not alone in liking this movie.
So, is Miss Congeniality a guilty pleasure? Let’s put a pin in that question and come back to it later.
Another criteria by which we may judge whether or not a movie is good or bad for is to look at the objectionability of the content based on issues such as gratuitous/extreme violence, problems with representations of race/sex/orientation etc, and other messaging/imaging issues that make us cringe.
Transformers can, again, be used as an example here, as many critics and pop culture commentators have argued Bay’s films tend towards being incredibly and unnecessarily racist. Of course, some people counter this argument by saying if you think Transformers is racist because you assume the illiterate robots are black. Personally, I’m swayed toward the former opinion.
Personally, when I watched Transformers 2, I had trouble suppressing my gag reflex every time a woman was shown on screen.
Other programs, movies, and books, even those that have been well reviewed, have had similar criticisms.
Lord of the Rings, for example, though it has been largely ignored or viewed as inferior by academia, is one of the foundations of modern fantasy, and the movies have widely been regarded as one of the greatest film franchises to have existed. But, it’s hard to ignore the fact that elements of those books are pretty Eurocentric and racist, and the movies didn’t really shy away from that (actually, PJ sort of seemed to embrace it). Similar claims have been made about the lack of female characters.
Now, I’ve tried to counter both these claims in two ways.
1. Eowyn is awesome…once she gets over her Aragorn crush:
2. Faramir makes this speech!
Of course, that speech was cut out of the theatrical release (along with pretty much all of Faramir’s best moments. Why did PJ have so many great Faramir moments and then cut them all?)
And you know, as much as I’d like to shout down the critics and nay-sayers, I have to admit they have valid points. And those points can make watching my favorite movie trilogy really awkward to watch at times.
Does that mean I should feel guilty for enjoying LOTR, knowing it has some serious issues with representation? Do I give the movies and the book a pass because the book was written over 50 years ago and the movies are representing what was in the book?
These are difficult questions to reconcile.
Similarly, should we feel guilty about enjoying the work of people who have, themselves, done or said some pretty awful things?
I know I look at Dr. Seuss books a little differently after seeing some of his political cartoons from World War II.
Not only are Seuss’s cartoons about the Japanese disturbing because of his treasured place in many of our childhood memories, but they were out of character for Seuss himself, who criticized bigotry against African Americans.
Fortunately it seems, after the war, Seuss used that “Mental Insecticide” on himself and apparently wrote Horton Hears a Who! in part as an apology. Of course, the motto of that book “A person’s a person, no matter how small” has been hijacked by pro life organizations against Seuss’s will, but I can’t hold that against him. Still, as much as I appreciate that Seuss apologized, those racists cartoons of his are pretty hard to forget.
For a more recent development we can look to the new Ender’s Game movie.
That looks pretty cool, right? I mean, look at that cast! And all the epicness!
Unfortunately, fans of Ender’s Game who support gay rights are sometimes forced to reconcile their personal beliefs with those of writer, Orson Scott Card.
[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYL_n3cC.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]
Now, the critic above, Nostalgia Chick AKA Lindsay Ellis, has stated that she won’t boycott the movie, and has given several good reasons why.
However, many people plan to do so. I, personally, as a supporter of gay rights, am undecided over whether I’ll boycott or not, but I don’t hold it against people who choose either way.
So, should people feel guilty for enjoying Orson Scott Card’s work when they object to his prejudice?
A final source of guilt associated with appreciating pop culture is the guilt imposed on us by society.
Society imposed guilt comes in several forms. For example, many people from outside the world of geeks and nerds believe comics are childish or for immature audiences or for losers. Therefore, society tells many of us we should feel bad for enjoying what they apparently see as children’s picture books with boobs and violence.
The fact that “Bronies” got so much attention has much to do with societally imposed limitations on who should enjoy what media, namely that grown men shouldn’t enjoy children’s shows targeted towards girl audiences. Bronies may not get too much hate, but they’re certainly looked at as abnormal by many.
Bronies may be bucking the system by choosing to unabashedly enjoy their fandom, but others aren’t quite so self-confident. Any time society enforces one’s abnormality or deviance based on one’s affinity for a type of movie, music, book, or TV show, it can lead those of us who without the admirable self-confidence of Bronies to feel guilty about our chosen fandoms.
When I was a little girl and a guy in a Santa suit told me Hot Wheels were a “boy’s toy” I felt guilty for liking them, and I’m sure many boys who have, like the Bronies, shown an interest in something meant “for girls” have felt guilty about their tastes and preferences.
So, is the concept of the “guilty pleasure” completely without merit? After all, I think most, if not all of us, can say we’ve liked something in spite of knowing the object of our affection is in some way flawed. Just as I can see the point behind criticisms of Tolkien’s work as Eurocentric, racist, and sexist, I can also see the point behind criticisms of Miss Congeniality.
However, I think it’s important to understand both why we feel guilty for liking our guilty pleasures . If our guilt comes from our own acceptance of a works’ flaws, that’s a different issue than if we feel guilty for liking something just because society tells us to.
Similarly, we should examine why we like these bits of popular cultures others dislike. Do we like them because of their flaws and camp? In spite of them? Or are we drawn to certain movies, books, shows, etc because we, personally agree with the unpopular opinion. I’m sure there are people out there who love pop culture that misrepresents women and minorities because it reflects their own views. If however, you love the Tranformers movies in spite of what’s wrong with them, and while acknowledging that there are some serious issues, I don’t really see a problem.
In the end, the point of entertainment is to entertain. Yes, we want all of our entertainment, or at least more of it, to take the high ground and be as good as it can be, but that’s not always going to happen. So, if you’re entertained by Tranformers or Miss Congeniality or even Twilight that’s okay. Clearly, the creators of these works have accomplished they’re primary objective.
Acknowledge, if not appreciate, the flaws others see in what you love without lashing out at the “haters” (I know, this can be difficult), assess your own opinion, and then go on loving whatever you want to love.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go practice my Michael Caine impression by saying “I was distracted by the half masticated cow rolling around in your wide open trap” a few dozen times.