Sometimes it feels as if North American culture revolves around the notion of guilt. Between sex shaming, health food snacks labeled “guilt-free” and Spotify playlists full of early 2000s pop hits under painfully self-aware titles, it’s impossible to escape the idea that we should feel bad for the things we enjoy. Rather than flat-out admitting to liking something deemed unrespectable, it’s more tactful to couch it with the qualifier “guilty pleasure.” Between the popularity of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Carrie Underwood, and John Green novels, it’s obvious that we’re all consuming so-called guilty pleasures, however, the label remains.
In this view, every piece of media we consume reflects directly back on us as people. Now, I’m not here to argue that culture is removed from ideology or immune from criticism, and that we should blindly consume whatever problematic media we want. Because that’s not what people mean when they discuss guilty pleasures — it’s never an issue of media being harmful (unless you take “brain rot” literally), just media that isn’t up to some arbitrary taste level.
Labeling something a guilty pleasure is a sneaky way of distancing yourself from your enjoyment of it. “Oh sure, I enjoy this but I still know better, unlike some other people.” Somewhere between self-flagellation and self-flattery, designating things guilty pleasures pads our own intellectual insecurities.
Under late-stage capitalism, every action we take must have some goal or purpose in mind. Leisure for leisure’s sake has been eaten away by a drive to monetize every hobby and capture every moment for the perfect social media post, which in turn monetizes ourselves. Thus, even what we do in our spare time contributes to the easily packageable and brandable version of “you,” not to be muddied by unsavoury choices.
When you ascribe negative moral value judgements onto culture and media, it opens the door for the counter to be true as well. If listening to Bon Jovi and reading Dan Brown makes you worthy of shame and disdain, it would stand to reason that one could Brian Eno and Dostoevsky themselves into righteousness. Now, written out that may sound crazy, but tell me you’ve never met someone with a bookshelf where their social judgement should be.
It’s time we remove taste from its link to morality. The pursuit of a guilt-free media environment can easily force you down a hole of music you don’t like and books that don’t speak to you. And who does that serve but your inner critic? Posturing about your intelligence will only drive you deeper into the shame and guilt of your choices, rather than fully rejecting the notion of guilt in the first place. And come on, there are so many larger social ills to tackle than whether to listen to King Princess or King Crimson.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam