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Spring 2018 Issue 6 (May 11, 2018)

How Do We Define Guilty Pleasures? And What Do We Do With Them?

May 16, 2018
By Dylan Larson-Harsch '19, Editor-in-Chief

We’ve all had them—those TV shows we can’t stop watching, in spite of their low production values, bad writing or clearly exploitative premises. For me, it started with the show Revenge, which aired from 2011 to 2015 on ABC after the Wednesday night comedy set. The show followed the aptly-named Emily Thorne exacting (you guessed it) revenge on some people in the Hamptons who wronged her family years before. It involved many cryptic messages, perpetual sunshine, beach-toned men and people coming back from the dead with haunted pasts. It was improbably engrossing.

I think back on watching that show with fondness, but I can’t quite place why—it’s not like the show was doing anything good for the world, artistically or politically. The plot was constructed well enough to keep me engaged, but the well-worn character archetypes and cyclical revenge plots made things predictable after the first season or so.

I think what made watching the show so special was the community it created. On Wednesdays, my mom and I would eat dessert in front of the TV while Revenge was on, and even though we lamented the ludicrous plot, we always got quiet when the commercials were over. I think that’s the central draw behind many guilty pleasure shows—not anything about the show itself, but the conversation and bonding that is able to happen around it.

Looking back on it, many of the guilty pleasure TV shows I’ve enjoyed have been strongly associated with a specific person, time, place or community. Like watching Pretty Little Liars with my friends splayed out on a beanbag and collectively groaning at each cringe-worthy piece of dialogue. Or watching Bones every Sunday morning with my mom while she did her back stretches and I procrastinated going for a run. Or keeping up with Ru Paul’s Drag Race to be able to stay up to date on the memes circulating the gay Internet. Or, even now, years after I’ve stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy, being able to bond with people over the glorious ridiculousness of the bomb-hidden-in-a-body season finale. For me, it’s always been about the experience of watching a show more than the show itself.

That’s not to say, though, that guilty pleasures are always a uniformly rosy experience—you can’t have guilty pleasures, after all, without the “guilt.” Many guilty pleasure TV shows, from The Bachelor to Gossip Girl, range from the clearly exploitative to clearly problematic. The glorified lifestyles of rich white people run rampant through these shows, and many traffic in an unsettling commodification of suffering disguised as empowerment.

Take, for example, a makeover show like the Queer Eye reboot. We can laugh at Jonathan’s delightful one-liners all we want, but at the end of the day, the show is based around selling the viewer a redemption narrative—that just by a change of décor and a new haircut, someone can solve all of their anxieties and be irrevocably cured “for the better.” We’re discouraged from caring about a character’s life beyond what the camera is willing to show us, and led to assume that everything the Fab Five does is unquestionably moral.

A parallel critique can be leveled at a scripted show. While they don’t purport to be reality, scripted shows still present an idealized version of life that our impressionable minds latch onto, and as such can influence how we think the world around us is supposed to function. Thus, the Instagram-filtered worlds of shows like Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, that are populated mainly by beautiful and wealthy white people, uphold the notion that those are the only kinds of people who exist in the world, or at least the only ones that should matter. And, as with reality shows, a character’s trauma (that occurs as a result of central plot arcs like break ups, affairs and murders) is packaged up and fed to the viewer as often the only interesting thing about a show.

So what should we do with this community that has been formed around an exploitative piece of media? First of all, when watching guilty pleasure TV (and any TV for that matter), we need to understand that any world presented in a show is unreal in some capacity. Second, we should recognize the stakes of a show — what is included, what is excluded, and what assumptions these choices imply. Third, we should talk about this with the communities that have formed around these shows, and explicitly name what we find problematic. No piece of media, and especially not guilty pleasure shows, can be perfect. Consuming media responsibly must entail an act of continually reassessing our engagement with the show and reeducating ourselves and those around us.

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