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In Defense of Guilty Pleasures

By Elaine Mei

Art by Bella Dunbar

Confession: nothing makes my heart sing quite the way “Steal My Girl” by One Direction does. And “34+35” may very well be my favorite song on Ariana Grande’s new album — which is to say, the pieces we keep closest to our heart are often our guilty pleasures, the songs that we belt out on karaoke night and the cultural landmarks that make our grandparents blush and lament the degeneracy of our generation.

But perhaps it’s time for us to push back against the idea that we should be guilty about our pleasures in the first place. After all, our ideas about what constitutes a “guilty pleasure” are socially-situated — Channel Orange could be the guilty pleasure album that keeps a country bumpkin up at night, just as a heavy metal-head might secretly listen to Kacey Musgraves when his friends aren’t around.

Because this label is socially-situated, it’s no surprise that the bulk of pieces we consider “guilty pleasures” are songs, TV shows, or books that we typically market to young women: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Love Island, Nicholas Sparks novels. At the very core of it, we’re telling people, especially women, that they should feel ashamed about the things that make them happy. We use the term “guilty pleasure” to diminish the value of the items that bring us joy. It’s a preemptive confession of guilt to a crime we haven’t committed, a gratuitous explanation we feel obliged to offer up.

Rather than passing judgment on these pleasures, we should dismiss the idea that the media we consume must speak some profound truth in order for it to be worth something. Sometimes our guilty pleasures let us shut off our minds for a while or bring us back to a nostalgic time, and that alone is enough. Though I confess it would be much easier to say Joni Mitchell is the artist I default to rather than 100 gecs, I adore 100 gecs for the same reason I adore Joni Mitchell, or Steve Lacy, or Stevie Wonder. It’s music that inspires me and makes me feel something, and for me, there is no difference between the pleasure I get hearing the twang of the guitar on Steve Lacy’s Apollo XXI versus the random assortment of sounds I hear on 100 gec’s 1000 gecs album.

Guilty pleasures are, undoubtedly, considered a low-brow form of entertainment. We view these simple joys as marginal aspects of our identity, peripheral to the things that matter — yet I can’t even begin to explain how much of my self growing up has been molded by the Lemonade Mouth soundtrack, or how many of my coming-of-age high school memories were probably formed against the backdrop of ABBA playing on some distant stereo. When guilty pleasures are such a present feature of our lives, we should acknowledge them for what they are: sources of joy during times of hardship, or little gifts of nostalgia for us to unpack when we reflect on our lives, or when the present is unbearable. Our guilty pleasures are just as essential as our most cultured picks, and the day we begin policing the things that bring us joy is the day our joy becomes negotiable.

Dr. Sami Schalk, whose work focuses on disability, race, and gender in American literature, says this self-censoring expectation stems from the “deeply puritanical roots” of our culture, one in which pleasure is seen “as sinful and bad and self-indulgent.”[1] Open any piece of feminist scholarship, and you’ll likely see a section about the importance of embracing joys and pleasures in our lives, particularly when those joys and pleasures have been denied to us. As Adrienne Maree Brown puts it in her book Pleasure Activism, “feeling good is not frivolous. It is freedom.”[2]

Sometimes, however, the issue isn’t so clear-cut. We run into problems when our guilty pleasure media is diametrically opposed to our own values. I’m guilty of it too — according to Spotify, I’m in the top 5% of all Playboi Carti listeners in the world. Yet as much as I enjoy his music, I’ll readily admit that a line like “I fucked that bitch and gave her back” isn’t going to put him on the cover of Spare Rib.

And misogyny in media is by no means confined to hip-hop. Whereas most teenybopper music is intended as a lighthearted form of escapism, popular media with misogynistic overtones isn’t so innocent. It’s an expression of the hegemony-obsessed parts of American culture, those parts of American culture that validate systems of power and codify them in our consumption. When we begin to question whether our third rewatch of The Bachelor is starting to seriously reflect on our values, or when we get that sinking feeling in our stomach listening to Chris Brown, it’s real guilt, taking pleasure in something we fundamentally disagree with.

The best we can do is to be conscious of the media we consume: what power systems are we taking part in? Whose agendas are we aiding or abetting? When it comes to our consumption of media, are we putting our money where our mouth is? These questions are difficult to answer, if only because the entire notion of censoring our “guilty pleasures” is itself riddled with misogyny. What matters is that we’re taking a critical look at the things we devote our resources towards, keeping in mind that — as people with marginalized identities — we deserve to center our own pleasure as an organizing principle.

What I mean to say is this: anybody who secretly loves One Direction should be out about it, and I’m trying my best to pass no judgement when someone tells me J. Cole is their favorite rapper. So stop apologizing for your taste in trashy media — when you’re finished reading Pride and Prejudice, Emily in Paris will still be waiting.


[1] Higgs, Micaela Marini. “'Guilty' Pleasures? No Such Thing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 July 2019.

[2] Brown, Adrienne M. Pleasure Activism: the Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

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