Guilty pleasures: a phrase that deserves to die

Who came up with the idea that we're supposed to feel guilty about the films, TV shows and music that we like?

Every now and then, I emerge from the Den Of Geek shed and take a mooch around other websites and publications. I tend to like them a lot. There’s nothing to keep us and me on our toes more than seeing the wonderful work being done around the internet. Because there is lots of it.

There’s also, though, a breed of article I’m decreasingly keen on. Anything that starts with ‘x reasons why this will be that’, or ‘why so and so will suck’. The content of said articles may be great, but the whole approach tends to put me off.

Yet there’s nothing on guilty pleasures, a phrase that, to my mind, seems invented by playground bullies to try and give you a free pass to like something that the critical consensus suggests is crap. An idea that seems to says as long as you feel guilty about it, then you’re okay to like it. This isn’t something restricted to film, of course. Guilty pleasure records, guilty pleasure books, guilty pleasure comics, guilty pleasure TV shows? Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt.

It seems I have plenty I’m supposed to feel guilty about. Were you to peruse the shelves of my DVD and Blu-ray collection, then there are a fair few films on there that never made anybody’s awards lists, yet I enjoy a great deal. To pick six or seven at random, there’s the Crocodile Dundee trilogy boxset, the mighty George Of The Jungle, Rocky IV, Waterworld, Rocky III, more Steve Martin remakes than you can count on one hand, and Rocky II.

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Confession: I don’t feel guilty about a single one of them. Ripped off? Possibly. Guity? Cobblers.

My suggestion, then: can we just call bobbins on this whole idea of ‘guilty pleasures’ now? I, for one, have had my fill of it. Because what, here, are we supposed to actually feel guilty about?

Society is good at telling you what you’re supposed to like, sometimes forcibly. I know people who didn’t even try watching The Wire, for instance, because so many people had told them it was going to be great and that they must watch it, that it turned it into the last thing they actually wanted to see.

Furthermore, if your idea of a great night in is cracking open a DVD boxset of Police Academy films, that’s apparently the kind of thing you’re not supposed to admit to. You should, in some way, feel ‘guilty’ for doing so.

I brought the issue of guilty pleasures up with someone last week when I mentioned I was writing about it, and their face turned redder than mine. They told me of a colleague of theirs, who loves a certain soap opera. But when, over Twitter, they talk about it, they restrict conversations to direct messages only. The reason? They didn’t want people to know they liked said soap opera, presumably as if in some way, people would think less of him for doing so.

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My blunt opinion on this is that if someone genuinely thinks less of you for liking a popular TV show, then that says far more about them than you. But moving on.

Now I’m not going to take a bullet for the Police Academy films I mentioned before. There’s two thirds of a decent film stretched across seven movies from what I could tell. But I’m also sure that it’s no crime to admit you actually like one. Not everything we watch, read or play has to be a work of art, or an intellectual exercise, or something to satiate bullies with. In fact, nothing we watch, read or play has to be like that.

Let’s zero in on movies in particular for a minute, so we can see just how muddled the whole idea of ‘guilty pleasures’ actually is. A Google search for the phrase ‘guilty pleasure movies’ soon pointed me in the direction of articles suggesting the following, amongst many others:

Cruel Intentions


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Wild Things

Road House

Con bloody Air (the day I feel guilty about watching Con Air is the day I feel guilty about typing this article just wearing my pants)


Dirty Dancing


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Rocky IV

Demolition Man


Into The Blue

Notice something in common there? Swap the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ for ‘entertaining’, and the list still stands, right? In fact, in pretty much every instance above, take the word ‘guilty’ off, and just leave it at pleasure. What’s wrong with that?

You can’t even insinuate correctly that there’s no depth to the films listed. Hadley Freeman’s excellent book, Life Moves Pretty Fast, devotes a substantive chapter to what’s actually going on in Dirty Dancing, and how bold a film it actually is. I asked her, for the purposes of this article, to explain. “Anyone who dismisses Dirty Dancing as just pap clearly hasn’t seen it, given that it’s all about abortion”, she told me. “Its sexual politics were so advanced it couldn’t even be made today, now that Hollywood has become even more conservative about abortion and female sexuality”.

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The core theme of snobbery towards popular movies rears its head, too. “I do think Dirty Dancing is subjected to especial snobbery as it’s very much a movie about women, for women, by women. When it was released all the big male credits dismissed it – only Pauline Kael liked it and Carrie Rickey later said you could see all the men sneering at it in their reviews. That pretty much says it all”.

That Dirty Dancing should then, years later, start turning up on ‘guilty pleasure’ lists? It pretty much beggars belief. A popular piece of cinema (albeit conceived as a low budget, off-radar production, once destined to go straight to video), that has something to say. Bring on the guilts, right?

It’s school playground mentality, sadly. How dare you like something firmly mainstream, or with a piss-poor score on Rotten Tomatoes, or that most of the comments sections of most websites don’t like. How dare you have got entertainment and fun out of something designed to do just that. How dare you enjoy a film that won’t give you any intellectual stimulation at all.

Why? Because those cool and trendy people, who lots of people talk about but few can ever name, will think less of you for doing so. They’ll sneer at you. They’ll hit you with the full force of your snobbery. And do you know what difference it’ll make to you life?

Not. A. Jot.

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How about, then, we tell those wanting to sneer and call our pleasures guilty ones, to, if you’ll forgive the language, piss off? Let them sit with their extensive boxsets of films they allow themselves to watch, or rewatches of films and TV shows that have been society-approved. Good on them. Hope they enjoy them. Now leave Con Air the feck alone.

I’m going to save the last word on this for Graham Norton, who write about the notion of guilty pleasures in his most recent book, The Life And Loves Of A He Devil. He wrote: “Guilty pleasures The phrase is used by so many people and it makes my blood boil. Unless your pleasure is bear-baiting or watching snuff movies, then save your guilt for something that deserves it. Listening to S Club 7 singing ‘Reach’ while you dance around your kitchen might be embarrassing but it is not worth feeling guilty about”.

I agree with Graham.

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