Why do we feel guilty about ‘guilty pleasures’?

Burlesque, according to early word, is a ‘guilty pleasure’. As is Flash Gordon. As is Rocky IV. As is, it seems, most of Simon’s DVD collection. So why should he feel ‘guilty’ about it, exactly?


Hopefully, he’ll not mind me badly quoting him, but there’s a segment in the last tour by stand-up comedian Dara O Briain where he makes a comment about the notion of guilty pleasures. His argument, and it’s a sound one, is why should you feel guilty about liking something that entertains you? (Assuming it’s legal, of course.) The example he cites is the band Take That, but you don’t have to look far to see many examples in the movie world.

Earlier this week, then, I saw Burlesque. It was a film I had no intention of going to see, until I saw the avalanche of reviews from our American cousins. For many of the reviewers were unanimous in one message: for all its faults, and Burlesque has no shortage of them, the film is fun. Big-grin-on-your-face fun.

Whether the makers were in on the joke or not, it’s sometimes quite breathtakingly hilarious too, with characters spouting out dialogue that felt like it was put together with a fridge magnet set. But, heck, all concerned give it all they’ve got, and I thought the film, aside from the laboured final act, was a bit of a hoot.

Fun is an overlooked commodity in cinema right now, particularly in the blockbuster arena, where the ground laid by the likes of The Dark Knight seems insistent on putting everyone in a bad mood. I was staggered by the Wolverine spin-off, for instance, where one of the most joyful characters to watch in the X-Men saga gets his own movie and spends it all in a temper. You could argue the same of the incoming Tron: Legacy, where the downbeat nature of many of the characters does occasionally drag the film down.

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And if the characters aren’t moody, then the films are getting darker. Harry Potter, inevitably, has had to take this path, but the last film had, basically, two hours of camping in the company of melancholy teenagers.

Now, to be clear, I like dark films. I like films with a bit of edge to them. I like interesting characters. But sometimes, by the time I’ve organised a babysitter and prepared the logistics of going for a night out at the pictures, I just want straight, honest, fun, entertainment. Burlesque, if nothing else, certainly gave me that (although I do agree with Ron Hogan, when he noted in this week’s box office round-up that the film was better when it was released under its previous name, Showgirls).

Burlesque, though, is the latest to also be tagged with a ‘guilty pleasure’ label, and I’m curious as to why I should feel guilty about liking it. I like lots of films that people have described to me as guilty pleasures, from Armageddon and Rocky IV, through to Fortress and Flash Gordon. Do I consider them guilty pleasures? No. I just happen to like them. My wife is in the same boat. She likes Road House, Xanadu and 9 To 5, amongst others. They’re apparently guilty pleasures. Does she feel guilty? No, and rightly so.

Society seems to have come up with this phrase, and I’ve used it myself in the past, to refer to films that the consensus has decreed aren’t very good. That somehow, you’re not allowed to like them unless you feel embarrassed about it. As if your face it supposed to go red, and you’re supposed to look around and check that nobody’s about before you pop them into your DVD player. And woe betide you if you happen to like one of the decreed films of guiltiness in public. Ridicule, surely, awaits you.

Now, debating film is clearly something most of us do, and there’s a particular pleasure in taking the side of a shitty movie that you just happen to like. But surely now it’s time to end this guilty nonsense. Because most of us aren’t guilty, and most of us have little regard for the people who are passing down dictates as to what is good and what isn’t.

I’d wager, then, that there are some of you out there who are tempted by the idea of Burlesque, which is two hours of gloriously glossy, sometimes terrible, but generally entertaining, musical frivolity. And you’ll come out of the film, I’d wager, with many of the same criticisms that have long been picked up. The script? It’s really not very good. The story? Seen it lots of times before. The characters? You can sketch them in even before you start, if you like.

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But the fun factor? Yep, Burlesque has that. As does Showgirls. As does Armageddon. As does Wild Things. As does Teen Wolf, Rocky IV, Hard Target, Flash Gordon, half of Arnie’s back catalogue, most of Stallone’s, and a little dab of Seagal’s.

I’d take any of those over half of the films that I’m ‘supposed’ to like, thank you very much. And I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty about it, either.

Burlesque is released in the UK this coming Friday.

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