It’s ‘Okay to Like’ Guilty Pleasures


“It’s okay to like your favorite shows again, even if they have no cultural value or societal significance,” a person informed my friend.  “As long as the preference for the show is characterized as a guilty pleasure.”

After receiving permission to enjoy the show my friend once so enjoyed, she began binge watching the show on Netflix. She watched this show in the manner of one catching up with an old friend, after a prolonged absence. She knew the show was a silly sitcom, and she also knew that the premise of that show –though somewhat relevant in its era– had become dated and insignificant. So, even though she had always loved the show, she stopped watching it, even in private, until that friend of hers ‘gave her permission’ to end that prolonged exile, informing her that ‘it is now okay’ to enjoy that show again.

o-GILLIGAN-facebookAs with ubiquitous idioms of this sort, I heard the terms ‘given permission,’ ‘guilty pleasure,’ and ‘it’s okay to like’ before. When everyone begins saying such things, however, I’m left wondering where I was in the gestation cycle of the phrase. I didn’t think the phrases funny, when I first began hearing them, or if they were intended to be funny. I didn’t think they provided an interesting twist on the art of decision-making, and I didn’t think that I would ever be incorporating them into my decision-making process, or the explanations to others regarding my choices.

I just thought it was an odd way for one person to frame the dietary decisions she had made, and that’s where it started for me.  I’d heard people, largely women, framing dietary cheats this way. ‘I’ve been good,’ they would say before they took a bite of something they knew damaged the discipline they had exhibited to that point. They then gave themselves permission to eat what they wanted based on that established discipline, and they called those cheats guilty pleasures. At some point, these phrases made a crossover into other decisions, until people began framing all of their decisions with these qualifiers. They also began informing me that I should frame my decisions in this manner, that I should give it a spin, as it were, and that with these qualifiers, I could now make my decisions free from the guilt associated with prying eyes.

“Why wouldn’t it be okay for me to like the television shows I enjoy?” I would ask when the phrases began crossing over into entertainment choices. At this point in the gestation cycle of these phrases it was obvious that something had already happened. I didn’t know if it happened in the shows I never watch, some movie I missed, or if the phrase had been repeated in a commercial, or a number of commercials, but some vehicle had imprinted these phrases so deeply into the craniums of the people I speak with that they were using the phrases without knowing why. I’ve often found that the best way to cut to the heart of the matter is to ask a question so obvious that no one ever thought of it before.  ‘Why isn’t okay for me to like what I like?’ and ‘Why am I then required to qualify my choices in a manner that prevents you from thinking less of me?’ I began asking variations of these questions of those that posed these notions to me, and as with most idioms of this sort, no one knows why. They just hear other people framing their decisions in this manner, until they find themselves doing it.

After questioning a number of these people, I made the mistake of dismissing these phrases on the basis that no one understood why they did it, and I assumed that it would have a very short shelf life, until everyone I knew began repeating these phrases in almost the same context, and Google searches began revealing websites that were being built around the idea that ‘It’s ok to like’ this today, and ‘it’s okay to dislike’ other things. I even found a Twitter page that gave its visitors permission to like some things and to like other people that like other things. It’s difficult to determine how tongue-in-cheek these grants of permission are, or if these people enjoy being on the cutting edge of cultural trends.

Then, I hear that my friend is now binge watching her favorite show of all-time again, and she’s characterizing it as her ‘one guilty pleasure’. She drops that phrase, I could only assume, to prevent me from thinking less of her for watching such a dated, irrelevant show. She cared what I thought of her, in that instance, and I rationalized that unless we have a master plan of dropping out of the human race, we all care what others think to a point where we need to develop some kind of shield to protect our inner sanctum from prying eyes. Those that have attempted to loft the very high school era idea that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them have inevitably run into the ‘thou doth protest too much’ wall that reveals that they probably care more than anyone else. One could say that this ‘guilty pleasure’ allowance has not only ‘given us permission’ to enjoy the shows we enjoyed so much at one time, it gave rise to an industry in which cable channels like TV Land could prosper, and a Netflix was born, and the whole idea of binge watching became a permissible and acceptable guilty pleasure.

The first question I would’ve asked this ‘guilty pleasure’ friend of my friend that granted her permission to like her favorite show again is, ‘How many guilty pleasures is one person permitted, and what happens to that person that violates the excessive quantity principle of the lack of quality edict?’ One would assume that the term guilty pleasure is intended to be exclusive to one, or at least a few, products.  Are these guilty pleasures exclusive within industries? Can one have more than one television show they consider a guilty pleasure, and if so, is it specific to genre? If one has more than one ‘60’s era, silly sitcom, that they characterize as a guilty pleasure, is that a violation of guilty pleasure principle, and if the person has too many guilty pleasures will they end up spending so much time pleasuring themselves that they may find themselves walking around with burdensome guilt? Would that person be deemed unimportant, and would that lead them to being ostracized from the hip, in touch groups in a manner reminiscent of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel?’ Who are these social architects that dictate to society what is and what isn’t okay to watch? And how did this need for the ‘guilty pleasure’ qualifier come about, so that we can watch what we want without undue scrutiny?

We’ve all been informed that The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island are okay to dislike, by these people, because these shows, and all shows like them, are impossible to take seriously. They say that these shows depict a silly and foolish era that we’ve all moved beyond, and ‘good riddance!’ they often add. At some point, however, they decide there is some quaint, retro glory in these shows, and they decide that ‘it’s now okay’ to go back and like these shows again, as long as the individual qualifies those viewings as a guilty pleasure. I would not listen to these people regardless how prestigious others deem them to be, but to those that do listen, I would ask, ‘What gives them the credibility to decide for you?’ It would seem to me that they gain their bona fides solely by making the claim that they know what it is that’s ‘okay to like’ and what is not, and what should be listed as a guilty pleasure.

***

My lifelong enjoyment of Gilligan’s Island could be called a ‘guilty pleasure’, if the term is defined as: “Something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” I know how dumb and silly the show is. I also know that in the broad, cultural sense it has no redeemable qualities. Yet, I do not feel guilty about any association I may have had, or will continue to have with the show, and I have no problem floating back in time to that place in time when I watched Gilligan’s Island every day for years.

This leads to that silly argument of extension that suggests that anything one is not ashamed of, must be something for which they hold such a sense of pride that they should be willing and able to defend, and those that don’t do either are taking the spineless, Switzerland position of critiquing both sides while trying to avoid vulnerability on the point. I understand that complaint, but remember we are talking about television shows here, and if I were forced to mount a defense for this television show –to avoid the spineless Switzerland position– it would be made in defense of silliness.

Gilligan’s Island was silly and dumb, as I’ve said, but so was one of the most celebrated, critically acclaimed, and award winning shows of our time: Seinfeld.  If we were to break this brilliant show down to its core, we would find silliness. The keys to Seinfeld’s success, it would seem to me, lay in its creative way to turn a phrase, and its ability capture a comprehensive thought with creative brevity. The writers were also hell bent on making a story flow through an arc and return to the theme of an episode with a “no hugging and no learning” themed resolution.

Gilligan’s Island could be said to be one of the predecessors of this “no hugging and no learning” theme that would later specifically be employed Seinfeld. It could also be argued that most of the shows of that era were based on this “no hugging and no learning” theme, and that the cultural relevance brigade with their “applause ready” soundbites, “poignant, thought-provoking, and very special” plot lines, with lots of hugging, and learning, and crying came later. It could also be argued that Seinfeld, and its “no hugging and no learning” theme was a return to that era when sitcoms didn’t try to be more than they were. They just wanted to make people laugh in an era when no one felt guilty about doing just that.

If the reader knows anything about Gilligan’s Island, and a growing number of people do not, they know that Gilligan’s Island would never be confused with having anything to do with cultural relevance. The creator of the show, Sherwood Schwartz, stated as much when he said that if there was anything political about the show it existed in an intended apolitical theme. His exact quote, as listed in a Mental Floss piece on the show, was that Gilligan’s Island represented, “A metaphorical shaming of world politics in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.”

As a political person that has been reminded, throughout my life, how divisive politics can be, I think we could all benefit from more “no hugging and no learning” shows. The problems with such shows is that no one feels important watching them, and we all have a need to feel important. Some of us even strive so hard for importance that we claim that we watch shows we never watch, read books we have not read, and listen to important music that no one listens to. Silly shows will never make a person feel important, they will not win awards, TV critics won’t talk about them, and water cooler speakers don’t often talk about “no hugging and no learning” shows, or if they do, it’s not reported on by TV critics that consider these type of shows guilty pleasures.

Seinfeld is the exception to all of these statements, of course, but that show developed such a groundswell of popularity that it caught people by surprise. The quality of the writing on the show was never in question, but there was never a “very special” plot line that critics could wrap their arms around. Critics sought a seminal episode to explain the ethos, and the manner in which it intertwined with the culture, explained it, or rose above it. When none of that happened, they decided to ‘give us permission’ to like she show based on the ‘guilty pleasure’ of watching a show about nothing.

The problem for the other silly, non-award winning, and panned by TV critics’ shows, is that quality writers don’t want to write for them, as most formulaic shows that eschew politics in their “no hugging and no learning” apolitical themes offer little in the way of sprucing up resumes.

What’s hilarious about the world these cultural doyens draw up, with their ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’ parameters, is that they’re often aghast when a cultural figure from the other side of the aisles decree that there are shows ‘it’s okay to like’ and shows ‘it’s okay to dislike’, based on that cultural figure’s political and psychological underpinnings. With no objective understanding of what they do, the cultural doyens chastise the cultural figures for having the temerity to suggest that they can dictate what anyone should or shouldn’t watch. These people then ask us to join them in directing a “very special” special finger at the dastardly decision makers that they believe should be granted exclusive rights to that finger. Yet, I believe if we viewed these arguments in an objective manner, we should be able find a “very special” place in our hearts to provide both sides that finger.

As Jennifer Szalai details in her The New Yorker piece, the term guilty pleasure is almost exclusive to America. She provides an example in the way of a Frenchman interviewing for a job in America, in which he was asked what his guilty pleasures were. The Frenchman was confused. He claimed that he had never heard the term, and that the best translation he could find applied to matters no one he knew talked about. If a Gilligan’s Island was popular among the cultural elites in France, in other words, no one would knew it, because they didn’t talk about it. In America, on the other hand, it’s something we enjoy talking about almost as much as we do watching the shows.

“You make sure to talk about (your guilty pleasures) –which is why the term exudes a false note, a mix of self-consciousness and self-congratulation. Aside from those actively seeking out public debasement, if you felt really, truly ashamed of it, you probably wouldn’t announce it to the world, would you? The guilt signals that you’re most comfortable in the élite precincts of high art, but you’re not so much of a snob that you can’t be at one with the people. So you confess your remorse whenever you deign to watch (a show like Gilligan’s Island) implying that the rest of your time is spent reading Proust.”

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