Let’s talk about something I’ve been lately pondering (not for the first time): It’s time for us to retire the phrase “guilty pleasure.”
In the two and a half months that we’ve been under quarantine, I’ve noticed something peculiar: The longer it drags on, the more I return to the comfort of a very specific subset of movies. Namely, the movies we cringingly refer to as “guilty pleasures” – you know, the ones that might be a lot of fun but wouldn’t be considered high quality by most standards. In the past week, I’ve rewatched the entire Underworld series (yes, all five movies), Legion, Priest, both Ghostrider movies, and, yes, even The Covenant, a movie that somehow manages to feel like it was made in 1998 despite being made in 2006. I know, because I double-checked the year of its release. Twice.
On the one hand, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Angels and demons, vampires and the supernatural, they’ve always been my thing. On the other hand…I’m a film critic. As in, a professional one. Should I not be gorging myself on all the classic films dissected in film schools? Should I not be watching new releases, even if they’re going to streaming rather than theaters? Should I not be focusing on more cerebral films to keep my critical skills sharp?
But the heart wants what the heart wants, and my heart, apparently, has wanted to return to the comfort of the things I loved as a teenager and in my 20s. The world has teeth and it constantly gnaws on my brain. So I turn to movies that are easily digested by my tired, chewed-up mind.
I’m not alone in this. Asking my friends and colleagues is hardly a scientific study, but there’s a prevailing sentiment right now that films that are too heavy, too complex, too emotionally taxing, too heartbreaking are just too much to handle right now with the scary uncertainty of the world, the emotional weight of it all. Movies and television can educate, illuminate, entertain, and move us. But right now, most of us just appear to be looking for pure escapism for a few hours. More, we need it.
Finding comfort in things both familiar and easy is nothing new. It’s human nature. During the Great Depression, people flocked to what would be considered “escapist” movies: The dreamy, flirty Top Hat with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; the exuberant fun of Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and a young Lucille Ball; even James Cagney’s The Public Enemy, a film that was escapist not so much for its setting and tone but because it featured a man lashing out against a cruel and unjust world. The 1930s were years of mass displacement of rural communities in the Dust Bowl, crop shortages, endless bread lines and soup kitchens and shantytowns, poverty and hardship. If someone had a spare nickel, it was often spent on going to the movies to watch something fun and easy in order to forget about the inescapable bleakness of reality. Back then, however, these easy, entertaining popcorn flicks weren’t known as “guilty pleasures,” but as necessities.
They’re necessities still. It may be 2020 instead of 1930, but humans are no less in need of escape and comfort in their entertainment when times are historically hard. And times are once again historically hard. With the overwhelming tumult of the world, we’re turning to the same kinds of movies that soothed us ninety years ago – except this time, we feel guilty for it.
There’s an inherent snobbery tied up in the phrase “guilty pleasure” as it’s used today, a snobbiness that implies we should feel guilt for enjoying something that might be seen as low-brow or of lesser objective quality. It goes hand-in-hand with a troubling, growing inability in our society to separate the entertainment we love from who we are. Having opinions about movies is seemingly necessary now, but it’s about having the right opinions, impressive opinions. It’s no longer enough to love a movie simply because it makes you happy; you’re expected to justify that love on a technical and intellectual level, as well. Anything unable to be adequately justified gets tarred with the guilty pleasures brush.
It wasn’t always like this. The entire concept of guilty pleasures, at least in the way we understand it now, is relatively new.
The phrase “guilty pleasure” has been around since at least the 1700s with the phrase first appearing in the New York Times in 1860. In that article, however, it was used to describe a brothel, and it’s in that context that the phrase was historically placed. Its usage leaned heavily into the “guilty” part of the pleasure and was ascribed to the things 18th- and 19th-century citizens might truly be ashamed of engaging in: Lewd sex acts (again, this was the 1800s), cheating on one’s wife, smoking opium. Acts that resulted in actual guilt.
It was in the middle of the 20th century that a curious shift happened and the phrase “guilty pleasure” started to be associated with media and largely inconsequential decisions. By the 1980s, the phrase once intended to describe acts that might find you coming down with a nasty case of syphilis and the wrath of God was instead used to describe watching a direct-to-video movie. The NYT archives show that over 99% of the times “guilty pleasures” was used in an article happened post-1996. This dubious shift was hastened along, as so many dubious things are, by the rise of early online forums, with fans of camp and cult movies able to come together and discuss their love with other fans.
Since then, the phrase “guilty pleasures” has been one delivered with a self-aware wink; we’re well aware we don’t actually feel or need to feel guilt for simply watching a cheesy movie. It’s offered up as both disclaimer and mea culpa, a talismanic shield intended to deflect the derision earned for having bad taste. “Guilty pleasures” is merely shorthand for “If I signal my awareness that a movie I personally love is ‘bad,’ then I can’t be judged for it. I’ll beat everyone to the punch!”
In 2020, the phrase needs to undergo one last shift, this time straight into the garbage can. Let’s strap it to a rocket and slingshot it into the sun. Of course, if you’re going to talk about movies with any degree of authority or knowledge, it’s necessary to understand when a movie is technically good or bad, to be able to recognize what a movie does well and where it fails, to acknowledge there are undeniable differences in quality level between films.
What’s not necessary is to feel a slight twinge of shame for loving movies that fail an objective quality check. Watch what you feel like watching. Embrace the movies you enjoy without attaching an asterisk to that enjoyment. Dive into the films that bring you comfort, no matter how campy, how corny, how cheesy. Get your Uwe Boll on. Honestly, who cares? It’s 2020. Love bad movies with your whole damn heart. Feel no guilt for the pleasure you get out of them. In the end, it may be the only thing that gets us through this mess with our sense of joy intact.