On Guilty Pleasures

Every now and then, someone will ask me about what my guilty pleasures are. But I don’t actually have any.

Not because my taste is pure sophisticated perfection, no. I like pop tarts and velveeta and happy bubblegum pop songs (some of them, anyway) and popcorn read-em-once adventures just fine. And I have no difficulty telling the difference between a pop tart and a gourmet pastry, velveeta and some of the certifiably best cheese in the US.

And not because I think there’s no such thing as standards–just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. I don’t think it’s some terrible injustice that Velveeta hasn’t got a pile of gold medals from the World Cheese Awards. It’s just, sometimes I love me some velveeta-covered mac and cheese, or a nice frosted blueberry pop tart.

I would say I don’t understand what there is to be guilty of, in these supposedly guilty pleasures, but sadly I know all too well what that’s about.

Velveeta? Is mass produced. That mass production makes it relatively inexpensive, and easy to get your hands on. It’s easy to cook with–you basically just melt it into whatever you’re making. It’s salty, it’s filling, it’s cheesy-tasting enough, as these things go. Little kids like velveeta. It’s not exactly a sophisticated taste to have.

That cheese I referred to above? If you don’t live in the vicinity of Bloomsdale, Mo, you’ll likely have a tough time getting your hands on some. Me, I can get a few ounces of it just by heading for the nearest farmer’s market, but it’ll cost me as much as two or three big blocks of velveeta. It’s totally worth it–they didn’t get that gold medal because the goats are cute. (Although the goats are super cute.)

I can like both of these, in different ways, for different reasons, but I’m supposed to feel ashamed of admitting the one. Why is that? Why are my personal preferences, some of them in such viscerally basic areas of my life–the taste of food!–subject to what is essentially a moral judgement? Why am I only supposed to admit liking what’s publicly valorized, and ashamed of liking what’s not?

And isn’t it funny how the stuff that I’m supposed to be ashamed of liking is inexpensive, mass produced, and easy to obtain? Isn’t that interesting?

Isn’t it funny how so much of the music and reading material that’s most heartily sneered at is loved by teenage girls? The bands or solo singers those girls fixate on in crushes of one sort or another, depending on a girl’s preferences and inclination, as fantasy romantic or sexual figures, and/or figures of hero worship, oh those are all horrible and stupid, aren’t they. The music is empty formulaic crap, the performers bland and pretty and plastic, and what are these girls even thinking, looking up to Taylor Swift! Never mind that adolescent girls have as much need as anyone for working out who they are and what they like, and the young, unthreatening folks who tend to make up those pop acts are entirely appropriate for the purpose. Sure, a lot of the music is disposable (and these teens react to it as though it’s earth shattering and profound and not cliche at all! How childish!) but some of it is better than it’s given credit for. And even if it weren’t, it’s no worse than ninety percent of everything else that hits the airwaves. Why the sneers? Why the hatred?

Or Romance. Romance isn’t one of my things, right, but let’s be honest, a crappy detective novel or a crappy SF or Extruded Fantasy Product is just as bad as a crappy Romance. When it’s SF we’ll protest that no, that’s just a bad one, the whole genre’s not like that, but Romance? Romance is just stupid, man.

Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that poor people like–or tend to buy or use because it’s cheap. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that teenage girls like, or women. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things we liked when we were kids.

I’m not saying that nothing can be criticized–there are surely bad Romance novels. Taylor Swift is a pretty good songwriter who has done some very admirable things, but she’s also had her less than admirable public moments. Velveeta doesn’t come out well in a comparison with really good cheese (unless its a competition for what will make the easiest mac & cheese, given only three minutes and a microwave to work with), and it’s probably not very good for you. I’m perfectly willing to criticize things I like, or consider criticism of those things, and still like them.

No, I’m talking about that weird, moral dimension to likes and dislikes. You like pumpkin spice anything? You should be ashamed. You should feel guilty, because you’re not supposed to like that, smart people don’t like that, people who like that have something wrong with them.

So much of what we like or dislike–what we’re publicly supposed to like or dislike–is functioning as in-group identifiers. You go to Starbucks because there are a zillion of them and you’re the kind of person who drinks lattes. You sneer at Starbucks because you’re not one of those sheep and their coffee is terrible, you go to the indie place where they serve you your latte in a mason jar, or in a puddle on a wooden plank. (I kid because I love–not long ago I was served dinner in half a dozen heaps on a wooden plank, and it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had. But there is something a little silly and super trendy about that kind of presentation.)

Or maybe I belong to (or aspire to belong to) a group that marks identity by reaction to the more widely valorized tastes–I’m sophisticated enough to prefer a cheap, canned beer (not just any cheap canned beer mind you!) or tea instead of coffee (again, not just any tea). Or maybe I’m sure someone is sneering at me, so I pre-emptively sneer at them, those snobs and their fancy moldy cheese and wine that’s no better than two buck chuck if you cover up the label and tell them it cost a lot and won some prizes.

All of it’s an advertisement for who you claim to be, in public. Being seen liking (or disliking) the wrong things can get you marked as an outsider, or as a member of a class you desperately don’t want to be part of. Sweet Mother of God don’t let anyone think I’m too much like a woman or a poor person or a gay guy or a lesbian or an elitist college educated liberal or…

Anxiety. Fear of being mistakenly–mistakenly, I swear!–placed in a deprecated category. Or just contempt for people in those categories. It’s not really about the art, the food, the coffee. If it were, you could talk about it without the sneering, without implying that anyone who would like this crap is deserving of mockery. Without talking about liking such things as though it were something you should feel guilty about.

It’s entirely possible to criticize things you like. It’s entirely possible to like bad things and dislike good things. It’s entirely possible to be a smart, educated, decent human being who likes pumpkin spice flavored stuff, and velveeta.

And while I know it’s difficult, it’s absolutely possible to criticize things without sneering at the people who like them. It’s harder than sneering, it takes some thought. And no, you don’t have to do it just because I’m saying you can. You can do anything you want. You do you. Just maybe think about it next time you’re about to say that something is a guilty pleasure.

15 thoughts on “On Guilty Pleasures

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    I also think there is a reaction against perceived elitism. That is to say, to quote President Bush’s malapropism, “brie and cheese” which he imagined the elite eating. That contempt you spoke of runs in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of directions.

    And Velveeta IS the best cheese to use to make Tex-Mex Dip, so, that’s what I use.

  2. T
    Trey Goesh says:

    This strikes me as eerily close to some of Brene Browns reasearch and writings.

  3. Heather Lynn says:

    Thanks for articulating this so well. And for tying it back to fear and embarrassment.

  4. s
    stardreamer says:

    A friend of mine had this to say recently:

    “Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. People have been using that mix for centuries. It adds a nice touch of zing to everything from pastry to meat dishes to hot beverages. But call it Pumpkin Spice and they lose their damn minds.”

    (She’s not kidding about meat dishes. You just have to be really careful not to add too much. But try about 1/8 tsp in your next pot roast.)

    1. Lenora Rose says:

      Except pumpkin spice things also try to include some flavour of pumpkin (pumpkin spice teas would be identical to chai if it were otherwise), not just the spices mixed therein. That seems to be what blows peoples’ minds. I don’t get it either.

      I personally like pumpkin spice muffins and scones better than lattes and teas, but I *like* all of them, I just don’t love some. I like most other flavours of latte better unless I am in a vary particular mood, and most of them don’t have the seasonal aspect.

  5. J
    JSto says:

    My usual phrasing for readers and youth I speak to about influence, liking, and quality:

    1. It’s not necessarily an issue of what you read, but how you read it (ex: Mein Kampf).

    2. What one likes and what is quality does not always overlap (ex: most bestsellers), and that’s OK, but knowing the difference makes a difference.

  6. P
    Pat Bowne says:

    Is it just me, or are we far more concerned with signalling our group membership nowadays than we used to be? I don’t remember giving a thought to this in my youth, at least after I realized that I was never ever going to fit in with the highschool crowd and should just quit trying. Now I see people all around me hell-bent on recreating the social dynamic I was happy to escape.

    I wonder also what’s happened to the moral status of making independent decisions and refusing to conform. Those were among the primary moral virtues when I was growing up, and while they don’t deserve that status they perhaps come closer to virtue than consuming the ‘right’ stuff does.

    1. Ann says:

      I honestly don’t think we’re any more concerned with it than anyone else at any other time. We’re just more aware of other groups, and hence more aware of people doing it.

      Same for the “moral status of making independent decisions and refusing to conform.” The question of what’s an independent decision and what’s just going along with the crowd can be complicated–I don’t think people going along with a fashion are just pretending to like something, they genuinely do like it. And there are more than one set of options available for the person who wants to signal noncomformity in particular ways–they go along with a crowd to show everyone they’re not part of the crowd.

      I don’t think the mistake is liking things a lot of people like that are in fashion. I think it’s in assuming you’re different from all of those other folks (chances are, you’re just following a different set of fashions), and that it’s important to be different from all of those other folks, it’s better.

  7. Derek Broughton says:

    While I mostly agree, I don’t believe it’s as easy to label as: “And isn’t it funny how the stuff that I’m supposed to be ashamed of liking is inexpensive, mass produced, and easy to obtain? Isn’t that interesting?”

    That’s particularly not true of books. Books in the same format come in a surprisingly (well, only surprising if you really believe that capitalism is purely a matter of supply and demand) narrow range of prices. Romance is not particularly inexpensive compared to SF, or even “literature”. It’s certainly not any more easily available.

    And I certainly don’t sneer at Starbucks because of their prices. I sneer because I’d pay 2-4 times what I pay in a perfectly good local coffee shop and they seem determined to make you WAIT for it!

    As for my own guilty pleasures, there aren’t many. But I admitted to enjoying Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson’s Dune novels recently. And I do feel guilty, because I feel somewhat unclean seeing them make a living off somebody else’s idea, even if it was Brian’s father.

    1. Lenora Rose says:

      It’s not more easily available, but the demographic shift is blatantly to the feminine, which is not true of any more respected genre. That seems to be what triggers the majority of sneers. If women like it, it can’t possibly be SMART.

      And Leckie mentions that option in the OP, not just the ones you listed.

  8. Or maybe I’m sure someone is sneering at me, so I pre-emptively sneer at them, those snobs and their fancy moldy cheese and wine that’s no better than two buck chuck if you cover up the label and tell them it cost a lot and won some prizes.

    This pretty well encapsulates why the song “Royals” gets right up my nose.

  9. M
    MCA says:

    Velveeta is so obscure that I haven’t ever heard about it before. Take that as a signal of your sophistication 😉

    1. Lenora Rose says:

      It’s effectively the same kind of thing as cheez whiz. Differences can be debated by those who are pickier than me.

      1. C
        Cadbury Moose says:

        Cheese Whiz – this product may contain whiz from more than one species.

  10. J
    Janet Shimmin says:

    Charles Darwin also commented on this phenomenon. He found it strange how ashamed he felt if he didn’t know the right etiquette, like which knives and forks to eat with. He thought, like you, it was about being perceived (or not) as one of the pack or tribe, one of the in- crowd – not that he used that term.

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