Friday, September 16, 2005


Guilty Pleasures, and Their Opposites

My literary crush, Sarah Vowell, said in an interview recently that one of the themes of her work is the gap between the stuff we like but aren’t supposed to, and the stuff we’re supposed to like but don’t. Guilty pleasures, and their opposites (guilty pains? guilty annoyances?).

Like most of what she says, it got me thinking. Why, exactly, are guilty pleasures guilty? I don’t mean the obviously harmful ones, like mistresses or heroin, but harmless ones. Why do I feel bad about liking minor-league baseball, or sausage pizza, or Pat Metheny (whose music one ex-girlfriend memorably described as “good for the digestion”)? And why do I feel vaguely bad about finding the Godfather movies slow and self-indulgent, or finding much of the scholarly work in my field unspeakably turgid and pointless? Haven’t I earned the right to opinions? What’s going on here?

I don’t know this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that academics are particularly prone to this sort of thing. So much of grad school is about acquiring taste for, well, acquired tastes, that we get used to thinking that way. Failure to acquire a taste is a sign of failure to do your work. The sophisticates believe that Authority X is the cat’s meow, so if you don’t, you just aren’t sophisticated. Since grad school is all about entering the ranks of the certified-sophisticated, the sense of guilt or inadequacy is real.

Perversely, in some circles, some lowbrow pleasures are signs of sophistication. In the political press, liberals are taken to task for failing to appreciate NASCAR. Well, excuuuse me. NASCAR is traffic. Fast, circular, right-back-where-you-started traffic. If I want to see traffic, I’ll drive to work. I’m not going to try to double back on my opinions and acquire a guilty pleasure in organized traffic as some sort of populist gesture. True NASCAR fans, I’d imagine, wouldn’t want any part of anyone who did.*

Stuff I’m supposed to like, but don’t: Jane Austen (get jobs, people!), Beethoven (sorry, but pompous is pompous), Hip-Hop (melody exists for a reason, people…), Scotch/Bourbon/Whiskey (I know paint thinner when I smell it), the films of Tim Burton (okay, okay, you’re skinny and goth and misunderstood, I GET IT).

Stuff I like, but I’m not supposed to: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup (you scoff, but is there anything better for lunch on a dreary gray day?), Courtney Love (probably insufferable in real life, but great fun to watch), Bob Newhart albums from the 1960’s (the bus driver routine reduces me to helpless laughter).

I’m not saying that these opinions are right, or that anyone else needs to hold them; I’m just saying that I don’t know why I’m supposed to feel bad for holding them.

Two questions for the blogosphere: what are your guilty pleasures, and what’s the term for the opposite of a guilty pleasure (something you’re supposed to like, but don’t)?

*My satellite radio service has a NASCAR channel. Can you imagine? “vroooom. vroooom.” That’s almost as bad as radio golf.

Good question..... My guilty pleasures are eating and drinking anything that the newest fad diet proclaims evil. Also I get a warm fuzzy feeling when a really pushy little brat gets a gentle slap from it's mother in the supermarket for throwing tantrums.

As for things I'm supposed to like but don't: Settling down and growing up, the Alien movies, live concerts and long country walks (don't really see the point).

Good Blog by the way.....
Radio golf!!! I am still laughing...

I definitely feel the 'sophistication guilt' but fortunately (or unfortunately?) have been brain washed enough to not feel "guilty" too often. Or, I was just born to be a snob.

Anyway, to your posed question:
guilty pleasure = Britney Spears
As for the name of the things we're supposed to like but don't, I supposed you could call them dodged responsibilities.....
You feel bad about liking minor-league ball, sausage pizza and Pat Metheny? Que?

The first two are two of the finest things life has to offer. Where does the guilt come from?

(As for the latter one, least he's not Sisqo. Though I'd kill to hear Metheny cover "The Thong Song.")

The Godfather movies are slow and self-indulgent. Part Two has moments of true greatness, but it's too damn long.

Trust your gut, man. An astonishing amount of the world of high art and culture is based on naked emperors.

Everybody wants to be a genius, so nobody's willing to call each other on their lack of talent, lest the accusations of hackery fly and most everybody is shown for the talentless hacks they are.

Remember, you're supposed to feel bad for not sharing other folks' opinions because the creators depend on your high opinion of their work to justify it if the work can't justify itself on aesthetic or intellectual grounds.

Look at the career of Andy Warhol: a man whose art was aesthetically dull but who understood the value of peer pressure. His entire career was a massive artistic prank pulled on influential people who couldn't bring themselves to point at a painting of a soup can and say "hey, that's lame."

Trust your gut and you can't go wrong. Especially when it says "fill me with fried cheese."

Don't worry about looking like a heathen. It's all manufactured class anxiety, yo. Ditch it and enjoy the ball game.
Britney Spears? Ouch. My version of that is Jenna Bush. I feel so ashamed...

Metheny covering the Thong Song would be fun, but for my money, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the must-have. Or maybe "I wanna be sedated." Or "nothin' like a g thang."

Misplaced class anxiety? That works -- Pierre Bourdieu made an entire career on exactly that premise. Doesn't make it any less real, though.

Gut trusting is hard for academics. One of the compensations of age, though, is that I have much more gut to trust. So there's that...

Still looking for a good name for the 'should enjoy, but don't' category. Any ideas?
I recently confessed to my literary scholar spouse that I *hate* Shakespeare. Give me the Russians!

I also intensely dislike the entire Romanitc period. Again... I seem to like the modern Russians, and KAFKA! (but not the usual stuff they feed you in High School). Oh and give me Dubliners, but Ulysses, not-so-much.

As a Cultural Studies grad of 1992, I know exactly what of you speak... though in our circles it was all about how if you didn't think that every single sexual transgression was THE MOST liberating political practice conceivable (I don't), then it was open season on you. Somehow we were also supposed to believe that Frued got Dora's case right.


I feel much better for having abandoned the effort to trade one form of "appropraite behavour and taste" for another.
The opposite of the guilty pleasure?

The Steamed Vegetable Pleasure.

You know you should eat it, it's good for you, and there are people in the world who honestly do like it...

So once in a while you choke a bit down and make fake yummy noises.

Though that doesn't work as well for things like that "hippity-hop" music and scotch. Hm.

No idea what to call the things we don't like but should. Dodged cultural obligations?

My guilty pleasures are: fantasy-sci-fi fiction (so sexist, much of it! so escapist! so uncool!); big budget Hollywood films (action/adventure, ideally). Bon Jovi. TV.

My dodged cultural obligations: film noir (yuck). Actually, highbrow films in general. (I don't care about art and brilliant visuals, give me a plot!) Art galleries/openings. Jazz.

And in my field, I often end up stuck between the people who think it's de rigeur to sneer at "theory" and those who genuflect at its altar - can I sit in between, please?
Did George Orwell have a phrase for one who fails to enjoy with enthusiasm adherence to the party line? Seems like he should have.

This rumination about feeling guilty for having feelings, pro or con, that may set one apart from the herd is rather alien to me. You must be right, it must be a phenomenon of the academic environment, which seems to reward conformity (or at least often punishes nonconformity).

I really don't see how one could feel guilty about taking pleasure from grilled cheese and tomato soup. You might as well say that all pleasure is guilty.
Bus Driver school rocks!
"OK, now the the the brakes again...good! Did you see how the little old lady went spinning all the way to the back? Excellent!"
"Dodged cultural obligations" isn't bad. I definitely felt like I dodged cultural obligations when I chose not to see 'Amistad' or 'Schindler's List.' (I don't take my moral guidance from Steven Spielberg.) Still, it doesn't quite have the hookiness of 'guilty pleasures.'

Laughed out loud at the 'sexual transgressions' line! Sheesh, I remember enduring painfully earnest seminar (ovular?) discussions on whether transgendered individuals should be allowed to attend women's music festivals. You know, important stuff. It got so bad that I actually stopped attending the seminar halfway through the semester, which is heresy in grad school, but was necessary for my mental health.

Bon Jovi? Damn. Then again, I've taken to tivo-ing "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," so I can't say much.

Does the grilled cheese and soup example suggest a general anti-pleasure agenda? Kinda. I think the academic ethos is essentially Calvinist. (Take that, David Horowitz! Secular, schmecular. They're Protestant to the bone.) It's about showing that you're one of the elect, which means being the kind of person who exemplifies, in this case, sophistication. Guilty pleasures are guilty because they're unsophisticated. If you don't have that anxiety, it's probably hard to understand, but it's real.
You're not supposed to like Bob Newhart and Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup? Screw that. I may go to the library and check out a Bob Newhart CD and make myself a can of campbell's tomato soup (although last time I bought some, I looked at the ingredients and was rather shocked at what's in it) and some sliced cheddar cheese so I can have a nice guilty afternoon
It seems to me that it makes a huge difference what department you're in and where you're at geographically and academically what ends up being a "guilty pleasure" or a "sheepish torment" (whadya think?). I think that most of the places I've been the parameters for these were realy not patrolled by others. Other than a few times in grad school when someone expressed surprise that I took pleasure in watching sports of any kind, I can't remember anyone else trying to criticize me for not apportioning pleasure and pain properly.

I do think it's a Calvinist thing, but I don't think it's really about conformity per se. I think it has to do with the fact that our pleasure and work are so intertwined. I know for me, too, it has to do with the fact that I teach complex texts to first-year students and I hear from them all the time "this is boring" when what they seem to mean is "I don't understand this" or "this is complicated" or, especially, when they mean "I don't have any context within which to situate this text, so I'm not sure what to do with it." I tell my students that simply dismissing the texts we read as "boring," that it indicates their unwillingness to engage with the text more than it indicates anything to do with the text itself. And I do believe that. And I have found that more often than not, when I find something boring (that is widely popular among fellow academics and other smart people, at least) it is a sign that I need to think about it more carefully.

That said, sometimes there are things that I just can't get into anyway
My guilty pleasure: Ricky Martin!

And I think I have a name for the other way around: pleasure guilt. We feel guilty that something doesn't give us pleasure. Traveling, English literature and wine are all that way for me.
Once again, Adjunct Kait nails it! "Pleasure guilt." Simple, nice inversion, obvious-in-retrospect. Well done!

"Sheepish torment" is pretty good, though a bit overcooked -- I wasn't tormented by "The English Patient," I was just bored by it. Branagh's "Hamlet," which every critic in the world loved, bored me to distraction, but I wasn't tormented by it. But, upon leaving the theater, I felt like some sort of knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing missing link for saying so. "Pleasure guilt."

It's better than "dodged cultural obligation," too, because they aren't always dodged. I endured The English Patient, losing precious hours of my life that I'll never get back. I wish it was dodged.

Ricky Martin is a nice example of a guilty pleasure. The Wife named Meatloaf's album "Bat Out of Hell" as hers.

On the Calvinism point -- no, it isn't (really) about conformity. It's about, as Rousseau put it, obedience to a law you prescribe to yourself. I'm sure nobody cared what I thought of "Hamlet," other than me. A thoroughgoing Calvinist knows that social acceptability, while nice, is merely a by-product (and an unreliable one, at that). Purity must be attained, even when nobody is looking. Hence the guilt.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the words of (Catholic) Bruce Springsteen, it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive. No shame in my (ball)game.
There's an irony to the shots at The Godfather films given that this discussion started with Sarah Vowell. My notable guilty pleasure right now is The Amazing Race.
This is fun! Guilty pleasures indeed. Here it is, confessions of the academic: I watch t.v. -- Drives me that in the ivory halls we are supposed to act like watching t.v. is beyond slothful. And colleagues who don't even own a t.v. are elevated to God-like status -- they have arrived, they are intellectually actualized. Puhleese! The West Wing when they actually put on a new one, Corner Gas (this is a Canadian reference, but hilarious), and in the summer, I dunno, JAG reruns since I missed them the first time, or just a nice painless hour of Law & Order. Whatever comes on at 9 o'clock when I've just managed to get the kids to sleep and am too tired to get me second wind and start writing. I guess I will never be Professor-all-that as I am of the mindless: I do, on occasion, watch television!

As for the "intellectual inadequacy" category, being Canadian, I have to say, CBC Radio. I just don't care. My friends work hard to like me anyway, but in these times of labour unrest, I am vindicated -- CBC radio is off the air and the world, is in fact, continuing to spin on its axis. Who knew?

I feel I have perhaps been a bit cheeky in this post, but hey, now and then... Guess that's one more guilty pleasure! L:)
Guilty pleasures: cartoons, organization shows and what not to wear. The internet. :)

Pleasure guilt things: Lots of seventeenth century liturature (my field). There was lots that I liked, but I always felt horribly guilty that I didn't like it all.

It's interesting because now that I'm a few years past quitting the Ph.D., I realize that if I had pursued what I liked (writing pedagogy, technology) instead of what I thought I should like (17th c. lit), I probably would have finished. I might still have ended up with the same career, but with a Ph.D. in hand.
great thread. My guilty pleasures: movies with Vin Diesel or Bruce Willis & the TV show Friends. Pleasure guilt: jazz, and movies from before 1965. Both of the latter made extra-painful by the excessive attention paid to them by both dominant and countercultural arbiters of taste.
Abba, although aren't they retro-chic now? I like Abba in the 80's and 90's when they weren't.

National Enquirer.

Ghost Hunters on Sci Fi Channel.
Guilty pleasures: those Halloween candy nougats that come wrapped in orange and black paper, Eminem, Rolling Rock beer, fruity wine, old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. I. am. such. a. doofus.

But c'mon, Dean Dad, you don't like Jane Austen??? *sigh*
P.S. In my world, these are shameful indulgences.
Love the topic! (And as a community college faculty person, love the blog in general). So if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I'm shamelessly flattering you by stealing the topic. (cited, though, of course!) Then, in turn, someone else took it from me... and when that person (luckybuzz) confessed to stealing it herself, I got to learn some new vocabulary: blogwhore. :)
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