The root of guilt in Guilty Pleasures

When not being able to tell people we watch a certain series, because it would say something unbecoming about ourselves, reveals problems in our society

Creator and executive producer of both Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes said recently in a Salon interview that calling a series a guilty pleasure is like calling it “a piece of crap.” She was insulted that anyone would actually reference their watching of Scandal with such a phrase. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I understand where she’s coming from.

That’s not to say I’m not, ahem, guilty of such labeling. All of us have decided to call a series we watch a guilty pleasure. In fact, I once wrote a post listing shows I watch that I don’t want anyone to know about. On that list: Gossip Girl (naturally), Whitney, iCarly, The Celebrity Apprentice, and Ringer. Most of those shows aren’t on the air anymore. Gossip Girl and iCarly have since ended; Whitney and Ringer were both cancelled.

But just this week, I waited for and watched The Celebrity Apprentice’s season finale. In fact, I got spoiled on who won and was kind of upset over it. And yet, I don’t really want any of my peers knowing that I watch the show. Admittedly, part of the reason I love watching The Celebrity Apprentice is for the celebrities yelling at each other. Even then, I sort of enjoy the tasks week to week. I think they’re interesting. And I always tell myself that it’s okay to enjoy Celebrity Apprentice because all of the money is going towards charity.

But why should I have to tell myself this? Why do I cover up the fact that I watch whatever series? Why do any of us? As I once read on someone’s television blog, television shouldn’t make you feel guilty. But why does it?

Unfortunately, the reasons are quite shallow. We are probably all in agreement that the latter Gossip Girl seasons were not as compelling as the former years, but even then I don’t think that’s the root of the problem with respect to it. Let’s face it: Gossip Girl was a series catered to young tweenage girls, and as a 21-year-old male (well, on Sunday), I don’t fall into that demographic. It’s a jarring relationship.

When NoWhiteNoise was still a few months old, I was sent a message on Tumblr (by a new Internet friend) to not tell anyone you watch Gossip Girl or they’d think you were gay. Several straight male followers spoke up, saying they watch the show and were ashamed. And that’s a problem, for several reasons, the most illuminating of which are: (1) That somehow being seen as not straight is a less than ideal situation, that it is beneath you, which is societal and perhaps not something I can tackle in this post; and (2) what you watch is of your own volition and it reveals important factors about who you are.

It’s 2013, and we thrive on that kind of information. Every time I do something on the Internet, algorithms that supposedly can guess what I want to do next are approaching me and giving me options. I log on to Twitter and it suggests who to follow, I go on Amazon and it beckons to buy products that I should want or need based on my purchase history, I go into Netflix and it pretends to know everything I’ll like — down to a decimal point predictive rating. My tween female cousins spent spring break last year at my house, using my Netflix account to watch 90210 the entire time. Soon thereafter, Netflix recommended I watch Never Say Never, the Justin Beiber documentary, and other choices alike. My other cousin watches nothing but B-grade (and sometimes C and D) action flicks, and now Netflix can’t stop trying to make me watch them as well.

Google has a system of preferences you can tweak to help them target ads better to you (sigh), but unbeknownst to you, since they’ve been tracking you for years, they’ve already guessed your gender and age. They thought I was a middle-aged woman, because… I don’t know, I visit a lot of television sites?

The point is: we’ve let some arbitrary set of rules dictate who should and shouldn’t be watching certain series. You can only watch Gossip Girl if you’re either a thirteen-year-old girl or a gay guy or if for some reason you aren’t intelligent enough to be entertained by more compelling series. The same is true for the other series on the list. I can only watch iCarly if I’m seven. I can’t revel in escapism soap opera Ringer because it’s not becoming of my demographic.

Now, I understand that fundamentally this is how television needs to work. Networks make shows that cater to certain demos so that advertisers know what to advertise during that time slot. But whenever I can’t reveal that I watch a certain series to someone, because it’s a true “guilty pleasure,” it’s because that series theoretically implies something about me.

The same can be said for Whitney or Celebrity Apprentice. I didn’t watch the second season of Whitney, but if I’m being honest, I found the first season to kind of be really funny (unless it truly bombed hard). Most of the time, it felt as though no one but me actually ever felt that way. And seeing as I have a television blog, it shouldn’t have been characteristic of me to laud such a panned series. And as much as I disagree with many of Donald Trump’s personal values, and am aware as such, it’s not okay that I enjoy watching The Celebrity Apprentice.

Last year, around the time I wrote the aforementioned post, I was watching Gossip Girl and I was watching Ringer and Whitney and Celebrity Apprentice. But I was also a diehard fan of widely respected Homeland and on the precipice of watching Breaking Bad (and subsequently adding it to my favorites list), both Emmy-winning series that are “good” as is the norm.

I know that The Celebrity Apprentice isn’t the highest caliber of series on television at the moment, but I’m not ashamed of watching it for myself. What I am is ashamed of what others will pigeonholed me as once they know that I do watch it. I only assume that’s exactly what it is for everyone else as well.

So perhaps the problem isn’t that the series is “a piece of crap.” Perhaps the problem is the constructs of social pressure. Can you honestly say that the timetable of series you watch can describe you as a three-dimensional person? Can you without a doubt confirm that Netflix knows precisely what movie or show you’ll like, and exactly how much you like it? (Okay, I’ll give you that one; their algorithm is kind of good.) No. I can have my cake and eat my low-brow secondary cake, too.

The more we remove the barricades of pre-made templates our gender, age, and nationalities must confine within, the less guilty we can feel for the simple things that give us joy.

Tags: , , , , , , , | Categories: Features, Television
About the author: Mike
Mike
Mike's a television junkie located in Miami, where he spends all of his time watching TV with his best friends couch and cable access.

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  • Marilou Gropatsakis

    i am a respected member of my society.i go to college,i speak 3 languages and i am proud to say,without fear or shame that i am a huge,gigantic fan of Gossip Girl!yoo hoo!life is way too short to be ashamed of what makes you happy!i still feel the rush of excitement when i hear the opening credits of GG,like the first day i watched it!

  • miss880

    I still love and watch Celebrity Apprentice too. I’m not ashamed either.
    (And of course I loved Gossip Girl)

  • cacherr1

    GG was catered to teens, not tweens, it just irresponisble parents would allow their tweens to watch it as the demongraphic is 18 and over. Also I think GG only became a guilty pleasure when season 4 rolled around because it became crap bit in the beginning I don’t think one could call it that and quite frankly guilty pleasure imo gets used wrong by the media because in some way one suppose to feel some sort of shame of even watching said program for example I like RW/RR Challenges even though I don’t even watch Real World anymore or I happen to watch Victorious occasionally. I was the same as age the characters and I didn’t considered myself a tween and they weren’t really doing tween like things in the early season. I think TVD falls into pandering to tweens with it dumbass love triangles and horrible promotions, GG at least in the beginning try to be adult and witty in the beginning (then satan known as Josh Safran got hold of it).

  • Cory Allen

    Gossip Girl only became a guilty pleasure in season 5. Prior to that…it was a fairly well written, well executed show. It had its flaws sure but it had moments of sheer brillance. Sigh…the W Mag storyline was too good for words.

  • Monika Alem

    An excellent piece! Hats off to you, Michael

  • HeyyyBrother

    I respectfully disagree that calling a television show a guilty pleasure automatically equates to crappy television. While there are certainly guilty pleasure shows that “are so bad they’re good,” my shame in watching certain shows stems from the latter reason that I am not the target demographic and will have to endure the blank stare, eye roll, or “How can you watch thatt?!?,” that will inevitably follow my admission. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go terribly out of my way to avoid exposure; I just don’t flaunt the fact that GG IS the greatest show of our time, Spongebob is freakin’ hilarious, or exclaim an audible ‘WOOHOOO” when my old favorites show up on a new RW/RR Challenge.

    Guilty pleasures are great and should be celebrated, if not only for the next day critiques and comments where all the shame-filled collaborate across the message boards.