In the Middle of a Pandemic, There’s Nothing ‘Guilty’ About ‘Guilty Pleasure’

Search the term “guilty pleasure” on social media, and here is what recent results will turn up: the song “Xanadu” by Olivia Newton John; the sitcoms Friends and Brooklyn 99; a man binging Reddit confessionals; a woman putting crushed-up Chips Ahoy cookies on her ice-cream. (“If the virus doesn’t get me sick, it’s definitely gonna get me fat.”) Sam Heughan, a star of Outlander (itself a guilty pleasure) is endorsing 90-Day Fiancé as his go-to diversion. Jared Leto is confessing his passion for something called Uncle Eddie’s Vegan Cookies.

I’m sure some enterprising souls are homeschooling their children instead of just handing them the remote and preparing the kids delicious multi-course lunches instead of proffering grilled cheese. I am certain that others are mastering new yoga poses or writing sonnets or operas. As for the rest of us—myself proudly included—when we’re not freaking out over the president’s nightly press conferences, we’re eating Cheetos, watching Love Is Blind, and re-reading Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes all at the same time.

Yes, I have always worked at home (I’m a writer). The shelter-in-place order should mean business as usual. But instead of sticking to my routines, it’s been bad TV, Milanos cookies, and reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Guilty Pleasure City, USA—the only zip code on the map in which overcrowding poses no risk. Which has gotten me thinking about the nature of pleasure, and why some indulgences are deemed worse than others.

Like pornography, most of us know a guilty pleasure when we see one. Generally speaking, guilty pleasures are indulgences that have no value. They are books that are neither substantive nor salubrious; TV shows that—instead of expanding your intellectual horizons—might actually cause you to shed IQ points; food without a single nutrient; earworms that you can’t get out of your head, even when you want them gone.

“Pleasure without purpose” is what Dr. Sami Schalk, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls them. Categories include trash TV—with subsets such as most of Bravo’s current slate and The Bachelor, soap operas, and Hallmark movies—romance novels, chick lit, rom-coms, lab-engineered junk food, bubblegum Top-40 pop, the Kardashians, fashion magazines, perhaps fashion itself.

In the United States, we’ve been suspicious of pleasure since our founding—especially the ones that leave us with nothing to show for our time but Dorito dust on our fingers (or whatever the colonial equivalent once was).

But now, a pandemic has upended the status quo, as these delights (once scorned) are finding their place in all of our daily lives—young and old, male and female. With an actual threat to fear and rally against, it seems possible that, after decades of denigration, guilty pleasures can just be pleasures. And more than that, we can take this time to reconsider our entire notion of what diversions are “worth” our time and attention.

Before we can look forward to that welcome future, we need to understand how we got here. According to our capitalist gospel and Puritanical roots, free time should be devoted to self-improvement, hobbies are rebranded as #sidehustles, and commercials tout sleeplessness as a virtue. (How many times has that tweet about Shakespeare writing “King Lear” during quarantine gone around?)

While some pleasures are just pleasures, guilty pleasures are coded with gender and class. “Traditionally speaking, people refer to things as ‘guilty pleasures’ when they come from a source that’s maybe denigrated…or associated with marginalized people,” says Dr. Schalk. And to indulge in those pleasures is to associate yourself with them, leaving you guilty by association.

Romance novels, associated with women, are derided as formulaic and predictable—the ultimate guilty pleasure. Mysteries and thrillers have a set structure, too, but remain popular with men so those are spared the designation. Soap operas and dating shows are coded female, so those are worthless; professional wrestling, although sometimes just as scripted, reads as male. Junk food or fast food, which anyone with a few bucks can buy, is a guilty pleasure. Haute cuisine at a Michelin-starred restaurant—even if it clocks in at triple the calories, with more grams of fat and sugar than a Value Meal—is not.

Through it all, our guilty pleasures have endured. They’re profitable—romance novels, for example, account for almost a quarter percent of the fiction market; 36 percent of adults eat fast food on any given day, The Bachelor has, for decades, been one of ABC’s top-rated prime-time shows. And yet even though they’re money-makers, guilty pleasures are always shameful. I ate a bag of Bugles before noon! I binge-watched an entire season of Love Island. I ordered Popeyes for lunch! I put ice cream on my ice cream, and crushed-up Double Stuf Oreos on top of that!

But at least on Twitter, which is the only way I can still find out what’s going on outside my own front door, it feels like things could change. As we sit at home on our couches, we are presented with a new option—the chance to uncouple harmless, social-distancing-adherent pleasure from shame, the chance to realize that rest and leisure has an important place in the rhythms of a week or a day. With two dozen or so states now under some version of a shelter-in-place mandate, the same hobbies for which we were once shunned are now model behaviors! If there were ever a time to stop beating ourselves up for loving that bad show, for following those celebrities on Instagram, for calling a bowl of cereal dinner, this is it.

Now that our couch potato-ing gleams with the patina of responsible citizenship, now that we’re home (if we can be), soothing ourselves with the same packaged snacks and globs of unbaked cookie dough, binging the same trashy shows or losing ourselves in the same YA dystopias, can our guilty pleasures just be pleasures? With a global pandemic breathing down our necks, with our healthcare workers making unimaginable sacrifices so that we can remain in our living rooms, with some much real inequality to get angry about, can we just agree not to feel bad about Nabisco?

As someone who has seen her novels categorized first as “chick lit” then as “women’s fiction” and now as “beach reads,” I’d be delighted if, when we do emerge from our quarantine, food is just food; books—some heavy and some light—are just books; television shows are just mindless, diverting fun, without the pejorative of guilt.

And if nothing else, this experience of quarantine and social isolation should leave us with the conviction that pleasure matters; that pleasure is not optional, but essential to a full life. “The goal of pleasure to me—is it allowing me to feel deep joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment rather than [giving me] a way to escape or numb?” says Dr. Schalk. “Pleasure,” she says, “makes us more alive.”

I’m taking her advice, and doing my best to embrace the fleeting joys of this moment. (Yes, even this one.) I’m letting go of the guilt. Instead of performing self-flagellation (for whom?)—I can’t believe I ate all of that—I’m choosing to savor. The news has our bodies on high alert, and the indulgences we crave—the bubble baths, the cookie dough, the naps, the long afternoons with Grey’s Anatomy—are some of the best and most responsible methods of self-soothing available to us right now. Instead of beating ourselves up, says Dr. Schalk, we should instead tell ourselves, “I accept what is happening and I am making purposeful, self-loving choices.” Doesn’t that sound nice?

Jennifer Weiner is a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times, and the author of 14 novels, including Good in Bed, Mrs. Everything, and the upcoming Big Summer.

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