Defend What You Like (or Why I Don't Believe In Guilty Pleasures)


The term “guilty pleasure” has become ubiquitous in modern discussions of art. The term first appeared in the New York Times in 1860 to describe the experience of visiting a brothel, but has since transformed into a catch-all term to describe the enjoyment of anything that isn’t considered worthwhile. For film, this means bad movies. Do you enjoy watching Last Action Hero or the Star Wars prequels or (more recently) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, even though we supposedly all acknowledge these films as bad? Don’t worry, there’s an easy solution to your problems. Merely label the film you like as a guilty pleasure and you absolve yourself of the crippling guilt of having bad taste!

This sort of thinking is preposterous and unhealthy. In fact, the entire use of the term “guilty pleasure” is a cop out. It reeks of our worst impulses, protecting our ego at the expense of the films we consume and the state of criticism as a whole. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. It allows people to enjoy what they like while still submitting to homogeneous ideas of good and bad, excusing themselves from defending their tastes or engaging with the actual experience of watching a film and quantifying why they did or did not like it.

Furthermore, there are three core problems with the term. Firstly, it assumes there is a universal canon of taste that all people should adhere to. Secondly, it has more to do with the person who uses the phrase than the film it’s applied to. Finally, it shuts down discussion of a film on its own terms, which is, I would argue, the essence of film criticism. 

In many ways, it’s understandable that people use the phrase to excuse away their unpopular opinions. It’s a ubiquitous term and an easy way for a person to shirk responsibility for his or her film tastes. But casual use of a term normalizes it, and often, that means normalizing the unspoken assumptions that underlie the term. With guilty pleasures, the underlying assumption is that there is a universal canon of taste that any film labeled a guilty pleasure lies outside of. This is a false assumption.

First of all, the idea of a canon for film is more tenuous than one for English literature or classical musical. While a film like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane would widely be considered canon, few other films enjoy a similar universal designation. Part of this is because film is a new artform that has only became studied as art fairly recently. As well, the growth of the medium has coincided with the rise of the democratization of criticism, which has attacked the very idea of scholarly canons. The closest thing to a classical canon is Sight & Sound’s decennial lists of the best films ever made, which are aggregates of lists compiled by filmmakers and film critics. However, in the popular consciousness, few people would refer to these lists as the benchmarks of taste. Instead, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, IMDb rankings, the Oscars, and social media chatter determine a film’s supposedly unassailable position as good or bad. Using the phrase guilty pleasure submits to the assumption that these sorts of elements determine a film’s worth and ignores how flimsy each of these individual components are.

For instance, Rotten Tomatoes boils down every review to a fresh or rotten rating. A film like The Avengers that most critics modestly enjoyed can garner a 92% rating, but a film like Synecdoche, New York that critics like Roger Ebert proclaimed to be the best film of the decade garners only a 69% rating. Because the public only looks at the overall rating and not the review that fuels that rating, discussion ends at a bland designation of fresh or rotten, good or bad. For its part, IMDb overwhelmingly favours white, male, modern films from North America. It will christen a film like The Shawshank Redemption as the greatest movie ever made with a 9.3 rating, but an older foreign film like Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès will sit far outside the Top 250 with a middling 7.4 rating. 

As for social media, it is an echo chamber of perpetual outrage or praise with little consideration of a film’s true worth. It’s where a film like the upcoming Ghostbusters can be savaged months before release—its trailer ranks as the most disliked trailer in YouTube history—all because it has the supposed audacity to star four women. And the Oscars are as likely to award a good awards campaign as a good film. They also skew overwhelmingly white and male, and give little-to-no consideration to foreign or nonfiction cinema. Despite how arbitrary and flimsy these standards are, films that fall outside them have to be excused away as guilty pleasures in order to save face in the popular consciousness.

Take Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for example. It holds a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a lukewarm 7.2 rating on IMDB, and the kinds of social media vitriol usually reserved for celebrity rapists or poachers who shoot lions in Africa. All of these elements make Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice an unassailably bad film in the popular consciousness. When presented with this overwhelming evidence of the film’s flaws, the only reasonable way to excuse any enjoyment of the film is to write it off as a guilty pleasure. That way, an individual can express enjoyment of the film, but still submit to the flimsy standards of the pop-culture sphere, doing nothing to question the baseline assumptions that fuel our discussions of film. To say anything contrary to this (as I did in my review) is seen as simply wrong. Using the term guilty pleasure favours groupthink over critical discussion. It espouses a homogeneous way of viewing art and the world. It’s also egotistical beyond all reckoning.

When people use the term guilty pleasure, they’re more interested in protecting their own reputation than actually describing the film they’re applying the term to. It turns an honest discussion of the merits of art into a way of soothing one’s ego. I’ll use some personal examples to make my point. I love the film Road House, starring Patrick Swayze as the head bouncer of a seedy bar. I believe it’s one of the best action films of the 1980s. Although I initially watched it when I was 15 out of morbid curiosity, I’ve grown to respect the film’s contradictory nature. 

However, Road House is widely considered a bad film. It shows up on many lists like Buzzfeed’s popular “How Many Bad Movies Have You Seen” and sports a 6.4 rating on IMDb and a 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Kevin Smith once christened it the best bad movie of all time in an old GQ column. Popular wisdom suggests I should excuse my enjoyment of Road House by labeling it a guilty pleasure, but I refuse to do so. Labeling Road House a guilty pleasure would do the film a disservice as it would dismiss the pleasure it gives me and the unique ways that it’s fascinating. It would only serve to defend my reputation in an online world that demands artistic conformity.

Just as I refuse to call Road House a guilty pleasure, I refuse the same with Matthew McConaughey’s romcoms How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch and the dead-on-arrival blockbuster John Carter. My appreciation for these films might be unpopular, but I have no desire to conform to the homogenous opinion of the online masses. Labeling a film a guilty pleasure is admitting that films are only important inasmuch as they bolster others’ opinions of me and my taste. It turns criticism away from discussion and merely into a shallow exercise in managing perceptions. There is no other reason for me to label a film a guilty pleasure than to escape the scrutiny of defending my experience with it. It’s not a harmless act of defense, but is actually damaging to criticism as a whole. This is because labeling a film a guilty pleasure is meant to be the final word on a film’s merits. It shuts down discussion.

Film criticism is discussion. That’s all it is. It’s meant to be an engagement of how films move us, how they operate, and how they reflect on and engage with the world around us. Labeling a film a guilty pleasure ends the conversation about how that film is working. It also assumes that engagement with a film begins and ends with one’s enjoyment of it. It doesn’t take into account the personal perspectives that people bring to the films they watch or how their own life experiences will shape the way they engage with films (and in different ways at different points in one’s life). It doesn’t allow for the different ways that people watch films: that some people are formalists or narrative junkies or are obsessed with certain themes or subject matters. It divorces a consideration of a film’s worth from the actual experience of watching that film.

For instance, someone appreciating Michael Bay merely for his formal prowess is very different than that same person saying he or she enjoys his films as guilty pleasures. Even if the statement that Michael Bay is only worthwhile at making chaotic compositions is restrictive and dismissive of his other qualities as a filmmaker, at least it engages with his films in a way that is beyond superficial notions of enjoyment.

By labeling a film a guilty pleasure, I relinquish my need to defend my appreciation of it, disown my responsibility for my own taste, and avoid any engagement with the film in relation to its own form and function. Instead of using the term guilty pleasure, people should own their taste and defend the films they like. There is nothing wrong with holding an unpopular opinion about a film. Film lovers should savour a world of differing film tastes, where our diverse experiences and worldviews lead to different ways of watching and appreciating films. We should be open to engaging in an honest conversation about the films we watch and the reasons we do or do not like them.

Let’s bury the term guilty pleasure. People should never feel guilty about what films they like and criticism should never be restricted to a film’s superficial pleasures. As long as a person can explain why he or she likes a film, criticism will live on.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.