Guilty Pleasure Television: A Reconsideration of Terms

My heart is thumping in my chest as I sneak up the driveway. The bag of crisps I am holding quivers, and nearly drops, as I search my purse for my keys. I let myself into the house, quiet as quiet can be, so I do not wake another soul. I creep into my room and shut the door, checking to make sure it is locked… twice. I look under the bed, in the closet, behind the bookcase… no one is spying on me. I hesitantly settle into my chair, still wary of the softest sound. I wince at the Mac start-up noise, a veritable siren breaking the silence of the room. I sit completely still, desperately hoping that I haven’t awoken the household. When I am sure I am safe, I gently place the DVD into the computer and listen to the opening narration… of Xena.

Nothing says 'feminism' like skimpy leather outfits.
Nothing says ‘feminism’ like skimpy leather outfits.

“In time of ancient Gods, Warlords and Kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle. The power. The passion. The danger. Her courage will change the world.”

While I can’t admit to going that far to ensure no one knew about my secret love for Xena, I never used to watch it where anyone could see. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, my ‘guilty pleasure’. Something about the show appeals to me on a primal level; I don’t love the series in spite of the terrible special effects and hammy acting; I watch BECAUSE of these elements. I am not blind to the (mostly) terrible acting; I just consider it to be a part of the joyous viewing experience. Sure, Game of Thrones has the ability to make me feel ALL OF THE EMOTIONS; sometimes I want to watch a program that doesn’t compel a call to a grief hotline.

However, I am not supposed to say I love Xena. Due to its status as ‘guilty pleasure’ television, it remains a topic spoken of in hushed whispers under the cover of night, or failing that, a blanket fort. The same goes for soap operas like Dallas, and reality programs such as The Real Housewives. I personally see very little to enjoy in the latter especially, but should people really be the butt of the joke just for watching? I make fun of Jersey Shore all the time (I never run out of Oompa Loompa material), but I try to focus on the show, not the viewer. The term ‘guilt’ implies that I should feel somehow ashamed of my enjoyment, that my feelings are somehow ‘wrong’. Happiness is a gut reaction, and attempting to make an individual feel inferior in intellect or culture simply because of that instinctive reaction is downright insidious.

‘Guilty pleasure’ is a phrase used as incorrectly, and as often, as ‘YOLO’. Teenagers use the latter acronym as a justification for risky behaviour:

Only bad things happen when YOLO appears.
Only bad things happen when YOLO appears.

“Bungee jumping without a cord? YOLO!”

However, when one considers the sentence ‘you only live once’, it really stands as a warning. Technically speaking, teenagers should be saying:

“Hey, don’t stand so close to the railroad tracks. YOLO.”

‘Guilty pleasure’ is misused in a similar way. Instead of understanding the term to mean a book, show or film you are supposed to be ashamed of consuming, it really should relate to an action or behaviour that makes you truly ‘guilty’ in the traditional sense of the word. For example, instead of this:

‘“Entourage’ is my guilty pleasure show”

You could say this:

“Putting Lego bricks into my room-mate’s shoes is my guilty pleasure.”

Do you see the difference? One is something you feel you should be ashamed of because of what other people think, whereas the other option is a completely evil act that makes you shameful by its very completion. (Lego in the shoe? Despicable.)

We have all had bad days where almost everything goes wrong.

This is not the face of someone ready to watch a nature documentary.
This is not the face of someone ready to watch a nature documentary.

You wake up late, you run out of your favourite cereal, and your boss doesn’t understand why you can’t just fix his computer by ‘reversing the polarity’ (True story). When you finally get home, disgruntled and unhappy, just wanting to not focus on you for a little while, you turn on the television. Do you really want to watch the news? Thirty minutes of death and destruction with a surfboarding cat at the end ‘to lighten things up’? No. What you want is your mind numbed. When I am unhappy, I can’t digest the intricacies of Mad Men or Breaking Bad. I want to see an armoured warrior princess decapitate a Minotaur. Is that so much to ask?

There are levels of hierarchy in television. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that Xena was on the same level as The Sopranos, The Wire or Homeland. However, I don’t enjoy watching The Sopranos. I understand that it is quality television, with intelligent writing and intricate plot construction. However, just because a show is identified with quality, doesn’t mean you have to like it. The same goes for the reverse: Neither Housewives nor Hercules is high in the quality television hierarchy, but your enjoyment does not hinge on what critics, friends, family or random people on the street have to say. I watch Xena in public now, and when people question me about it, I usually make them sit down and watch. Either they will start to enjoy the show and get where I am coming from, or they will silently wonder where my sanity has gone. Either way, they are quiet enough so that I can watch my show in peace. Win/win.

Finally, every great persuasive speech has a call-to-action, where the speaker/writer begs the reader or listener to change an aspect of their or others’ lives for the better. Here is mine: be proud of the television you watch, and let no one say that you are less intelligent, less cultured or less civilised because of it. You only get one life, don’t allow other people to dictate how you should enjoy it.

As the youths say, YOLO.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Gaile L

    Reality programmes are my drink of poison and I’m proud of it!

  2. J. Bryan Jones

    Very funny post. I enjoyed reading it 🙂

  3. So You Think You Can Dance. There, I said it.

  4. 5 minutes before reading this, I never thought I could enjoy an article that said YOLO, but you changed my opinion. 😀 Great article.

    • Yes, I had to double and triple check that part of the article. There was no way I was putting YOLO in there unless it was important!

  5. Taylor Ramsey

    This was a fun one.

  6. Kevin Licht

    Nice tightly written article. I feel like I often end up defending the multi-cam half hour comedies the way you defend Xena here.

    Having said that, at times I do feel genuinely ashamed for having completed watching a television show every once in a while (cough… True Blood.. cough cough… How I Met Your Mother). I think this may have more to do with me being a completionist with regards to television programs, so even when I stop enjoying a show, I continue watching until it’s finally over.

    • I can certainly understand that! I binge watched HIMYM the other week and felt a little pathetic after watching it. I think of the sensation of how I feel after a HUGE meal- pathetic and full, but also proud of my achievement! 🙂

  7. Rosanne

    Your YOLO article totally made me lol. Roswell. No excuses. Just Roswell.

    • It’s odd, though, that binge watching shows like Roswell and Buffy is almost socially ‘excusable’- because they are cult shows maybe? Either way- I love Roswell!

  8. Francesca Turauskis

    I like your style, both written and in life! Legend of the Seeker, for me. It was epic. But it was not, necessarily, good. I had to watch it on You Tube because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Also, very much enjoying watching re-runs of Buffy at the moment – not least to admire the nineties dress sense!

    • Have you ever had that moment when you wanted to download a movie but you were ashamed to have it on your computer? I was going to download Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about how people would react if they saw it!

  9. Ewan Wilson

    I really enjoyed this – loved the YOLO inversion. It’s only logical.

  10. Amanda Gostomski

    My guilty pleasure is Supernatural lol.

  11. Jessica Lancaster

    OH MY GOSH Xena is my guilty pleasure too!! What can I say? I love strong female leads, random anachronistic plot points, and absurdly amazing/impossible fight sequences. For me, it’s basically so bad it’s great – although most people probably wouldn’t cross that threshold. Hence, the guilty pleasure label.(Ok, enough fangirling.)

    I think there’s a lot of pressure nowadays to get involved in “good” TV (“What do you mean, you don’t watch Breaking Bad??”), which in turn perpetuates the idea that other shows are “bad.” We have guilty pleasure shows because somewhere along the line we’ve been given an idea about what is and what isn’t worth watching, and if our show hasn’t gotten the public’s seal of approval we somehow feel lesser for enjoying it. I don’t personally enjoy most reality television shows, but hey, there’s plenty on the air which means someone must be watching and enjoying them, right?

  12. Juan Manuel Auza

    Great text. Really.

  13. Everybody has a guilty pleasure of trash art/entertainment.

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