“Why the term guilty pleasure needs to be banned from our vocabulary immediately” 

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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PSA: You don’t need anyone’s permission to like the pop culture that you like

When Homecoming was released on Amazon Prime in early November I tried, I really did, to love it. I sat stoically through three episodes, eyes bleary as I blinked at my computer screen. At the end of the third, tricky half hour of drama, I gave up.

There wasn’t anything wrong with it, per se. Julia Roberts was, unsurprisingly, fantastic, the staging was stellar, I thought all that funky aspect ratio switching was neat. But I wasn’t enjoying it. So I switched off and onto another Amazon Prime program: The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. I felt my body sink into the warm, gooey world of Midge Maisel, a realm of swishy coats and melt-in-your-mouth brisket and creator Amy Sherman Palladino’s trademark rapidfire jokes. It was fun and fizzy and a total, complete fantasy. I adore it.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel isn’t for everyone. (Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer prize-winning critic from The New Yorker just gave it an absolutely savage review, blasting it as “treacly and exhausting”.) In a straw poll amongst my friends, I discovered that there were at least two of them who thought it was a waste of time, as well as a further four who called it their favourite television series of the year. 

Currently, I’m justifying my monthly Amazon Prime membership because I am still yet to finish season two, and I need to know what’s going to happen between the implausibly broad-shouldered Dr Benjamin Ettenberg (Zachary Levi) and deranged, loveable Midge (Rachel Brosnahan).

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

It might have scored Golden Globes and Emmys galore, but The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is something of the much-maligned Mrs Maisel on social media. Ever since the second series premiered last week, critics and fans alike have debated whether or not the series is any good. Like other female-led, admittedly “treacly” – I would go so far as to say intentionally so – television, like Younger or even The Good Place, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a fascinating study in how we categorise the pop culture that makes us feel good.

We used to call them “guilty pleasures”, a phrase loaded with concepts of morality. For something to be “guilty”, it must necessarily be shameful. We shouldn’t like this thing, but we do. Historically, the phrase was first used to describe brothels. 

Since then, it has become the stock standard label for anything that speaks directly to women, from romance novels to chick flicks to television series like Outlander, the steamy, time-traveling melodrama set in Jacobite-era Scotland that is so desperately delicious I feel the urge to lick my lips whenever I finish an episode. 

I was reminded of this when I saw a tweet from NPR’s film critic and host of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour Linda Holmes. “How much of prestige culture would I miss if I refused to watch anything with graphic murders in it for a year?” she asked. “What if I did it anyway?” 

The tweet was a response to the proliferation of violence onscreen this year, a pop culture list that runs the gamut of films like Lars von Trier’s serial killer fever dream The House that Jack Built and Hold the Dark and You Were Never Really Here to Dirty John and Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders to feminist masterpieces including Widows and Killing Eve. That’s not even getting started on the graphic violence we put straight into our ears in the form of true crime podcasts

After sharing her tweet, many responded to Holmes telling that she would be missing out on “a lot of extraordinary film making” if she stopped watching pop culture featuring graphic violence. “It isn’t the graphic content,” one response read, flagging Peaky Blinders as their example, “it is the context, the reason and purpose of the depiction of violence.

Holmes responded: “I think you’re maybe misunderstanding my point, which is certainly not that nothing with graphic violence can be good. It’s only that perhaps I might be willing to give up some things that are good because I simply feel like I want a break from that imagery.”

Holmes is right. You don’t need anyone’s permission to curate your pop culture diet and decide what it is that you want to spend your precious time consuming. You also don’t need anyone’s permission to like or dislike the pop culture that you enjoy. It has nothing to do with the so-called critical value of these things and everything to do with how they make you feel and how that imagery is affecting your life.

Shows like Bodyguard could be giving us anxiety

Though research has proven that there’s no causal link between watching violent material and actual violence, there is a causal link between watching violent material and experiencing spikes of anxiety and depression, especially when the pop culture is viewed in periods of bingeing. Basically, if you’re watching four episodes in one sweaty, feverish go of Ozark or Bodyguard, late in the antisocial night under the cover of darkness, it’s going to have an impact on your psychological health. 

By giving yourself a break from that potentially damaging imagery, you’re doing your mental health a favour. It doesn’t matter that you might be missing out on quote unquote good works of pop culture. There is nothing in the rulebook that says that you have to watch anything, or indeed that you have to like it.

If you like watching graphic violence, by all means, bathe in it. If your chosen genre is tongue-in-cheek action movies, then blessed is the day Aquaman debuts in cinemas. If all you want to do is live in the hare-brained, high-concept world of The Good Place, that’s fine! If your poison of choice is reality TV, that’s fine too. Important and unimportant, prestige and masstige, high and low. It’s all fine.

To hell with the idea of enjoying the pop culture you think that you ‘should’ enjoy. Enjoy whatever you want.  

Images: Netflix, Amazon Prime


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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