Why we should stop feeling guilty about our 'guilty pleasures'

With regional unrest weighing down our mental health, nobody should hide the joy found in disposable media

Dubai Bling is one of the most enduringly popular shows in the UAE, by streaming metrics. Photo: Netflix
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We’ve never been good at being honest with ourselves. What we actually enjoy is rarely what we boast about. Never has that been laid more bare than in the TV streaming era.

In 2017, Netflix dropped its long-running five-star rating system for something much more simple: a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product at the time, said it was because we tend to overrate things we don’t actually want to watch. We feel very good about ourselves when we put on something demanding, but rarely, if ever, do we actually bring ourselves to do it, the metrics show.

We may rate a documentary about unrest in Ukraine more highly, he said, but we choose to watch the Adam Sandler movie 9 times out of 10.

This has long been the case for me personally. In my university days, I enjoyed a reality show on MTV called Jersey Shore, which became something of a viral sensation due to having a cast of entertaining characters engaging in hilarious and scandalous situations.

It’s not so different to getting into Dubai Bling now, one of the most enduringly popular shows in the UAE, by streaming metrics, or Vanderpump Rules, one of the most popular of the genre in 2024. The problem was this: I couldn’t admit to anyone that I loved Jersey Shore.

As I ingratiated myself around campus socially, I had cultivated something of a cinephile reputation for enjoying older films. I liked how that felt. Suddenly, I had a powerful urge to keep that reputation intact from the lowbrow content I consumed.

What I should have realised is that all of it is part of my personality, the low and the high. I contain multitudes as they say, and most people do too.

And yet, even in 2024, I find myself stuck in the same dichotomy, this time on the popular film rating app Letterboxd.

The site allows you to set up an account, log in the films you’ve watched and review them, but most importantly, encourages the user to choose their four favourite films of all time.

These choices are at the forefront of each person’s account, and for better or worse, represent a person’s personality, taste and level of knowledge and sophistication within the Letterboxd community.

Choosing these four films can be daunting. What are the films that you want to represent you, represent the person you are at this very moment in your life? Maybe I’m placing too much importance on these choices, and maybe these are arbitrary choices for most people.

But then I watch Letterboxd’s own videos, in which they interview celebrities and ask them their four favourites, and I realise that even those in the film industry seemingly have the same problem as mine.

Picking my own favourites has become something I take pride in but also struggle with sometimes. I have become too self-conscious of picking a film that might not represent me well enough. What does it say about me if I pick a film for its sentimental value rather than its artistic merit?

At the end of the day, am I still the same pretentious teenager who’s trying to cultivate a reputation? Why can’t I be honest with myself?

The more I think through my top four, the more I realised that the thought process is rubbish. What a film means to me, whether emotionally or artistically, is valid.

If it does enough to make me feel something towards it, a piece of art has achieved something 99% of all art fails to do. And no one can decide what 1% I actually enjoy but me – and even I have little control over what I’ll actually like.

Especially in a time when regional unrest is weighing down our mental health, no one should feel guilty for finding joy in something, whether ridiculed by critics or otherwise.

Speaking personally, if a piece of art speaks to me, I shouldn’t feel responsible for justifying that to anyone.

The term guilty pleasure is one that gets thrown around a lot, especially with the glut of media we now have to consume. We feel obliged to do a song and dance, to call it a guilty pleasure, to apologise for our pleasure.

We shouldn’t hide these pleasures or feel guilty for enjoying them. They’re part of a big tapestry that make up everything we take in and digest. I think it’s time to drop the guilt and enjoy the things we want to enjoy.

I say, let’s stop dancing. It’s time to be honest with ourselves, and each other.

Updated: January 23, 2024, 9:21 AM