There’s something special about an entertainment guilty pleasure that allows an escape from regular life. Books, movies, TV shows, music, and comics that draw the consumer into a world unlike this one we live in, even if they aren’t the top of their craft in terms of production and intellect. Whether you’re depressed, frustrated with your life, or even just paid to criticize media, a guilty pleasure can offer a chance to turn off your brain and just enjoy something for a while. But does media that fills this niche deserve a pass from criticism? How do you love something but deal with its problems, particularly in regards to representation?
I have a couple dirty little secrets – one that I’ve been fairly open about in the last few years, and another I don’t talk about all that often. Those guilty pleasures are, respectively, pop music and romance novels. My primary struggle with these things is often the same: their representation issues for women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, and how I can still enjoy them given those issues. Do we all have the right to turn our brains off for a while or is fighting for equality more important? This article – titled “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show”- is more representative of my struggle than I’d like from an article on The Onion. Of course, when I first got into these things, representation was the furthest thing from my mind.
Both love affairs started in high school, more or less. My librarian mother would bring home unwanted, unsellable books from the library to save them from the trash. After she catalogued each book, she would put them either in the library in our house (no, we weren’t rich, just loved books) or put the ones no one wanted to read in various bookshelves in other rooms or in boxes in the basement where they’d be out of the way. As it turns out, romance novels are big business at small town Iowa libraries. One day, I discovered a shelf in an attic room that was full of historical romance novels, and I decided to try one. I’ve always been a big fan of anything related to history, and so I expected it would be a love story in an historical context.
Instead, hours later, I emerged from my room with flushed cheeks, put the book back, and grabbed another. For the next couple years, until I graduated from high school, I’d often sleep with a half-read romance novel under my pillow. Sometimes I’d sneak a couple into the basement to exchange for others I hadn’t read. I never told my parents I was reading these books – I anticipated that they would not be pleased, so I preferred to not ask permission. I literally never told anyone about this, because I was embarrassed. I’d always been the kid reading past my age by a wide margin – I received a special pass to go to the high school library when I was in 4th grade because I was bored with the elementary school library. I knew romance novels were one of those books that maybe other teen girls might like, but I was better than that, dammit. This was a common theme in my life, as I’d decided as a child that I was smart, so I didn’t ever get to enjoy books or music that were for the uninformed masses (yeah, I was kind of an asshole).
My secret love affair with romance novels mimicked my love of pop music. I “knew better”than to like pop music, but still I’d hide in my bedroom and listen to *NSYNC or Spice Girls and secretly love it. I knew the “real”value of music was in stuff created by smart performers who wrote their own music – the alternative rock bands of the world. Rock, particularly classic rock, was also allowed in my own random set of rules, but nothing dance-y. I have a huge blank space in my knowledge of late 1980s and early 1990s pop and R&B that I’m currently trying to remedy. As long as I held tight to those Smashing Pumpkins or Porno for Pyros or Fiona Apple albums publicly, they assuaged my guilt for secretly thinking Justin Timberlake was hot. Once, a classmate mentioned at school that he’d been walking by my house and saw my dancing shadow through my bedroom window. I was more embarrassed that someone might find out I’d been dancing to pop music than anything else.
For years after high school, though, I stopped both secret love affairs and never, ever talked about them. Hilariously, it was comics (well, manga) that brought me back to romance novels. It was karaoke that brought me back to pop music.
Most people who know me now know I passionately love artists like Robyn, Kesha, Taylor Swift, and Tegan and Sara. If you were at my wedding, you would’ve seen me jumping up and down in my wedding dress when the DJ played “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Call Me Maybe,” and “Closer.” I have pretty much given up any shame I might have about my love of this kind of music. But now that I talk about it with friends and read about it online, I’m more open to seeing the representation problems. I haven’t stopped listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989 since it came out, but I can’t watch the video for “Shake It Off” anymore because of its bizarre racism. I had a long, loud love affair with Katy Perry from the first time I heard her music and have seen her live multiple times, but her last album and the accompanying videos and style choices (super extra racist) have utterly ruined her for me. I haven’t listened to her music by choice in over a year. No matter how catchy the beat (that Robin Thicke stole, of course), “Blurred Lines” infuriates me and I tend to refer to it only as “that rapey bullshit song.”
Meanwhile, my love of romance novels has been more of a secret – a thing I do on my “off time” when I can’t handle any more comics or media that requires a lot of brain power and I don’t feel up for playing a video game. I talk about it with only a handful of friends who also read them, because most of my best friends are staunch feminists, and if they don’t “get” romance novels, I worry they’ll judge me. This is despite the fact that a lot of the books I read are actually fairly feminist – somewhat historically improbably feminist, really. Even my dear, wonderful husband recently responded to my description of what goes on in the Regency historical romance novels that are my particular favorite with “so basically they uphold the class system you staunchly loathe and feature completely lily white casts?” And he’s not wrong. They do romanticize upper class life in a way that in modern times would infuriate me, and the casts are almost completely white. I’ve recently accepted that the “historical” aspect blurs some things which in modern stories would be glaringly problematic for me, while for a long time the “secret guilty pleasure” label allowed me to blur almost all of the other problems.
Analyzing my own feelings towards romance novels in particular has allowed me to have a tiny bit of empathy for seemingly-misogynistic super hero fans (yes, really) (and yes, I know, #notallsuperherofans). If super hero comics are your guilty pleasure, then maybe you don’t want to have to think about problems while you read them, and all this yammering from people not like you about representation is really frustrating. Even for folks who aren’t misogynistic but who just don’t want to have to worry about these things, it can be annoying to have people online shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?!?!?!?” I’m sure. I used to be a comics fan like that.
No one is required to criticize or think critically about anything. But a lot of these same fans who don’t want to talk about representation in comics will point to romance novels as a retort – that romance novels are primarily written by women, primarily read by women, and often feature unrealistic portrayals of men. This is, at best, a false equivalency – after all, a better comparison for romance novels would probably be pornography aimed at men – but it also highlights a basic misunderstanding about media criticism. Women, LGBTQ people, and POC who consume the genre of super hero comics have every right to criticize representation in them, just as men who consume the genre of romance have every right to criticize representation in them. If you’re concerned, talk about the problems and analyze them – anyone can do it.
I don’t really care if I enjoy something that’s not “good” per se – I know the difference between a well-written book and a fun but not-well-written book, and the difference between a song that pushes the boundaries of music in a good way and one that’s nothing original but makes me happy. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying things other people might say are “bad” in construction or execution. But so often we run into poorly constructed guilty pleasures also having problems with how they treat real human beings. At a certain point, we all have to decide if we like enjoying our guilty pleasures with our head in the sand or if we want to hold them to the same standard we hold other media (or, alternately, we could choose to not care about representation in anything ever, if you want to be a monster).
For me this means being more discerning about what kind of musicians I listen to and how they perform and more critical of the kinds of romances I read. I have started tracking authors that I think do a better job than others and reading more of their books, while reading the reviews of any new author thoroughly. It gets tiring being a feminist killjoy, you know, and I think most of us would prefer to be able to just enjoy media where there were no representation issues at all rather than feeling compelled to point out problems. In an ideal world, there’s media for everyone, and even media aimed at particular groups of people doesn’t treat other groups like shit. But we live in an unfair world where we’re not all represented equally, so it doesn’t seem fair that as a fairly privileged white woman I am able to ignore certain issues of representation that other people live every day.
The bottom line is that better representation actually cannot harm a guilty pleasure, unless your guilty pleasure is in demeaning other people.
So, I ask you: how do you walk this line and enjoy your guilty pleasures?
(top pic via MAC Cosmetics)
Janelle Asselin is a feminist geek who edits, writes, and writes about comics obsessively. See Twitter for daily cat-related digressions.
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