Carl Wilson, Bad Taste, and the Guilty Pleasure

(Prompt 1)

In his chapter “Let’s Talk About Who’s Got Bad Taste” Carl Wilson discusses the social attitudes, expectations, and judgments we make regarding our own taste and the taste of others when we decide what’s “cool” and what’s not. Building on theories set forth by Bourdieu, he argues that it all boils down to social capital and the image/identity you want to set and maintain for yourself; you seek to group yourself with those who share interests you deem cool and distance yourself with anything you judge uncool, (as well as all of the people who associate with those things). It’s a tricky argument, because taste can seem natural and engrained when it’s really been informed by your social and cultural background and experiences, which is why differences in taste often lead to varying degrees of tension between groups or individuals.

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This tension, though, is where Wilson introduces Bourdieu’s concept of distinction—that your likes and interests mean nothing socially if everyone in the world agrees with you. He writes, “You want your taste affirmed by your peers and those you admire, but it’s just as vital that your redneck uncle thinks you’re an idiot to like that rap shit. It proves you’ve distinguished yourself from him successfully, and can bask in righteous satisfaction.” He is essentially arguing that if the people you hate like all of the same movies, music, and celebrities as you, it might cause you to question how much you like those things. You might begin to see them in a different light because you now associate being a fan of those things with those same people you attempt to distance yourself from.

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While I agree that this is probably true in most people, to an extent, I think it would have been beneficial to Wilson’s argument to draw in the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” Because our likes, dislikes, and interests are so tied up with judgments, associations, and expectations, we as a society have introduced the idea of a guilty pleasure as a justification for allowing ourselves to like things we aren’t supposed to like based on the attitudes directed at certain interests, (or in this case, fandoms). For instance, if you’re a fan of reality TV, it’s generally considered “bad television” throughout society, (think, Keeping up with the Kardashians), and you’ve probably referred to it as a guilty pleasure at least once in your life. We’re constantly looking for reasons to explain why we like certain media texts, particularly if they’re something that our friends don’t like themselves, and if we can’t come up with anything worthwhile or justifiable in the eyes or our peers, we just call it a guilty pleasure. “I know it’s lame/dumb/ridiculous, but I kind of like it, I can’t put my finger on why!”

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Personally, I’ve always taken issue with the idea of the guilty pleasure. We shouldn’t have to justify why we like something simply because it seems weird or misplaced. If you’re a 21-year-old female in college and you tell someone your favorite TV show is Scandal, nobody will follow up with “Um, why?” It seems natural, expected. But if you’re a 21-year-old male in college, maybe in a popular fraternity or on a sports team, and you say your favorite TV show is anything on HGTV, that “Um, why?” will probably come at you more often than it doesn’t. Sometimes there isn’t a reason, though. Sometimes you just like what you like.

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Ranting aside, the “guilty pleasure” could have been a valuable addition to Wilson’s argument on taste, particularly with his focus on bad taste and why other people always seem to have it. A guilty pleasure only feels guilty because the attitudes and expectations of your social relationships and environment are telling you that a certain interest isn’t for you, and that you should attempt to disassociate yourself with anything that doesn’t affirm your taste as “cool” or admirable or acceptable, which supports what Wilson argues as he builds on those ideas introduced by Bourdieu.

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