The phrase genuine ambivalence is one I’ve been wanting for a very long time. My own personal example is my love of certain B-movies (or maybe they’d be more appropriately called C or D movies). I’ve spent hours boring friends to tears with my argument that Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood could have been a great movie, that it has so much untapped potential, and how that raises questions about how fine the line can be between the great and good (and not so good).
I never call it a “guilty pleasure”, and I doubt I’ll call it a “shameful pleasure”, much as I like that phrase, simply because I’d defend Bucket of Blood to a roomful of film critics at the risk of being thought brain damaged. But I realize now that I’m wrestling with my own genuine ambivalence, knowing that this thing I love doesn’t just “kinda suck”. It really sucks. But, at the risk of crossing the streams of highbrow and lowbrow, I still embrace it, warts and all.
If I understand correctly, shameful pleasures are a) when you like something but can’t admit it in a group that you want to seem part of, because it goes against what what this group considers good art (or whatever). You can enjoy it in private without reserve, but not admit to certain people that you enjoy it. Guilty pleasures are when you b) internalize this censure and can’t bring yourself to fully enjoy something or feel that you shouldn’t enjoy it. Alternatively, it’s c) the recognition that the object of your pleasure is complex and involves good and bad aspects.
It seems like a) and b) fit more comfortably together, while c) is just a more mature way of appreciating something (or another way of saying “genuine ambivalence”, which doesn’t really have that much to do with guilt). I don’t think he feels guilty or ashamed of his love for Silence of the Lambs. He loves the ways that it gets a strategy right, but doesn’t like when it misses the mark in other parts.
I’ve always thought the term “guilty pleasure” came from enjoying something forbidden, such as kids from a conservative family discovering sex. It’s a mix of a) and b), depending on how much you agree with your parents that it is actually wrong/shameful. By extension, a cultural guilty pleasure would seem to be one where you like something at a basic level, but you feel that you shouldn’t on an intellectual or social level. It doesn’t have to be elitism - McDonald’s can be your guilty pleasure because it’s not healthy, it has ingredients that you don’t approve of, your friends are against it, it’s too low class, you’re low on money so you shouldn’t eat out anywhere, or any number of other reasons. The point is that you can’t resist that food despite all of those external reasons that make you feel guilty for enjoying it.
For me, these things fall under the heading: “I enjoy this, but I enjoy it alone.” Sometimes that stance is taken from the point of view that others will not understand shouty French prog rock without some context. Other times this stance is taken from a concern that one’s own taste is an unreliable measure of quality.
Is it ambivalent to like one book by a certain author but dislike another?
Okay, I just read the plot synopsis of Bucket of Blood and that seems like it really could be great, though it also seems like a hard film to find if you actually want to watch it.
For me the equivalent in Huey Lewis, who I am convinced (by way of a friend) wrote fantastic songs and just performed them all badly.
After reading this piece, though, I’m interested in a converse concept - where I personally can’t stand something but I am forced to grudgingly recognize that it is good.
WRT Thomas Harris, I generally agree with you on Hannibal, but would extend the critique to say that that book was so like a parody of the character and Harris’ own style, wittingly or un-, that I ended up reassessing Harris’ other books and in particular the bits with Lecter in them and came away with my enjoyment of those works significantly diminished. We’re constantly told what a singularly brilliant man Lecter is, but aside from his more or less superhuman physical skills, there’s no real evidence of that on the page, aside from his demonstrating some skill at sketching and pretty good memory recall. There’s not a great deal of legitimate psychological theory or praxis shown–Lecter’s legendary insight into the human condition may as well have come from reading minds, a la Charles Xavier–and not only is he captured by Will Graham thanks to an unbelievably boneheaded move (mutilating a corpse in the exact fashion of Wound Man, which Lecter also has a copy of on display in his house), but he escapes from jail and later evades capture mostly by virtue of various cops enthusiastically carrying the idiot ball. (I know that this is a lengthy digression, but I just had to get that off my chest.)
I don’t think so, as many authors that I’ve read have done very well with one book but not another. Put another way: authors whose work on the average I enjoy very much–Bowie, Springsteen, Stephen King–have put out individual works that I’ve not liked very much at all.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures at all. Pleasures are pleasures. The ones we call “guilty” are the ones we think others will reject. If everybody agreed that Game of Thrones was high art, you wouldn’t feel guilty at all would you? It’s all about how we imagine others are judging us.
Actually you can find at least a couple of full versions of Bucket of Blood on YouTube. It’s in the public domain. And I don’t want to be too harsh. I think there are some genuinely good things about it. Interestingly some of the cast, particularly Dick Miller, also thought it could have been much better, and were frustrated with Corman’s penny-pinching.
I discovered it because it was part of a collection that included the original Little Shop of Horrors, which I also love. My fascination with Bucket of Blood may have deep roots, though. On one of their first dates my parents went to see it. A few years ago when they were visiting my father happened to ask if I’d ever heard of it. I said, “Heard of it? I’ve got it on DVD.”
The first (Jim Henson Creature Shop) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies are my ambivalent pleasures.
Pro-wrestling in my case.
There’s so many things wrong with it. Racist stereotypes, homophobia (both blatant and implied), misogyny, you name it. The most well-known company has by many accounts a toxic working atmosphere and a lackadaisical attitude to performer’s welfare. The product they deliver is subject to the whims of a aging plutocrat who seems to be becoming more out of touch with the needs of the consumers.
Combine all of this with the place it has in popular cultural history. It’s considered “fake”, utterly lowbrow and suitable only for children, drunks and the terminally stupid. It’s cheesy, kitsch and the polar opposite of high art (yet it shares many similarities with ballet, theatre and opera.).
Despite this, I love it, even though those flaws are sometimes repellent.
At it’s very best it can be incredibly powerful storytelling played out by hugely talented performers. The pre-determined element adds to the drama, rather than detracts from it. It really is all about the journey. Much of the Internet Wrestling Community (shout out to CSS) are intelligent, articulate and welcoming, as well as being highly intolerant of bullshit bigotry.
Wrestling lends itself to creativity and fantasy and for me epitomizes the destruction of “serious culture”. It’s enjoyable on multiple levels, as an appreciation of technical skill and athleticism, as ironic commentary on the world, as emotionally invested story-telling and it’s sometimes fun to watch people go splat.
Genuine ambivalence is a perfect description. Guilt just isn’t the right way to describe something that’s so enjoyable but is so deeply flawed.
To review, a shameful pleasure is one that’s always dogged by the dispiriting awareness that, if you were rash enough to confess it, you’d find yourself leaning into the gale-force winds of mockery.
Stop being dispirited – it’s bad for your health.
Be rash in defense of your pleasures.
Lean into those gale-force winds of mockery. Lean for all you’re worth.
Take your lumps until you don’t care what others think.
Park yourself at the intersection of Nietzsche Street and Epicurean Avenue – and then Do It / Do It / Do It 'Til You’re Satisfied.
Sorry, but trying to separate what’s “guilty” (i.e. arising from inner conflict) from what’s “shameful” (arising from conflict with the outside) is an exercise in futility. You can’t exist outside of culture, so why torture yourself? Instead of playing that game or indulging in typical “ironic” posturing, just realize that feeling conflicted is natural (enjoyment is quite a bit more nuanced that just “like” or “dislike”) and tastes are superficial.
I <3 post apocalyptic movies.
Interesting essay. I’d suggest that genuine ambivalence results, at least in part, from taking a work seriously, not mentally ghettoizing it within the narrow confines of a genre. (“Well, it’s a slasher flick/romance novel/black velvet painting, so OF COURSE it does X, Y, and Z.”) IMO, allowing oneself to have a complicated reaction is a form of respect for the art.
Why guilty? I may think others could disapprove of some of my pleasures. But I also believe it is their problem, not mine.
That’s Bob Dylan to me. Go ahead and hate away, but I can’t stand Bob Dylan. I’d rather hear a dozen cats copulate in a public restroom. The songs themselves are good, and I enjoy hearing good singers perform them. But Bob Dylan should have either taken some kind of vocal coaching, or just have been satisfied writing the songs and letting other people perform them.
I think one might honestly call something like cockfighting or boxing or football a guilty pleasure. Not because any of those are socially unacceptable, cockfighting definitely is in the US, but boxing has a lot of boosters, and football is a beloved national passtime.
What make them guilty pleasures in my estimation, is that they’re not good for the participants. I’d say it’s basically unethical to support cock fighting, because it’s cruel. It may be unethical to support boxing, because its endgame is sever brain damage to the pugilists, and that happens in football too.
As far as I’m concerned guilt has to do with one’s internal ethics, and for me all three are guilty pleasures because I have a hard time not getting excited about bloodsport, no matter how much I intellectually know bloodsport is ethically anathema to my principles. So I don’t watch cockfighting even though I used to when I spent a year in Mexico, I don’t support boxing because the whole point is brain damage, and I feel more or less ambivalent about football, because even though brain damage isn’t the point, it’s bound up pretty tightly in the sport, and I don’t want to make it a part of my identity.
I’ve decided to shift my patronship to the gaming community, where I can watch bloodsport that at worst hurts feelings, but never costs lives, and I don’t even feel slightly guilty about it. I’ve been able to convert from a position of hating myself for enjoying one thing, to feeling fine with an acceptable substitute that’s much more consistent with my own ethical views.
One is unavoidably led down the false trail of thinking about the possibility of conservation of such a family or kid where sex is forbidden.
It’s funny, my conservative fundamentalist parents never said they hated sex. They always implied sex was great as long as it was monogamous and for procreative purposes.
Incidentally,my brother and I are both adopted, and we honestly don’t care to find out if they follow their own advice, or are hypocrites (one is infertile, the other is low fertility).
They tried for about ten years before finding out about their fertility issues and adopted. I wonder if they feel like it was a sinful waste…