Yesterday, I was sitting in a class that had an emotional discussion about guilty pleasures. in this context, I mean along the lines of, “you should like what you like” in reference to things that you know are bad but sometimes you need to just not think for a while. Real Housewives, reality TV, Eat Pray Love, stuff like that. It was a passionate debate, with my fellow classmates arguing that something that makes them happy shouldn’t be bad because it’s mindless, with the professor saying that the election of Trump means we have to pay attention to all these things now. I didn’t speak up because I hadn’t yet formulated my statement, but I think it’s something that’s worth delving into.
Our society is one of immediate gratification. It’s hard not to be, what with the instant access to information and entertainment at your fingertips. Our brains are functioning like they never had before, and it’s a scary combination of increased interest and compulsion. Leave your phone at home one day and see how long it takes for you to panic.
Immediate gratification, unfortunately, has a darker side to the concept. If we only focus on the immediate, we don’t see the context in which it thrives. All we’re focused on is the now: this is mindless garbage entertainment, but it’s an escape from having to think all the time. The life of a college student, I know as well as anyone, leaves us in desperate need of getting away for a while.
That, however, does not mean that these decisions do not have consequences. Nothing exists in a vacuum. That’s not to say that some guilty pleasures aren’t harmless, but it is to say that we have to look at the ramifications of having some of them all the same.
Take for instance the argument about garbage reality television. Does it hurt anything to like it, even knowing that it is, in fact, garbage? Not on the surface, probably not, but only if you look at it in the Now. What if we show the attachments of that tangled web that brings you trashy entertainment though?
First, there are only so many hours in a day, and only so much time to be delegated for purposes of entertainment. Budgets are not limitless, space is prioritized, and decisions have to be made on content and material. A view of Real Housewives may not seem like it has those attached, but that half hour you give to something is a half hour you’re not giving to artists. A decision that supports something mindless equally doesn’t support something that it could’ve.
Second, it’s impossible to say that our sources of entertainment say nothing about us. If you’ve ever heard that the five people you spend the most time with are the ones who influence you the most, entertainment has that kind of subconscious influence too. Besides reality TV being just as fake as anything else, most reality television is cruel, mean people treating other people like shit. It’s terrible human behavior, and the glorification of terrible human behavior, and the decision to find that as a source of entertainment, regardless of your reason, gives weight to more decisions to focus on more sources of entertainment like that. Andrew Torrez wrote recently that your vote is not a message, it only counts toward the initiative one way or the other. In a similar vein, entertainment sources don’t care if you’re watching ironically or from genuine interest, it counts as time spent. Your view is an endorsement, even if it’s out of hatred. That’s why I don’t mind getting hate mail and comments, as all I can really say is “thanks for the view!”
We all have things that we like that we shouldn’t. I watch The Room every Valentine’s Day, so I have no room to talk. But let’s not pretend that getting any kind of enjoyment out of them at all is an endorsement of that type of behavior and has consequences that run deeper than that half hour of mindless consumption.
We have to be able to expect better from each other and ourselves. Reality TV has been nothing but one long dose of Schaudenfreude, and whether or not the viewers become influenced by that kind of shitty behavior, our views nonetheless are an endorsement of it. Escapism is something we all need, but we can find better ways to fill that need than downright ugliness and cruelty to each other and ourselves.