In roughly 14 years, the Fast and the Furious series has become one of the biggest action movie franchises in the world, grossing more than $2 billion. Furious 7 comes out this week, and there’s much rejoicing. There’s also a pathos about the film since this latest installment serves as a respectful send-off for the late Paul Walker, who’s anchored most of the series alongside Vin Diesel.
There’s a tendency to view movies like those in the Fast and the Furious series as guilty pleasures, like we’re supposed to say we like them but feel bad for liking them. Or maybe we can say we like them so long as we flagellate ourselves for this sin against high art and high-mindedness. We are guilty of art-crimes, and so we must be punished by our art-betters.
We should all just lighten up, really. We should worry less about the guilt that’s imposed on us and try to be smarter about the pleasure we experience.
This isn’t a call for pure populism or anti-intellectualism—anti-intellectualism is a blight worse than the guilting of pleasure. This is about being more comfortable with the pleasures that art can provide. It’s also about accepting that taste differs, and that differences of taste are not the automatic markers of inferior intelligence or morality, which are ideas that a phrase like “guilty pleasure” seems to conjure up.
In Jennifer Szalai’s 2013 piece for The New Yorker titled “Against ‘Guilty Pleasure’,” she noted the odd origins of the phrase. The whole notion sort of traces back to the ethics and virtues laid out by Aristotle and later Immanuel Kant, noting a distinction between the base, bodily gratification of the flesh and the higher and purer aims of the mind/disembodied spirit. Szalai notes that the first appearance of the phrase “guilty pleasure” in The New York Times was in 1860 and in reference to a brothel.
In “Easy Writers,” a 2012 New Yorker piece about guilty pleasures by Arthur Krystal, Edmund Wilson provides the following line about the morally debased quality of reading mystery novels: “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.”
I wonder how many people did the Sunday crossword at the brothel while others were at mass.
Szalai eventually notes the emergence of the phrase guilty pleasure during the decline of middlebrow culture in American life prior to the late-20th century. That middlebrow period was a point of post-war prosperity in which high art didn’t seem so distant, in which cultural literacy was valued regardless of class, and in which companies sought to bring art to the masses (e.g., short fiction in popular magazines after WWII; in the early 1960s, Sears sold fine art prints selected and curated by Vincent Price). There might be a link here between the disappearance of middlebrow culture and the erosion of the middle class.
“The guilty pleasure seems to me the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow,” Szalai writes, “the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture’s pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment.”
Today with social media (a contraption made for the neurotic purpose of revealing how much other people like you for your opinions), the whole notion of the guilty pleasure seems to be predicated on appearing cooler than we are to others, or appearing smarter that we are to our close circle of friends and associates. And yet for some reason, the whole idea of guilty pleasure suggests that we fear being judged for crimes of taste rather than anything that has actual significance to our moral fiber or integrity.
As Szalai mentions in her piece, we’ll confess to watching trashy television, but then we’ll somehow imply that this was a momentary lapse of pure judgement. Really, it was a break from some work of art that’s actually worthwhile. Yeah. We’re hard at work reading an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching work of art. (Emphasis on “work,” because that nagging inner puritan reminds us that labor is virtuous and that suffering through laborious art is purifying.)
This could be another outgrowth of social media, in which we assemble lists of various things that we like as if they are both explanations of who we are as well as externalizations of who we are. It’s the stuff-culture we’ve been born into, in which people judge us because of what’s on our bookshelf or in our DVD/Blu-ray collection; or maybe what’s on our wall or in the cloud or the queue or the playlist; maybe the algorithm too. The existential pressures of taste that we feel—the outside forces that lead to the idea of guilty pleasures—might simply be part of living in the modern world and late capitalism. We are inextricable from our stuff, and we assume that the outward appearance of the stuff we have says too much about who we really are inside.
But what if trashy TV is enjoyable to someone, and so is reading a difficult book? This doesn’t seem uncommon to me or mutually exclusive. Or how about just one or the other? The types of enjoyment might differ, and the engagement with the art might differ, but there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong in deriving pleasure from a work of art, even if it’s classified as bad art. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen if you enjoyed an old Ace paperback or a Harlequin romance? Or if you had fun watching WrestleMania, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the ’80s, or Fast Five?
Oh yeah—the worst thing that can happen is pleasure. And wasn’t that the whole point?
Ultimately I don’t think the divisions between high and low art will be lost, but the guilt ought to be. What the guilt can be replaced by is a kind of reflection about the work, the nature of the enjoyment you’ve experienced, and why you enjoy the work and the type of pleasure it brought about. The work, whatever it is, and the pleasure, however it came about, can be engaged with thoughtfully.
So one of the reasons that the Fast and the Furious series has become so successful might be the sense of escalation. The series has been built right in front of us, and characters have little ticks that make them feel like they’re competently realized and performed. And people who’ve enjoyed the series will be curious to see how the family changes with the loss of Walker, and sad to have to say goodbye. The stakes of the action get raised, the scope of the action gets bigger, the franchise expands in unexpected ways. For instance, there’s the disjointed chronology, with the fourth, fifth, and sixth films in the series taking place before the third one. Also, Han (Sung Kang) from the Fast films directed by Justin Lin is the same character from Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, an indie drama about disaffected Asian-American youths in the suburbs.
A 2002 Sundance darling is tied to a $2 billion action movie series. That is awesome, and I say that without any irony or guilt.
The pleasures of art ought to be affirmative, and we should be more than willing to enjoy things because we enjoy them, and do it without fear over what others will think about us. I don’t think we should be complacent when engaging with the art since we should think about why we like what we like, but we should be comfortable with the idea that we like what we like. Besides, if your pleasure in art is influenced by your fear of judgment from others, you’re probably doing this whole pleasure thing wrong. Like Krystal writes at the end of his New Yorker piece that I mentioned earlier:
Plotting, inventing, creating characters, putting words in their mouths and quirks in their personalities—it all seems pretty astonishing to me. The prose may be uneven and the observations about life and society predictable, but, if the story moves, we, almost involuntarily, move with it.
Let’s all move and be moved in our own ways. This week, like always, it’s perfectly okay to be moved fast and furiously.