The Joy of the Guilty Pleasure

At this point, “guilty pleasure” is used so frequently and casually that it has about as much connection to actual meaning as connecting “irony” to “rain on your wedding day” does. That’s not to say that the term is inherently meaningless – people have a sort of gut instinct, I think, about what gets put onto their ‘guilty pleasure’ list rather than the earnest one. On the other hand, that opinion often seems to be tied into the mercurial tides of public opinion, so it isn’t much good for use in the long term.

As you may’ve realized, I am the sharing type, particularly if there are lists involved, so let’s set up a working definition.

First off, it’s got to be something that you acknowledge to be flawed – this is where the ‘guilt’ bit comes in, perhaps out of some erroneous belief that we should only like things that are perfect and flawless, ensuring that bookshelves the world over would predominantly contain Lolita, Cool Hand Luke, and Gankutsuou, and that we would all tire of things to discuss very rapidly (I can already feel the emails coming in on that one).

So, it has to be something you’re willing to admit has weaknesses, and probably big ones at that. But! Not in the ‘yes, I acknowledge x problems, but I think they’re outweighed by y strengths’ sort of way (I would term my fondness for the Watchmen movie in such a way – the movie’s an absolute mess in a lot of ways, but Jackie Earle Haley’s performance is a work of art). Nor in the ‘sure, it manages x, but that is totally outweighed by y, and mostly I am here for the train wreck’ MST3K style.

Contrarywise, a true guilty pleasure is one where the flaws contribute toward your fondness for the thing (which also implies that they are unintentionally done – so Evil Dead would count, but Evil Dead 2 would not). It is the younger sibling of genres, where you can’t stop laughing but also have sort of a dumb, fond smile on your face. The kind where mentioning the good about it also necessitates mentioning the bad, and vice versa.

Yes, I absolutely have examples.

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All Twilight Needed was a Bloodbath

The fact of it is that we exist in a post-Twilight world, whether you’ve bitterly resigned yourself or not. It’s not just the epidemic of sexy-monsters, which might’ve reached its peak with the cavalcade of conceptual madness that was the romantic zombie flick Warm Bodies, it’s all the insidious little tropes that come along with it: the main character who’s been made as bland as possible in order to better assist reader insertion, protagonists who switch between being infuriatingly passive and actively awful people, love triangles crowbarred into the plot contrivances-be-damned, and prose so purple you can feel HP Lovecraft stirring in his seafood-proofed grave.

For the record, I am fully supportive of Stephanie Meyer encouraging reading. That’s a wonderful thing, even if it came gift wrapped in a double edged sword of terrible role models. And to be doubly fair, these aren’t just problems that exist in YA fiction or even American fiction (more on that in a minute). But it doesn’t change the fact that I came out of those books wanting to murder the three main characters as violently as possible. Instead, we had to make do with a stomach churning happy ending with no actual climactic conflict (except in the movie, which promptly took it back), cream cheese and jam placenta eating, and a really creepy subplot wherein the spurned love interest decides he can just wait for her kid to turn legal (via being magically werewolf enslaved). This gnawed at me for a long time – me and the thousands of other authors who were spurred by the call of action ‘if SMeyer can get published, then ANYONE can do it.’

Years later a revelation came unto me. Acidic, stewing loathing is not the answer, my friends. School Days is. If there’s any genre more saturated with unpleasant people and tired genre tools than YA fiction, it’s romance anime. There’re a few good ones out there, really good ones even, but most fall into the same cookie cutter scenarios played out by paper dolls on sticks. Nowhere is this worse than the Harem genre. Behold: an ‘everyman’ type character, the audience surrogate, is thrust into an unlikely scenario where they’re surrounded by sexy specimens of the (usually) opposite sex; all of these mysterious beings are head over heels for the main character despite this person having no distinctive redeeming qualities or even memorable personality traits; and the potential love interests pretty much exist for the audience to ogle them, with the camera lovingly spending time on whatever was pegged as the marketable appeal. Sound familiar?

Harem anime (or any anime with a harem component) generally range from the benignly idiotic (Love Hina, Sword Art Online) to the jaw-droppingly exploitative and brain-dead (High School DxD, Ah My Buddha), with a few on the side that manage to twist something creative and heartfelt (and poke fun at) the concept (Ah! My Goddess, Ouran High School Host Club).

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No, he’s fine. Stop teasing us, show.

And then there’s School Days, which starts out playing itself as a romantic harem comedy and then takes an axe to the genre conventions with a gleeful bloodstained smile. I’m going to vaguely spoil the ending, just because without knowing how it’s going to come out no sane person would ever subject themselves to it. School Days stars centers around year high school student Makoto, who’s noted to have been a gentle and caring boy growing up. Presumably they tell us this repeatedly on the assumption we’ll buy it sight unseen. Makoto has a crush on Kotonoha, a shy and bookish girl who was cursed with large boobs and the ensuing teasing/staring/rumors of sluttiness that accompany them. Makoto’s childhood friend Sekai offers to play matchmaker. And, wouldn’t you know it, she’s got secret feelings for him. This quickly turns into a melodramatic love triangle seeking to outdo itself at every turn, eventually escalating into madness, requisite possible pregnancies, and Makoto sleeping with the entire female population of his class.

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Pictured: advice not a single character will follow

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