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‘Guilty pleasure’ is a phrase that needs to die off, frankly

By September 25, 2021No Comments

Megan Cassidy on why we need to stop referring to fashion, beauty and other ‘female interests’ as guilty pleasures 

The Met Gala took place in New York on Monday, Sept 13, and dominated the gossip news cycle for the rest of the week. It is without doubt one of the most prestigious social invites of the year, coveted by the most influential people in fashion, politics and the arts.


Ticket sales for the night typically pull in up to $15m, but many many more millions are generated off the back of the event for members of the entertainment ecosystem – designers, stylists, publications, celebrities, publicists, the businesses like Instagram and Facebook who bought tables, and the fashion houses themselves. 

It’s big business, yet those who brought it up while waiting for the Tuesday morning meeting to start were likely met with a chuckle, a roll of the eyes, and a self-satisfied “I’ve no interest in any of that”. The brave bringer-upper probably shrugged and relegated the topic to a “guilty pleasure”, while chat moved on to the far weightier subject of whatever club GAA match took place on the previous Sunday. It’s a tale as old as time.

Fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry, yet because it’s considered to be of the ‘female domain’, it’s somehow seen as a subject that has no business in any ‘serious’ conversation; something to be kept to girly WhatsApp groups, a distraction for the ‘small-minded’. Similarly, other topics that are deemed ‘women’s interests’, beauty, skincare, and gossip, are often deemed trashy, unserious, frivolous, and unworthy of airtime. 

Take this popular tweet by Ian Cobain, author and ‘award-winning journalist’, that did the rounds earlier this year. Having spotted ‘somebody’ talking about skin care in prime newspaper real estate (gasp!), he took to Twitter to pontificate: 

‘Somebody called Caroline Hirons, hailed as “no-nonsense queen of skincare” is on the front page of today’s @Guardian. There’s 3 pages devoted to Caroline inside. 3. No idea who she is. Wish her all the best, but does the Guardian want to continue being considered a serious newspaper?’ 

A few piped up in response to note that actually, Caroline is an incredibly successful businesswoman with plenty of philanthropic work under her belt, and the conversation punched itself neutral as it always does on Twitter. But this idea that ‘business’ and ‘beauty’ are mutually exclusive is a long held one. Ian, a current affairs journalist with a particular interest in the Middle East, opined that there were surely more important things to discuss than skincare, like genocide and war. 

This brand of ‘whataboutism’ is commonly levelled at feminine-leaning content – an article about the Kardashians, for example, will usually be met with dozens of comments bemoaning the fact that the author is ignoring a global pandemic, as if the two subjects can’t possibly co-exist. Whereas pages and pages of Sports News are considered sacred every single day, no matter what else is happening in the world. 

We routinely allow men to uphold multiple interests at once; Playboy magazine would follow a sexually explicit double page spread with a hard-hitting opinion piece and nobody blinked an eye. 

Women, however, are far more often expected to fit into ‘types’. Smart or Pretty. Nerdy or Ditzy. Corporate or Maternal. They’re rarely afforded the same duality that men are and often find themselves attempting to suppress interests that don’t fit in with their personal brand image in certain settings.

 In a culture where a review of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends includes a description of the author as a ‘startled deer with sensuous lips’, it’s clear that we inherently believe that men do and women are. 

We believe that ‘masculine-leaning’ interests like sports and trading serve to mobilise and progress us as a society, while feminised topics like romantic literature and fashion are seen as superfluous to the cause, something to while away the hours while the ‘changemakers’ are at work. 

To say that a lot of women like sports and many men like skincare is of course true but also beside the point in this context. The issue isn’t in the actual gendering of the subjects (although gossip is certainly less ‘female’ than we tend to imagine). The fact is that fashion is a domain in which women tend to hold more sway, it’s an industry that millions of women benefit from, and one of the only industries in which women hold proportionate influence. The vast majority of images that circulate following an event like The Met are of women. It’s business, it’s culture, and it is most definitely political, because the female body and what she wears is political. 

It was political when women first rejected the corset, when they began to wear trousers. It’s political when a woman is asked what she was wearing on the night she was sexually assaulted. It’s political when a woman goes topless in the park, or decides to sunbathe in a hijab. It’s political when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows up to the MET in a dress emblazoned with the words ‘Tax the Rich’.

Audrey Hepburn’s power outfit wasn’t the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s Little Black Dress, it was runners and a bandana when she was providing aid in war-torn countries, having sold her most famous dresses to provide food, clean water and clothes for underprivileged people. 

I’m not saying that we should cite female oppression and the patriarchy at the water cooler when someone dismisses the fashion chat, but I am saying that sniffing at it as trivial is actually pretty ignorant. 

Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the cultural importance of gossip in Buzzfeed when she noted that the vast majority of women in Hollywood already knew about Harvey Weinstein long before it was mainstream news, thanks to ‘gossip’. Gossip serves as a means for women to protect themselves and has done ever since images depicting tribal stories were painted on cave walls as a means to understand society and values. Countless studies show the importance of gossip in society, with a recent Stanford study finding that gossip is in fact a tool ‘by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of “nice people” and encourage cooperation’. Thankfully, with more women rising to influential positions in media, women’s interests are getting a bigger chunk of the news hole, despite the entrenched interests of people like Ian Cobain and Sally Rooney’s literary critic. 

I’m trying not to use the term ‘guilty pleasure’ any more – because I’ve found that when I use it, it’s most often referring to a feminised subject that I’ve been conditioned to be embarrassed about – RuPaul’s Drag Race, MAC lipsticks, skincare, Kris Jenner. Women’s interests aren’t superfluous, engaging in them is not a waste of time, they are simultaneously fun and important, smart and entertaining, and there should be no guilt associated with the pleasure.