On one hand there’s society’s constant monitoring of what we can and can’t do. On the other, we have the internet’s cheap attempt at humour: cringe-culture. You’ll know it when you see it, and for better or for worse, it’s everywhere.
I asked a random pick of close friends and acquaintances to tell me what they genuinely enjoy, but can no longer do so without a generous helping of guilt or embarrassment. BTS, K-pop, K-dramas, Japanese and Chinese shows, fanfiction, old-school Bollywood romance, the Twilight Saga, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, old Barbie movies, Hindi serials, emo/goth culture, 2000s Hindi music, Himesh Reshammiya – these were just some of the answers I got.
Say what you will, but those Barbie movies – especially the ones where the animals look straight out of a horror film – are a classic.
Cringe culture took off in the early 2000s, in internet chatrooms and subreddits — when self-deprecating humour was still a bit unusual and unheard of.
Now, we’re presented with a number of opportunities to display our cringe behaviour, and even point it out in others.
The problem with cringe culture
Back in the day — or as I like to call it, ‘when I was two’ — most cringe content was on YouTube and Reddit, in that it was mostly videos of people who were clearly oblivious to how embarrassing they were. And for the display of everyone to see! Then came the popular short video platform, Vine (maybe they believed people wouldn’t get the chance to be embarrassing in 6 seconds), only to culminate in the ever-present TikToks and Reels these days.
I’ve always found wine-tasting a bit pretentious: giving it a sniff, twirling it around in the glass, taking a sip (which I think in the time of COVID would have you believe you’ve got it, because what are you even trying to smell?), and then gulping it down (that’s as millennial-woman-tired-of-society as it ought to be). Come to think of it, haven’t we all become wine tasters in our own ways? Poking at interests (ours and others) to check if it’s brain-stimulating enough, to see if anyone else finds it cringe or not, pretending to pretend-like it when you do like it, and then rejecting it altogether when log “wait, you like that?” kahenge?
And that’s what it is. One person’s idea of pretentiousness is another’s idea of enjoyment, and should be seen as such.
Our love-hate relationship with cringe
Most often, we cringe out of empathy. We’ve all experienced embarrassment. Like when you dreamt that you went to school without pants. Or that time you called your teacher or your boss “mom” instead of “ma’am”. Now imagine if someone shot that moment and posted it online for everyone to see. Embarrassment multiplied by 100. That’s the cringe you feel. You empathise for the person who is being humiliated (whether they see it as that is a different story altogether). You may now rejoice and be glad that it’s not your humiliating life on your screen, but someone else’s.
Often, people’s first reaction to seeing TikTok videos or other ‘cringey’ things is negative. This stems from the need to other themselves to fit in.
To be accepted by the greater majority who also feel that they’re above the likes of Justin Bieber or Hallmark rom-coms. They distance themselves from people who like things that aren’t so popular, so that they’re not grouped in with these ‘embarrassing’ people. They feel the cringe and the embarrassment for us because we don’t. Sure, they call us ‘immature’, but tell you what: that’s just how boring people describe fun people.
And that’s another reason why we have a love-hate relationship with cringey stuff. We watch people humiliate themselves and think, I would never do that. As is normal, we want to feel intellectually superior, often at the expense of others. We want to feel smarter than everyone else, but like they say in movies, pick someone your own size.
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Often, those who face the brunt of cringe culture the most are marginalised persons — women, queer folks, children, disabled and neurodivergent people. They’re made fun of for aspects of their identity they already are shamed for. But as much as it is about making fun of them, it is also the assumption that everything they enjoy is cringe because their likes don’t conform to high-brow culture which is built to exclude them anyway.
They find spaces for themselves where everyone is a ‘weirdo’, is different, and they can all be themselves. Then we barge in.
There are people out there who are more embarrassing than you. And they’re so easy to find on the internet. And so to feel good about yourself, you watch clips of a child who evidently can’t enunciate ‘Kurkure’ or even the grown woman who likes to ‘pawri’. They might do it on purpose (why?!) or, more commonly, because they lack an understanding of irony or self-awareness (most kids and some neurodivergent people fall into this category). And so we experience secondhand embarrassment for them.
Embrace the cringe
So what if I like YouTube commentary videos of 20-something-year-old British folks cracking jokes on COVID or the government? Or that I like to pop bubble-wrap or watch Barbie movies with horrendous animation? As long as I eat my veggies and pay my bills, I can do whatever I want to reclaim the things I enjoy doing. Hey, our brains only stop working during meetings or when we’re trying to get last-minute work done, not when we do things that you don’t think are brainy enough.
Can’t I have my share of genuine interests anymore? Or must I assimilate with every Tina, Disha and Haritha’s (Tom, Dick and Harry can take a break) “intellectual” opinions of what is worthy of being liked?
Must we always clothe ourselves in irony and cynicism to be one of the cool kids? Must we really put an end to our personal expressions and tastes so that we are not relegated to the cringe pile? We might judge others for liking Twilight or Hindi serials, but at the end of the day, most of us secretly love it. No matter how stupid it may seem, it is still entertaining enough to want to go back to it.
Maybe it’s time we stopped compounding the humiliation on people and begin to treat others as people and not the source material for our next in-house stand-up comedy routine.
Remember: you’re not alone. #embracethecringe, #imcringe, #cringe4life, #awkward, #feelingawkward, #sociallyawkward, and #awkwardteen are trending hashtags all over the internet. Go find your people (even the strangers you once called friends) and embrace your you-ness.
If you’re one of the cool kids reading this, please don’t feel secondhand embarrassment on our account. Be you; go embarrass yourself. I believe in you.
You are allowed to enjoy things that others deem ‘childish’ or cringey. Unless you really are an adult-baby incapable of meeting their own needs (like most men are), or unless you’ve literally just popped out into this morbid world, none of your interests are childish. And don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Life is too short to not be yourself anyway.
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