Cringe is in. Don’t back away from it; embrace that shrinking feeling
Memes, Reels, even the perfectly styled Taylor Swift are urging an Instagram generation to showcase their authentic selves.
Cringe is suddenly everywhere, again. Viral Reels deliberately aim to cause that stab of second-hand embarrassment or delicious discomfort. Their weapons are bad song covers, shoddy attempts at dance challenges, strange gestures, voices and noises.
In what is being called the year of reclaiming the cringe, a wave of viral memes champions the emotion too, encouraging people to stop posing self-consciously and instead showcase their most authentic selves.
One from 2021 features an introspective cow staring into the sea, and the words “I am cringe, but I am free”. A more recent examples is a challenge that began trending in November 2022 called Ending The Video When We Cringe. It invites people, two at a time, to outdo each other with silly gestures, moves and sound effects, until at least one can no longer keep going.
Even the every-hair-in-place popstar Taylor Swift advised students at New York University (NYU) to “learn to live alongside cringe”, in her speech at the 2022 graduation ceremony in May.
As with so many trends in pop culture, we’ve been here before. The idea of cringe content online goes back as far as social-media platforms themselves. There have been cringe discussion boards on Reddit since its launch in 2005. The Aughts also saw the creation of platforms such as cringeworthy.net, dedicated to those moments that make one want to disappear (walking around with toilet paper sticking out of your pants, calling scones “biscuit with fruit” at a business meeting).
The earliest viral cringe content in the internet age can be traced to YouTube channels such as Miranda Sings, created by Colleen Ballinger in 2008. She still performs as Miranda, a satire of a self-obsessed, pretentious off-key singer who can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t scat, and sagely offers misguided opinions and meaningless advice. The channel now has 10.8 million subscribers, and it’s where “Haters back off” comes from.
There were the escapades of Fred Figglehorn, a fictional six-year-old from a dysfunctional family created by the 13-year-old Lucas Cruikshank in 2006. It was the first channel on the platform to hit one million subscribers. It consisted of videos of a hyperactive boy with a screechy voice getting rejected by a crush, singing songs about his day and losing the medication that helped him “act normal”.
Long before that, cringe was the overwhelming theme of what is widely considered the world’s first reality show, Candid Camera (1948-2014). The popular TV series consisted of the host playing pranks on unsuspecting people, usually in public spaces. Escalators would trap a shopper; pins in a bowling alley would burst when struck. How does one react when something trivial goes unexpectedly, embarrassingly wrong? People’s reactions — and the surprise factor of never knowing if they would yell, gasp, cry, or just shrug and walk it off — played a big role in the success of the format.
The format of a TV camera following people around in the real world would, of course, soon look very different. The cringey performer went from ambushed stranger to willing, knowing participant.
“Reality shows have allowed people to showcase their true selves — the good, bad and ugly — on screen, to connect with a large audience,” says Rishi Negi, CEO of Endemol Shine India, which produces the reality shows Bigg Boss, MasterChef India, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and The Voice India, among others. “In a world where social media constantly compels us to display a perfect version of ourselves, reality programming shows people the unseen side… how people perform under pressure or in unflattering circumstances.”
As such shows became wildly popular in the Aughts (the earliest include Big Brother, launched in 1999, and How to Marry a Millionaire, launched in 2000), a parallel set of fictional TV shows pivoted from comedy to cringe too, deriving humour from awkward, embarrassing scenarios and a mockumentary-style narrative. Think of The Office (UK, 2001-03), created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-), created by and starring Larry David, also co-creator of Seinfeld.
The current wave can be traced to TV’s successor, streaming platforms. Second-hand embarrassment is a dominant theme in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (2016-19), a masterful dark comedy that follows a grief-riddled, fourth-wall-breaking, woman over two seasons, as she messily attempts to heal. More recently, the Netflix show Girls5eva (co-produced by Tina Fey; first released in 2021 and now streaming on Netflix), takes a cringe- and anguish-filled look back at the boy and girl band culture of 1990s America, through a comedy about four former girl band members looking to reunite and stage a comeback.
The women are now influencers and fake influencers; their former agent is still peddling the dubious talents of vapid youngsters. The cringe is best captured in the theme song, which draws from the girl band’s fictional one big hit. “Gonna be famous five-ever; cause four-ever’s too short,” go the lyrics to the catchy pop tune. “Gonna be famous three-gether, cause that’s one more than two-gether.”
The wince comes before the laughs do, at least in part because we’ve all hummed along to lyrics that were almost as bad.
Cringe as liberation, as a defiant move by a generation of young people raised in their own personal spotlight, is new. It’s liberating for the viewer too, because it often reflects somewhat universal if trivial fears, played out by people who have overcome that fear, says comedian Aditi Mittal. The fear of walking into the gym in pants one didn’t realise were see-through... except in the Reels, everyone just has a good laugh about it. The fear of sneezing all over a conference-room table, but hey, stuff happens.
There has always been a huge market for cringe entertainment, Mittal adds. But how we cringe has evolved from contemptuous to compassionate. The culture of embracing cringe rejects the idea of weaponsing it; when the viewer laughs, the idea is that they do so with compassion and empathy. “This generation grew up afraid of coming off as cringe. Now they’re owning it,” Mittal says. “They’re choosing to express themselves and represent themselves without caring about the judgement that might bring.” I am cringe, therefore I am free.