Everyone who has TikTok is bound to come across a video whose audience has deemed it cringy, whether it be a 13-year-old dressed in their favorite cosplay or a micro celebrity embarrassing themselves in a public interview. Anonymous accounts fill the comments section with backhanded remarks like “Look guys, we found the original” or “cuteness overload,” often gaining more likes than the actual video. Although cringe is an innately human feeling, projecting that feeling onto others is a form of cyberbullying that mainly targets marginalized groups.
Let it be known that I neither detest cringing, nor do I think that everyone should stop doing it. The feeling of secondhand embarrassment is universal and is an important facet of our social nature as human beings.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines cringe as feeling “very embarrassed, and often [showing] this by a physical movement or expression.” These movements typically manifest in the form of grimacing, turning one’s head or wrinkling one’s nose. These are physical indicators of “vicarious social pain,” according to a journal published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Despite its negative connotation, the act of cringing demonstrates our empathetic nature as humans. In fact, the degree to which we cringe at someone depends on how much we relate to the person directly receiving the embarrassment.
The more we relate to an individual, the more we are able to visualize ourselves in their shoes and experience their pain or pleasure. Therefore, cringing at a video online establishes an emotional link between the viewer and the video publisher. This reaction itself is not problematic; it is an involuntary reflex resulting from our brain interacting with established social norms.
The problem with cringe culture lies within its name — social media users have developed a culture of shaming others for acting in a manner that does not harm or disturb others.
Though it started in the late 2010s, cringe culture escalated notably during the pandemic. With no other outlet for expression, teens turned to social media to discuss their special interests and join communities with other like-minded individuals. Suddenly, they became victims of intense, unjustified cyberbullying. A notable example of this is the proliferation of cosplay on TikTok. Cosplaying is the act of representing a fictional character by wearing costumes and emulating the character’s personality. Cosplay is considered a performance art, and portraying a character successfully takes time, effort and talent. However, when cosplay artists would display the fruits of their labor on social media, they mostly received comments
calling them cringy. This may not be a universal phenomenon, but I have observed people consistently being shamed for practicing an art form that is known for its inclusive community because others believe it to be cringy.
Cringe culture perpetuates harmful social norms that do not have a place in modern society and otherizes members of marginalized groups, particularly the neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ communities. According to stopbullying.gov, “more U.S. high school students who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) report having been … cyberbullied (27%) in the past year than their straight peers [13%].”
Cyberbullying, even if users participate in it unknowingly, has serious ramifications for vulnerable youth. Saying something or someone is cringy is simply an indirect form of shaming others. Social media gives users the unique opportunity to freely display their hobbies and interests, and it is imperative that we preserve this privilege by striving to create a tolerant and inclusive online community, even if it means toning down the sarcasm. Cringe culture needs to end.