9 MIN READ
As a kid, I was playfully mocked for my surname. Most of these taunts were harmless and unoriginal, rhyming ‘Niraula’ with ‘Ghiraula’ for instance. But when I reached the eighth grade, I started getting deeply embarrassed for having Niraula as my last name.
A sensational music video was launched on YouTube that year. In the video, a pot-bellied, middle-aged Nepali man clumsily dances to an electro-tune that feels out of place. The animations were tacky and reminded you of a 90s Indian wedding video. The lyrics of the song roll-called every day of the week (except Saturday), following it up with “love you,” only to conclude over the chorus, “I wanna love you every day.”
Dismally, for the teenage me, I happened to share the surname with the creator and singer of this song — Bhim Niraula. People saw him as a man who was just making a fool out of himself, confident but completely unaware. My friends had found a new round of ammunition to fire at me. They implied that I was related to Bhim Niraula and that my horrible singing and dancing abilities were, perhaps, a result of sharing his DNA. It felt like the entire nation was cringing at Bhim Niraula and, by the extension of surname, me.
Cringe is a uniquely interesting phenomenon and a very familiar one too. There’s a symbolic image of ourselves that we carry in our heads at all times. This symbolic image is intelligent, photogenic, confident, has a good voice, and a decent understanding of how social interactions play out. But then, there’s also our physical image which is seen by the world, and this physical image fails to meet the high standards set by the symbolic self. This physical self is clumsy, it takes unflattering selfies, and its voice is horribly different from that of the symbolic self.
Clearly, there exists a gap between the symbolic self and the physical self. Psychologist Philippe Rochat, in his book Others In Mind, calls it the “irreconcilable gap” which is the difference between the “experience of the embodied self (first-person perspective) and what is publicly shared of the self (third-person perspective).” The gaping void between the symbolic self and the physical self is where the “cringe” emerges, making our body shudder and recoil at the memory of the drunk text we once sent to our ex. Our symbolic self thought we were more prudent than that, but our physical self proved otherwise. Thus, we cringe at ourselves. It’s a forced moment of self-awareness that compels us to view ourselves from the third-person perspective. As unpleasant as the sensation might feel, self-cringing does serve a social function. It keeps us grounded and keeps us from turning into obnoxious narcissists.
But that’s just self-cringing, a private moment. What’s more complex and interesting is the phenomenon of cringing at others.
In contemporary pop culture, there has been a rapid growth of “cringe content”. My favorite definition of cringe content comes from Rebecca Jennings, a senior correspondent at Vox, who writes, “(cringe) content (is) deemed humiliating on account of the poster’s looks, behavior, or talent, and the lack of apparent self-awareness about those things. The top tier of digital cringe is created by people who not only lack self-awareness but lack it enough to share themselves in the hope that other people will be impressed, then fail to realize when the general response is laughter.”
You’ll find thousands of videos on YouTube of such cringe content under “cringe compilation” that have gathered millions of views. A lot of our comic culture revolves around placing characters in cringe situations, from Seinfeld and The Office to domestic picks like Blind Date (Nepal’s recent favorite guilty pleasure). But cringing at someone feels as unpleasant as cringing at yourself. Why, then, is there such a proliferation of cringe content flooding our screens?
It’s almost like the phrase ‘you can’t look away from a car crash’. Looking at a car, or any disaster for that matter, from a distance allows us to come face-to-face with our fears of death, despair, and degradation while still being able to maintain our safety. There’s a similar sense of morbid curiosity associated with consuming cringe content. The popular consensus holds that cringing at someone is a form of empathy, in the sense that you’re feeling embarrassed on their behalf. Melissa Dahl in her book Cringeworthy calls this feeling ‘compassionate cringe’, which is when you emotionally resonate with the subject of cringe. It allows you to place yourself in their shoes and feel the shame they ought to feel because they are not embarrassed themselves. More importantly, it allows you to see a part of yourself that you dislike in the person you’re cringing at. Thus, we compassionately cringe at Bhim Niraula. Many of us have danced with complete abandon without realizing how clumsy we looked or sang unpleasantly with full confidence. As Dahl puts it, “The unspoken statement being made is: you are ridiculous and so am I.”
Much has changed since Bhim Niraula first uploaded that video in 2013. People have almost forgotten how Niraula was, initially, taunted and mocked for the music video. I suppose I would have too if I hadn’t shared his surname and closely followed the shift in public opinion. It was sometime around his performance on Britain’s Got Talent when the court of public opinions declared, “OK! He might be a little cringe, but we love him now.” Suddenly, people started idolizing him for being able to “explore his passion” without fear of judgment. He became the epitome of not-caring-about-other-people’s opinions. Looking back, it’s undeniable that all the cringing directed at him played a huge role in his popularity.
Unfortunately, this is all there is to a more optimistic and wholesome story of cringe. Amidst all its lighthearted tone and promises of no-harm-done lurks a dark political dimension. While it is true that cringing is a form of empathy, empathy in itself isn’t inherently good or bad. Empathy is just a cognitive process that helps us understand what the other person is feeling. But what we choose to do with this understanding is entirely up to us. The cognitive process can either lead us to a path of compassion, whereby we’re more considerate of other people’s feelings, or it can pave a path to contempt, whereby we understand what makes the other person most vulnerable and plan our attacks accordingly. And sadly, most of the cringe content that we consume features a contemptuous form of cringing.
Recently, I came across a Facebook group named ‘Ultimate Nepali CringeTok 2.0’ (I assume the first version of this group was banned for cyber-bullying.) CringeTok refers to TikTok videos that are cringy to watch. One of the latest entries to this cringe club is an animal lover TikTok account with thousands of followers. Ayush, the man behind the account has sheltered multiple stray dogs and often posts videos playing with them and feeding them. But that’s not what he’s known for. Ayush frequently posts videos of himself singing, dancing, and modeling. The running gag around him is that despite not being a traditionally good-looking guy who can sing and dance, he thinks he has all those qualities.
Unlike the previously explored compassionate cringe, this is a contemptuous form of cringe. Here, the audience doesn’t feel compassion for Ayush. Instead, they are appalled and disgusted by his lack of self-awareness. The comments section has no dearth of snide, sarcastic comments, mocking his looks and talents. But Ayush fails (or perhaps ignores) to see the sarcasm behind them and accepts them as sincere compliments.
There are more sinister forms of comments to be found as well. Since Ayush belongs to the Madhesi community, all kinds of racial slurs are hurled at him. In December of last year, I visited one of his TikTok live sessions. He was sitting silent, with closed eyes and wet lashes, mourning the death of Lucy, one of his favorite pets. He chose to share this moment of grief with his followers. One would assume people would be a bit charitable with their comments considering the sensitivity of the moment. But even in such a vulnerable state, he was greeted with comments like: “chatak herra na dhoti ko!” and “pani puri banauna jaa oi!” At moments like these, the ugly socio-political dimension of cringe becomes most visible. The identity that Ayush is being assigned by his haters isn’t that of a bad singer or a delusional TikToker but a “dhoti”, a derogatory term for Madhesi people.
In contemptuous cringing, you can’t relate to the subject of cringe since contempt is an emotion that creates a distance between yourself and others. And when you can distance yourself emotionally from someone, in this case through contemptuous cringing, you can say and do horrible things to them without feeling a shred of guilt. Perhaps it’s this emotional distancing that makes Ayush’s cyberbullying palatable to a large mass. The comments section alone is half the fun for people who like to indulge in such cringe content. The most liked comment, which is often the most brutal one, is featured at the top. So, as soon as cringe content appears, a race ensues to spill out the meanest comment.
Nikisha Shrestha is another TikToker who is far too familiar with the dark side of contemptuous cringe. She abandoned her education after being subjected to bullying for being a transwoman. As a result, the 18-year-old lacks a basic understanding of the English language. The bullying she attempted to escape by quitting school in real life has followed her online. Only this time, it has been rebranded as cringe.
A combination of financial hardship, non-heterosexual gender identity, and lack of education has made Nikisha the perfect target of cringe attacks. It doesn’t matter what kind of content she posts, netizens are flexible enough to find something to cringe at — her English, her face, her voice, or her gender identity. But the most common word that these cringe indulgers throw at Nikisha is “chhakka”, a derogatory, transphobic slur. The word is nothing new to Nikisha but in November 2020, a disheartening video showed two young boys on a bike following and harassing Nikisha, mocking her like she was some caged animal and calling her the slur. After the bike makes multiple rounds around her, a frustrated Nikisha chases after the bike, fails to catch them, and watches in defeat as the boys ride away sniggering and repeating the slur. This is the horrifying result of contemptuous cringe, spilling its toxic impacts out into the real world.
This highlights another key difference between compassionate cringing and contemptuous cringing. When Bhim Niraula dances and sings in an unappealing manner, he’s just a middle-aged man embarrassing himself. That’s where the scope of his cringe begins and ends. The cringe directed at Nikisha and Ayush, however, goes beyond the content they post and pierces through their identities. Nikisha is cringe on account of being a transwoman and Ayush is cringe for belonging to the Madhes.
It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s mostly the people from marginalized communities who are on the receiving end of such contemptuous cringe. It’s almost as if age-old bigotry has evolved to survive and thrive within the digital spaces of a society that’s trudging towards a more liberal world. When you label a Madhesi ‘cringe-worthy’ instead of hurling slurs at him, you’re not being a bigot, you’re simply partaking in the internet culture of laughing at fools. It easily makes the intolerable tolerable. But if we strip contemptuous cringing down to its bare bones, what we see isn’t light-hearted fun, but a glorified and socially acceptable form of bullying.
I understand that when talking in-depth about an issue as basic as cringe, it’s easy to come off as a guy wearing a tin-foil hat, brewing conspiracy theories in his head. So, it’s worth clarifying that cringe isn’t an intentional tool used by the powerful elites to preserve the status quo. After all, we don't get to choose what we cringe at. Instead, I contend that the force arises from our unconscious learnings about the social world. There are certain identities and traits we associate with normality and appropriateness, based on our social position, circle, and upbringing. Anything outside the boundary of this constructed normality can be perceived as cringe. But if we attempt to set aside these learnings (as best as we can), we’ll realize that whatever Nikisha or Ayush do, in their purest form, is just self-expression. Since we are exposed to a very narrow slice of socio-cultural practices, forms of expression that differ from ours make us cringe. Thus, when Nikisha and Ayush show up in spaces largely dominated by cis-gendered, non-Madhesi individuals, they are deemed “abnormal”, worthy of cringe and stigmatization.
Melissa Dahl echoes optimism towards the end of her book Cringeworthy. As a hopeless optimist, I, too, believe in the positive power of cringe and the humane connections it has to offer. But it must come from a place of compassion. And for that, we need to move past the contempt, which is only possible if we set aside our snobbery and become more tolerant of the diverse cultures and expressions that our small little corner of the universe offers.
Nischal Niraula Nischal Niraula is a former journalist who now works as an online content creator. He’s also a student of social science who’s interested in learning how the popular media shapes our cultures, beliefs and identities.
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