All I wanted was a Stitch shirt.
The character from Lilo & Stitch, that is. I was an avid fan in its heyday, keeping up with the straight-to-DVD sequel films and TV show. However, as I entered my preteens, I noticed the franchise was primarily marketed to girls, so boys never got a fair share of the merchandise even though it didn’t seem that way all the time. But Disney World granted my long-held wish in the late 2000s—sort of. To my distaste, the Stitch shirt I found was football themed, but I’d take what I could get. When it came to actually wearing the thing, the farthest I got with it on was around my family indoors, and even then, I was self-conscious. I beamed looking at myself in the mirror with that shirt on, but once I remembered that people would look at me? In this shirt? I winced and blushed. I couldn’t be seen expressing my excitement over a silly, wild cartoon character. My friends would think I’m girly and childish, and my family probably thought the same, so I kept the shirt buried in my drawer.
There wasn’t a proper name for it at the time, but these immature fears stemmed from what is recognized as “cringe culture” today. What is it? I aim to define these things and explain why cringe culture is unproductive and harmful. I will then point toward a way we can constructively guide nerds to a more self-aware, mature, and confident expression of their nerdiness.
We see the beginnings of cringe culture with the likes of America’s Funniest Home Videos and the general bullying of nerds and geeks in school, but cringe is not to be confused with schadenfreude, which is when we derive delight from other’s misfortune. Cringe is when we feel second-hand embarrassment for someone exhibiting passion that’s seen as too self-serious, zealous, or unusual. It makes the viewer feel better about themselves—more mature. To elaborate, cringe can include fan art or song covers created without regard for quality; it can involve someone who is very vocal about their passion for something and/or is outside its expected demographic; it can involve someone who simply has a misunderstood or uncommon interest and is derided for it.It’s not a matter of whether people are allowed to perpetuate and observe cringe culture, but if we should entertain these things when people on the other end didn’t intend to be publicly humiliated, let alone deserve it.
Expectations and norms for who should like what and how—whether dictated by corporations or culture—influence how people express themselves. When people break free of these behavioral shackles, they are inviting anyone and everyone to react to their opinions, art, and the like. One such audience many of us knowingly or unwittingly participate in is cringe culture.
Cringe culture is rife through YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and more. It’s not so much a particular group of people (though there are forums and pages devoted to sharing cringe) as it is a shared emotion and behavior people subconsciously find relief in, much like schadenfreude. But instead of watching others make fools out of themselves by accident, cringe culture relishes in watching others make fools out of themselves on purpose, even when that’s not intended (excluding comedians who do so ironically).
How does this happen? Dr. Philippe Rochat has written about “the irreconcilable gap,” which is when our self-perception doesn’t comport with that of other people’s perception of ourselves, much like the universal disappointment in hearing our own voices played back to us, or reflecting on an edgy or silly phase we went through as teenagers. Cringe culture disseminates people’s irreconcilable gaps for the sake of humor, which can be a serious problem applied to fandoms.
Unfortunately, the advent of accessible anonymity on the internet has made depersonalization common. Cringe culture contributes to this by not only making fun of people and their so-called cringe, but also sharing it for others to join in on the chorus of laughter, which reasonably attracts malicious harassers, too. While most wouldn’t go so far as to intentionally be in the latter group, anyone who watches or comments joins the chorus, even if for a passing moment. It’s not a matter of whether people are allowed to perpetuate and observe cringe culture, but if we should entertain these things when people on the other end didn’t intend to be publicly humiliated, let alone deserve it.
A parent wouldn’t laugh at their child scribbling a poor drawing; a Christian shouldn’t call someone out who’s genuinely singing a hymn more loudly or out of tune than the rest of the church congregation; a friend wouldn’t laugh at another if they proudly admit to sleeping with a stuffed animal. Herein lies the dark tragedy of cringe culture—people are not shamed for a bad deed or cruel word, but for simply expressing their joy in and appreciation for something, whether that be for Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, My Hero Academia, or fursuits.
One of the eye-opening aspects of schadenfreude and cringe culture is that both are often characterized by empathy, but empathy doesn’t automatically express itself as kindness. Melissa Dahl points to the idea that empathy is “process[ed] through contempt or through compassion.” I would say that cringe culture consists of differing levels of empathetic contempt. So, what does empathetic compassion look like?
I believe empathetic compassion could define “cringe counterculture,” a posture that people should actively assume. While our automatic response to cringe cannot be helped, Dahl says these can become moments of reflection and instruction, whether for ourselves or toward someone else. Instead of giving into the temptation to laugh at irreconcilable gaps, we should ask ourselves why we feel second-hand embarrassment and express it as contempt. Sometimes, there’s no reason to do this when something is innocent in nature.
Cringe counterculture, however, does not preclude constructive criticism and accountability for toxicity among nerds, which can involve gatekeeping and harassment that must be confronted; however, cringe culture is not the fire to fight this fire. Insofar as nerds are able, a cringe counterculture seeks to firmly yet lovingly pull fellow nerds aside to discuss why the aforementioned behaviors are a problem. Even when fellow nerds are being innocent, there is not only a place for talking with them about how to more maturely express and control their passion, but also how to prepare and deal with cringe culture when it comes for us.Instead of giving into the temptation to laugh at irreconcilable gaps, we should ask ourselves why we feel second-hand embarrassment and express it as contempt. Sometimes, there’s no reason to do this when something is innocent in nature.
Being part of the furry fandom has taught me the value in teaching and encouraging others to be fearless in aspects of their self-expression. I have had repressed personality traits that involve being more openly affectionate, sweet, playful, and silly—traits often seen as unbecoming and uncharacteristic of men. Those traits need not clash with masculinity, and if they do, what does that say about standards and expectations for men that make them fearful of expressing tenderness and love? Whether that’s expressed as hugging friends, playing make-believe with one’s children, or squealing in delight over a cute Pokémon.
C. S. Lewis would likely consider cringe culture similar to critics of the fantasy genre in his day “who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, [and therefore] cannot be adult themselves” (On Stories, 50). An unabashed love of anything without regard for what others think could be considered a lasting, good “childishness.” Elsewhere, Lewis writes, “My heart warms to the schoolboy on the bus who is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world beside. For here also I should feel that I had met something real and live and unfabricated; …spontaneous and compulsive, disinterested” (The World’s Last Night, 39).
We must embody cringe counterculture to our fellow nerds as a friendly, uplifting, and instructive mode of community and commentary. After all, one of the pillars of Love Thy Nerd is to be a source of belonging and love to nerds who “have often been alienated, demonized, dismissed, or simply ignored by Christians” and society. If we are to create an atmosphere of acceptance for others (and ourselves!) to enjoy all of creation that is good (Phil. 4:8), we must exercise self-control and a higher view of consideration of others by embodying cringe counterculture. Even though cringe culture will persist, there is profound freedom in “embracing the cringe” that secretly resonates with many of us. It boldly proclaims, “What I may enjoy may be odd to some, and I may be seen as odd myself. But I am happy, and there is no reason for anyone to dissuade me from that.”