That’s So Cringe!

Well, that was awkward. A few weeks ago, a relationship guru named Derrick Jaxn attracted millions of views with an Instagram video — now deleted — detailing numerous relationships with women other than his wife. “All of it,” he said in the video, “falls under the umbrella of inappropriate, cheating, affairs, stepping out.” Meanwhile, his wife, Da’Naia Jackson, sat beside him in support.

In the flurry of chatter that followed, the Twitter jury found Mr. Jaxn guilty of cringe in the first degree, a combination outrage and ick. “Derrick Jaxn’s reaction video to his confession is a wonderful mixture of cringe, shock and utter hilarity,” tweeted one user.

Mr. Jaxn finds himself in good company of late. New York Magazine has found cringe in the New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s call to increase funding for the city police department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Slate has cringed at the European Instagram influencers who painted New York as a playland at the height of the pandemic. Royalists on Twitter, meanwhile, have invoked Piers Morgan’s sneering term for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — “Ginge and Cringe” — following their Oprah interview.

A forum devoted to cringe content has millions of followers on Reddit. Headline writers from the traditional news media toss the word around with abandon.

Cringe is a verb, adjective and noun (as in the viral meme “Bro! You Just Posted Cringe!”). It is everywhere.

And no wonder. As Merriam-Webster defines it, to cringe means either to recoil in fear or to show embarrassment or disgust — all appropriate responses, perhaps, with both sides in the country’s political and cultural divide regarding each other with increasing horror, shameless self-promotion on social media running at peak levels, and swaths of the population continuously redefining “appropriate” as part of a larger reappraisal of our cultural past.

Cringe is nothing if not versatile. As a word of judgment, it works in a playful context (as when Vogue catalogs “cringe-watch” favorites like “Indian Matchmaking” or “Mrs. Serial Killer”) as well as a serious one (say, to shame maskless spring breakers flooding Florida beaches).

As a word that implicitly delineates between the clued-in and the clueless, cringe also proves handy for those looking to advertise a superior moral or aesthetic refinement. Among the Gen Z types of TikTok who unearth videos of lead-footed dancers and weepy bedroom balladeers, a mix of crowdsourced arts criticism and cyberbullying has emerged, which Vox recently dubbed “Cringe TikTok.”

Cringe also works well to convey youth’s eternal scorn for those on the north side of 40. Buzzfeed, for instance, runs listicles on the cringiest dad jokes. Millennials often use the term as a wrist slap of predigital natives when they indulge in tone-deaf jokes or political opinions that never should have made it out of the 1980s.

Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor, achieved “*PURE CRINGE*” last month after he sang the theme to “Good Times,” the 1970s sitcom about a Black family in a Chicago housing project, during a chat with his Black colleague Don Lemon last month, then joked that he feels “Black on the inside.”

Judging by the online response, it’s not that Mr. Cuomo’s awkward joke was racist in a way that would get him — yikes!— “canceled.” In cases like these, cringe functions as cancel-lite: somewhere between a traffic ticket and a death penalty sentence in the court of social media opinion.

So-called “cringe comedy” — mining social awkwardness for laughs — has reigned on television for years, at least since “Seinfeld.”

But the use of the term has exploded in recent years, according to a Google Trends chart of the word’s appearance in searches since 2004, first nudging upward in 2012 (coincidentally or not, the same year that the cringe emoji, or grimacing face, debuted), then going full hockey stick in July 2016 (coincidentally or not, the month that Donald Trump took the nomination at the Republican National Convention).

Given the political turbulence roiling the nation, the cringefest of recent years calls to mind the concept of “cultural cringe,” coined by the Australian literary critic A.A. Phillips in the 1950s, which is often interpreted to mean an inferiority complex on the part of an entire nation.

But maybe the spread of “cringe” in 21st-century America is not a sign of a culture in a death spiral, but something more healing. In recent weeks, the news media has invoked the term to describe the exploitation of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan two decades ago, as well as the fat-shaming jokes on “Friends” and transphobic wisecracks on “Sex and the City.”

As “cringe” implies, we may recoil at the uglier parts of our past. But as it also implies, at least we recognize them as such.

The Discourse is a regular look at language.

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