When was the last time you felt embarrassed for characters while rewatching a movie? Did it make you want to apologize and justify your movie night choice to the person you were watching it with? How did you manage to control your frustrated groan towards the screen in front of you?
News flash: you were cringing (just like I am at using the words ‘news flash’). The pandemic and the subsequent endless time indoors has had us going back to our favorite movies from when we were younger, whether it’s romantic comedies or mindless action movies. This comfort watching has seeped into everyone’s lives. But one of the side effects of comfort watching is cringe.
Comfort watching often leads to cringe
Often when I was re-watching romantic comedies during the past year (name a better way to escape), I would often cringe at characters, especially their dialogues. It was a conflicting experience, feeling comfort and cringe at once. Because the cringe was not only an emotional response but a physical one too— I would scream, “no!” or cover my face or laugh in that dispassionate, utterly exhausting way that we sometimes do.
Merriam Webster defines cringe in its verb form as “to recoil in distaste” and “to draw in or contract one’s muscles involuntarily (as from cold or pain).” When I noticed this pattern, I recollected that this cringing reaction was not one I remember experiencing when I first watched the same movies I was watching now.
The anatomy of cringe
In her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, Melissa Dahl explains there are two types of cringe— compassionate cringe and contemptuous cringe. Compassionate cringe (fremdscham) is linked to emotional identification, wherein we relate to someone’s mistakes or awkward moments because we see ourselves doing them or having done them already.
In her YouTube video titled “Cringe,” ex-philosopher Natalie Wynn explains that contemptuous cringe (schadenfreude) arises from emotional distancing or when you have contempt for someone who “lacks the self-awareness about the way others are perceiving them.” For instance, one can experience contemptuous cringe when watching embarrassing videos of politicians or cringey American Idol auditions.
Notably, in today’s world of aesthetic categories, more often than not linked to unequal economic status, contemptuous cringe comes with its own power structures— a person with social capital decides which aesthetic, which fashion apparel, which home decor, which photo angle, is cringe. And others receive this contempt packaged as cringe.
However, we comfort-watch movies for our beloved characters and plots. Thus, the cinema cringe associated with rewatching movies is mainly of the compassionate kind— one where we’re embarrassed for people and not at them, where we relate and find may even find catharsis in laughing and cringing at them.
Do we cringe only in hindsight?
My own experiences while comfort watching made me question the patterns I saw in my own behavior from the first time I watched a movie, deemed it a favorite, then rewatched the same movie years later. Why do we accept characters’ earnestness when we watch them for the first time but can’t seem to get past the second-hand embarrassment while rewatching movies?
The simple answer to this could be that we’ve become better and smarter people over the time since our first watches. When we watch movies when we’re younger, we accept them as they are, allotting them to the status quo of the world, without questioning them. Because what did we know?
As one learns and unlearns over the years, one recognizes power structures and problematic tropes in the cinema. Thus, in many ways, if you cringe at a work of art that you initially didn’t and even previously loved, it may be because you’ve grown and realized the mistakes in the text you didn’t see before.
Though Wynn assures us, “When we collectively laugh at these situations, we’re bonding over our shared human frailty. We’re recognizing that we all say the wrong thing sometimes… only to later educate ourselves and realize how ignorant and wrong we were.”
The millennial and Gen Z buzzword
The word ‘cringe’ started seeing a steady uptick in usage after the 1980s before which its usage was fairly low and constant. This is interesting because the generational category of millennials starts from 1981. Of course, the boom of its usage took place right when the internet started becoming more accessible to people with more content being created on it.
Some creators started making content specifically to highlight cringe. This inadvertently led to the formation of a cringe culture which has only heightened as memes have become more popular and goofy songs like “Gangnam Style” still echoes in the dusty hallways of our minds.
From my limited interaction with Gen X (born between the 1960s and the early-1980s), I have understood that they don’t experience cringe the way millennials and Gen Z do. It differs in nature and even magnitude. Gen X’ers seem to expertly categorize the world into “then” and “now,” the cringey stuff in films proves that the world “now” has evolved.
They believe the problematic tropes of the yesteryears are a part of a culture of that time, a culture that is constantly changing and updating itself. Sometimes, they even experience nostalgia, a desire for a “simpler world,” when they watch older movies.
While cringe is an expansive feeling having its recall moments, cinema cringe is peculiar for it’s a feeling that overwrites the earnestness we experienced when we watched a movie for the first time. Cinema cringe is about compassion, about the misgivings of a dialogue or a trope— ones that did not age well.
Wynn explains, “Embarrassment serves a social purpose. It helps us interact smoothly with each other by telling us what not to do, and empathizing with other people’s embarrassing stories can be cathartic – it can make you feel closer to other people, more alike, less alone.” Cinema cringe is a product of empathy and mindful criticism; it makes us not only better consumers of media but also allows for accountability and the evolution of acceptable plot points in the films we love.
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