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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at GWU chapter.

How many times have you wanted to post something online or share something with a friend but refrained due to your fear of being labeled as “cringe”? This trepidation has only grown exponentially with the recent uptick in cringe culture, something that is less a phenomenon than it is a cyclical cultural trend. In fact, cringe culture is a concept that most of Gen Z is all-too familiar with. Whether you’ve been on the receiving end or the perpetrating end, cringe culture is something that many of us have already formed opinions about. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it can be epitomized like this: essentially, cringe culture is when we mock someone for doing something embarrassing or socially unacceptable yet harmless. 

Examples of cringey behaviors include dancing poorly to a pop song on the internet, wearing a furry costume, or just doing something unremarkable while not being conventionally attractive. It is important to note that “cringey” behaviors do not harm other people. Most of the time, they’re simply behaviors that we deem uncomfortable, embarrassing, or childish. Those labeling others as cringe turn these victims of cringe culture into modern-day jesters, laughing at their embarrassment while indulging their own superiority complexes in which “I” am better than “them.” Cringe culture encapsulates our human need to be included in the “in-group” and to judge those in the “out-group.” 

Cringe culture has been one of the largest perpetrators of insecurity in younger generations. Thus, Generation Z should do everything in its power to create a counter culture to cringe culture. Cringe culture reinforces shame-based conformity; it disproportionately harms autistic individuals; and it normalizes and encourages cyberbullying.

Shame rebranded

To analyze how cringe culture repackages shame-based conformity, we must first address how cringe culture finds its strength in establishing a line between normal and abnormal behaviors. At its foundations, cringe culture shames weird or unique people into being “normal.” However, one must then ask why normality is important and if normality is even an objective concept in the first place. Cringe culture’s reliance on conceptions of normality is moot when the concept of being “normal” is inherently subjective. It is formed by our individual upbringings, cultures, and societies. This rids “normality” of its merit in judging whether or not someone or something subscribes to it, thereby discounting cringe culture’s own integrity. 

Regarding shame itself, many of us, especially in Gen Z, proudly proclaim to leave behind shame-filled societies of the past. This is actually far from the truth, especially on the spheres of the internet. Cringe culture can be viewed as the transition of shame from one generation to the next, repackaged into easily-marketable content on the world wide web. Cringe culture is now a shame culture label that can be monetized into content on the internet. What was once religious-based shame turned into honor-based shame turned into tradition-based shame turned into cringe culture. Shame is still at the foundation of don’t-speak society. Like religion- or tradition-based shame, cringe culture allows its enforcers to have a sense of superiority over those who do not give into societally-motivated shame. The saturation of shame in our society and in this generation encourages mindless conformity. We become so scared of being labeled “cringe” that we no longer want to participate in activities that could possibly be perceived that way. This shuts us off from many interests and activities that may ignite passion within us, something that is especially lacking as mental health issues reach new heights. 

Many members of Gen Z have their fair share of personal experiences feeling embarrassed about something they love. My own experience with this pervasive shame-based insecurity reinforces this claim and involves my years-long obsession with the TV show Glee. When I first watched the show before my freshman year of high school, I was outwardly passionate about just how much I enjoyed watching the New Directions’ performances and listening to the songs in my everyday life. However, the more I made my interest known to those around me, the more people would “cringe” at my unashamed zeal for such an apparently silly show. I began to limit how much I would discuss the show until I only participated in fandom by my lonesome. Cringe culture had done its job, humiliating me and feeding the egos of its perpetrators. I prevented myself from sharing my joy with others because I cared too much about what they thought. And why should we place the burden of ignoring cringe culture on the victim instead of tackling it at the source? Cringe culture places unnecessary blame on socially cringeworthy behaviors, which proves just how important it is for us to dismantle cringe culture in the first place.

an attack on autistic people

Next, I would like to discuss how cringe culture disproportionately affects individuals with neurodivergencies, specifically autism. Cringe culture is fostered by its participants understanding what is or is not socially-acceptable behavior. Many of these unspoken rules are not directly apparent to individuals with autism. Therefore, cringe culture disproportionately affects those individuals. How is it fair to assume everyone understands what is or isn’t socially-acceptable, especially when diversifying environments include people from all walks of life with varying definitions of socially-acceptable behaviors? Autistic people enjoying their interests affects no one. Nobody benefits by making fun of them. The only thing hecklers get out of labeling someone as “cringe” is feeding their own ego and insecurities. 

Labeling neurodivergent behaviors–like stimming or enjoying children’s media– as “cringe” isolates neurodivergent people and creates an environment where they are not accepted. One would think that, with increased awareness and acceptance of neurodivergency, this generation would become more tolerant and understanding, but the preponderance of cringe culture suggests otherwise. It also creates the perception that any passionate interest in something is analogous to a “hyperfixation,” which is a term exclusively used by neurodivergent people. A line is blurred between a true hyperfixation and someone’s passionate interest in something. It is actually normal to have passion! It is fun to be obsessed with a video game or a TV show! Being passionate about something that brings you joy is not something to be made fun of, regardless of who is participating in said activity. Instead, this passion should be welcomed in the wake of a mental health epidemic. 

Furthermore, cringe culture extrapolates school archetypes into realms beyond education. It reframes the “popular” crowd as those on the accusing end of cringe and the “weird” kids as those participating in cringey behaviors. While many embrace the freedom from these systems that graduating or aging out allows, cringe culture’s omnipotence online prevents people from escaping this cycle of torment. Evidently, cringe culture’s harmful impacts on autistic individuals gives more reason as to why we should refrain from participating in it.

supporting cyberbullying

Finally, I would like to focus on how cringe culture normalizes and magnifies cyberbullying. To be clear, the Oxford Dictionary defines cyberbullying as “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.” Currently, cringe culture is its most pervasive on the internet. From cringe-curating accounts to comments that harass users for not conforming to socially-acceptable standards, cringe culture has found a comfortable home on the internet. Though it goes without saying, cyberbullying is an especially potent form of bullying because people can hide behind a screen. This generates a breeding ground for cringe culture. Insecure individuals desiring something to heighten their superiority complexes can find kinship by making fun of others in droves. 

Take the TikTok comment section, for instance. On a “cringeworthy” video, the comments are stacked with not-so-lighthearted jokes attacking people for random things. These targets of cringe culture are not doing anything wrong. That is, except for violating the rule of “be normal at all times!” For me, when I hear the word “cyberbullying,” I think of Tyler, the Creator’s tweet where he asks how cyberbullying can be real if victims can just shut their computers and walk away from the screen. While I understand where Tyler is coming from, I think he’s missing the nuance of cyberbullying and how it reflects societal trends in bite-sized samples. Cringe culture is the driving force behind bullying on the internet. People find it entertaining to make fun of others for something they would supposedly never do. As aforementioned, victims of cringe culture are akin to modern-day jesters. They exist on the internet for the sole purpose of being made fun of. It is in human nature to desire superiority and hierarchy, but in order to cultivate a better future for human culture and expression, we must also recognize that cringe culture hinders unashamed enjoyment, passion, and fervor. Why would we want to get rid of that?

As humans, we often follow the crowd, and we fear saying anything that goes against the grain. However, it also takes the uniquely human spirit to speak out against injustice even when it is acceptable in society.

Molly is a sophomore at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Information Systems and Communication and enjoys writing opinion pieces on cultural trends in media and pop culture.