For us older gen Zers and low millennials out there, being deemed cringeworthy was the least of our worries, if not completely unfathomable when we were growing up. How could sharing your latest BBM pin on Facebook, dip-dying your hair blue à la Kylie Jenner, and reblogging bleak quotes juxtaposed on a pastel flowery background on your Tumblr be anything but cool, right?
The term cringe only started to pick up online around 2013, with Google Trends clearly showing a dramatic spike in May 2020, followed by yet another one in June 2021. As most gen Zers migrated from Instagram’s polished feeds to the unfiltered and refreshingly candid realm of TikTok, cringe content rose to fame.
Though hard to accurately put into words, cringe can be described as that inward feeling of discomfort and embarrassment when faced with either something you’ve done or something someone else has done. It’s an emotion that comes in random waves for most, but one that I’ve been personally blessed by nature to experience constantly, 24/7—making me a cringe expert, nothing less.
Now, from cheugy and millennial cringe to charitable deeds gone terribly wrong, it’s important to note that we’re not here to discuss unintentional cringe today—that would simply take way too much time. Instead, what we’re looking at is the trend of intentionally insufferably cringe comics and creators on TikTok and how it might soon completely dismantle what’s cool and what isn’t.
If you’re not sure what I mean when I say intentionally cringe content, often referred to as ‘CringeTok’ on the video-sharing app, then the best place to start is by looking at some of the genre’s most popular creators.
First up is Los Angeles-based actress and comedy writer Delaney Rowe, who’s made a name for herself on the CringeTok scene through painful-to-watch skits about pick-me girl scenarios. Currently boasting 1.8 million followers on the app, almost every one of Rowe’s clips has garnered more than one million views at the very least.
Next up is Katie Whitney, whose approach to cringe comedy is not too different from Rowe, only slightly more gen Z in terms of the insufferable characters she plays. Her most popular one, the gamer girl (who’s clearly not that into video games since she appears to be unable to hold a controller correctly in every of Whitney’s fictional settings), is a dramatised parody of TikTok, Discord, and Twitch’s thriving community of egirls.
Mixing easy-to-recognise mannerisms in her make-believe scenarios (which were first spotted online, more specifically on TikTok) with captions that could easily fool those who’ve never come across her clips before into thinking Whitney’s actually that girl, just like Rowe, the content creator has accumulated millions of views and likes since she started posting in 2022.
What’s so great about creators like Rowe and Whitney is that we’re not laughing at them, we’re laughing with them. And the fact that this niche of humour is currently picking up on TikTok—an app whose main demographic is 18 to 24-year-olds—says a lot about gen Z’s ability to take a step back from it all to make fun of how ridiculous our digitally native selves can often be.
Like we’ve seen with millennials, what’s considered cool today will most definitely be cringe tomorrow. It’s an unavoidable cycle that once accepted, will truly set you free. Speaking to The Face about why we find things cringe in the first place, Dr Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and found in the science of emotion, explained that it is “a mechanism to deter us from behaving in ways that risk us losing status or gaining the negative judgement of others.”
Our bodies consider “negative judgement” to be a threat to survival, Burnett went on to add. But it’s now clear that what was once a feeling most of us tried to keep at bay as much as possible has since turned into one we’re actively searching for—survival instincts be damned.
So what do you say, are you ready to fully embrace the cringe? I know I’ve already ditched my hot girl summer plans for some earnestly cringe good timez.