Special Issue "Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe"

A special issue of Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787). This special issue belongs to the section "Film, Television, and Media Studies in the Humanities".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 May 2021).

Special Issue Editor

Dr. Wieland Schwanebeck
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Institute of English and American Studies, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden 01062, Germany
Interests: gender & masculinity studies; adaptation studies; impostors and con men; the twin motif in literature; British film history, Alfred Hitchcock; comedy and laughter

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Since the premiere of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s show The Office (2001–2003), cringe comedy has turned into a global brand. Cringing involves the inability to extricate yourself from unpleasant situations, resulting in feelings of vicarious shame. Cringe humour often results in “unstable jokes” (Jason Middleton) that involve protected groups like ethnic minorities and disabled people. It prospers not just in traditional genres (like the sitcom), but also in more interactive formats like reaction videos, where viewers are challenged to watch unbearable content.

The success of cringe comics like Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David, and Julia Davis coincides with a cultural paradigm shift that has been linked to a resurgence of shaming/humiliation rituals and to what Adam Kotsko and Melissa Dahl identify as the “age of awkwardness”. Cringe articulates a deeply-felt discomfort and a degree of uncertainty when it comes to adopting to political correctness and changing attitudes in the cultural climate.

This Special Issue seeks to address the following questions:

  • Does cringe humour emphasise inclusivity or exclusivity?
  • Does the cringe experience simply perpetuate well-known stereotypes, or does it work with them in productive and more nuanced ways?
  • Does cringe humour affirm norms/values, or does it violate them to renegotiate boundaries?
  • How is cringe humour embedded in individual and national discourses of laughter?
  • Why does cringe humour prosper in the contemporary cultural landscape, which is dominated by backlash debates and knee-jerk reactions against political correctness?
  • Which role does the contemporary media environment play in facilitating cringe (e.g., reality formats, mockumentaries)?

Abstracts of approx. 200 words, along with a short bio, should be submitted to the special-issue editor
([email protected]) by 1 February 2021.

Completed articles of 5000–7000 words should be submitted by 15 May 2021.

Dr. Wieland Schwanebeck
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a double-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Humanities is an international peer-reviewed open access semimonthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.

Keywords

  • cringe
  • humour
  • laughter
  • comedy
  • awkwardness
  • political correctness
  • television
  • stand-up comedy
  • sitcom

Published Papers (8 papers)

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Editorial

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Editorial
Introduction to Painful Laughter: Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe
Humanities 2021, 10(4), 123; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040123 - 30 Nov 2021
Viewed by 414
Abstract
This introduction to the Special Issue on cringe humour briefly traces the starting point of the contemporary cringe boom, and it looks into the roots of awkwardness as a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s. Moreover, the introduction argues for the cathartic potential of [...] Read more.
This introduction to the Special Issue on cringe humour briefly traces the starting point of the contemporary cringe boom, and it looks into the roots of awkwardness as a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s. Moreover, the introduction argues for the cathartic potential of cringe humour in the context of sociopolitical issues, and briefly presents the subsequent articles. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
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Research

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Article
Cringe and Sympathy: The Comedy of Mental Illness in Flowers
Humanities 2021, 10(4), 121; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040121 - 20 Nov 2021
Viewed by 590
Abstract
This article on brings together findings from humor studies, especially work on cringe comedy, and disability studies. It analyzes how Flowers uses elements of cringe to question societal norms of the “proper person” in connection to mental illness, but also how Flowers broadens [...] Read more.
This article on brings together findings from humor studies, especially work on cringe comedy, and disability studies. It analyzes how Flowers uses elements of cringe to question societal norms of the “proper person” in connection to mental illness, but also how Flowers broadens the genre of cringe so that, at times, it becomes a cringe tragedy rather than a cringe comedy, thus taking seriously the pain of mental illness. As a third point, this analysis focuses on the way in which Flowers self-reflexively employs elements of narrativity to draw attention to the cultural constructedness and storyfication of mental illness throughout history. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
Article
“Horsin’ Around”? #MeToo, the Sadcom, and BoJack Horseman
Humanities 2021, 10(4), 115; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040115 - 29 Oct 2021
Viewed by 695
Abstract
The animated series BoJack Horseman has garnered much critical acclaim for its mix of tragic and comic portrayals of its eponymous protagonist, washed-up actor and cynic BoJack, and his friends in the anthropomorphic Hollywoo setting. The term “sadcom” has been applied to BoJack [...] Read more.
The animated series BoJack Horseman has garnered much critical acclaim for its mix of tragic and comic portrayals of its eponymous protagonist, washed-up actor and cynic BoJack, and his friends in the anthropomorphic Hollywoo setting. The term “sadcom” has been applied to BoJack and other series that operate on similar premises—an interesting response to larger critical investigations of the intersections of tragic and comic modes of humor that find expression, for example, in the awkward and in cringe. This article investigates how this mixture comes to bear in season 5 of the series from 2018, which deals with several topics related to the #MeToo movement. Through several formal elements as well as plotlines that lay bare superficial performances and complicitness in a sexist system, the season supports notions of authenticity and solidarity that lie the heart of sadcoms, which invites closer inspection not just of BoJack Horseman but the genre as a whole. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
Article
The Cringe and the Sneer: Structures of Feeling in Veep
Humanities 2021, 10(4), 114; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040114 - 26 Oct 2021
Viewed by 608
Abstract
This article approaches cringe comedy through the lens of its affectivity, of the somatic experiences through which it puts its audiences’ bodies, and it uses this as a point of departure to think about the genre’s cultural work. Based on the observation that [...] Read more.
This article approaches cringe comedy through the lens of its affectivity, of the somatic experiences through which it puts its audiences’ bodies, and it uses this as a point of departure to think about the genre’s cultural work. Based on the observation that no cringe comedy makes its viewers cringe for the whole duration of its storytelling, the article suggests that cringe comedies thrive on destabilizing and ambiguating the affective valence of their performances of embarrassment, constantly recalibrating or muddying the distance between viewer and characters. They are marked by tipping points at which schadenfreude and other types of humor tip into cringe, and reversely, at which cringe tips into something else. The article focuses on one of these other affective responses, which it proposes to describe as the sneer. It uses the HBO-series Veep as a case study to explore how cringe and sneer aesthetics are interlaced in an exemplary comedy, and how they fuel this particular comedy’s satiric work. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
Article
“Kill the Puppies!”: Cringe Comedy and Disability Humor in the Live Performances of Laurence Clark
Humanities 2021, 10(3), 105; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10030105 - 15 Sep 2021
Viewed by 744
Abstract
Firmly rooted in disability activism, the emergence of disability studies in the 1980s took place at a time that also witnessed several disabled comedians and activists climb the stage both in the US and the UK. Considering these coinciding developments, it seems perhaps [...] Read more.
Firmly rooted in disability activism, the emergence of disability studies in the 1980s took place at a time that also witnessed several disabled comedians and activists climb the stage both in the US and the UK. Considering these coinciding developments, it seems perhaps little surprising that disability studies scholarship has been engaged in the complex relationship between disability and humor from its very beginnings. However, the interplay between cringe (as a cultural phenomenon closely related to comedy) and disability has not received much attention within the field. This paper takes a closer look at the functions that disability fulfils in cringe comedy. Reading Laurence Clark’s comedy live performances against a classic “disability scene” from The Office, I argue that while both shows humiliate the non-disabled for their reactions toward disabled people, the work they are doing differs on several accounts. While The Office does not give its disabled characters much of a voice and thus remains ambiguous in what it is doing, Clark’s performances use cringe humor as a tool to reclaim agency. It is through the act of talking back that Clark’s performances take on a didactic function, encouraging audiences to critically reflect their own reactions to disability. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
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Article
Two Shades of Cringe: Problems in Attributing Painful Laughter
Humanities 2021, 10(3), 99; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10030099 - 28 Aug 2021
Viewed by 651
Abstract
This article aims to approach the phenomenon of cringe in four steps: First, from a sociological perspective, the distinction between shame and embarrassment is discussed and a working definition is developed that conceives of this difference as situational rather than essential. In a [...] Read more.
This article aims to approach the phenomenon of cringe in four steps: First, from a sociological perspective, the distinction between shame and embarrassment is discussed and a working definition is developed that conceives of this difference as situational rather than essential. In a second step, this distinction will be used to examine more closely how the actors’ self-representation is decomposed in the reality format Wife Swap and what role cringe—understood as “Fremdscham” or “vicarious embarrassment”—plays in this. Third, an explanation for the attractiveness of these formats is offered that draws on the concept of “flexible normalism” and further specifies the latent functions of these formats sociologically. Finally, with a look at current cringe comedy, it is elaborated that the use of cringe as made in Wife Swap is a very restricted and truncated variety of this phenomenon. Cringe in a comprehensive sense, meanwhile, turns out to be a reflexive resource based on an unresolved ambiguity of multiple and often intersecting attributions. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
Article
Cringe Histories: Harold Pinter and the Steptoes
Humanities 2021, 10(2), 83; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10020083 - 16 Jun 2021
Viewed by 929
Abstract
This article argues that cringe humour in British television had begun at least by the early 1960s and derived from a theatre history in which conventions of Naturalism were modified by emergent British writers working with European avant-garde motifs. The article makes the [...] Read more.
This article argues that cringe humour in British television had begun at least by the early 1960s and derived from a theatre history in which conventions of Naturalism were modified by emergent British writers working with European avant-garde motifs. The article makes the case by analysing the importance of cringe to the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, tracing its form and themes back to the ‘comedy of menace’ and ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ emblematised by the early work of playwright Harold Pinter. The article links the play that made Pinter’s reputation, The Birthday Party, to dramatic tropes and social commentary identified in Steptoe and Son and in other British sitcoms with cringe elements. The analysis not only discusses relationships between the different dramatic works on stage and screen but also pursues some of the other connections between sitcom and Pinter’s drama via networks of actors and contemporaneous discourses of critical commentary. It assesses the political stakes of cringe as a comic form, particularly the failure of cringe to impel political activism, and places this in the context of the repeated broadcast of Pinter’s plays and episodes of Steptoe and Son over an extended period. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
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Review

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Review
A Psychological Perspective on Vicarious Embarrassment and Shame in the Context of Cringe Humor
Humanities 2021, 10(4), 110; https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040110 - 08 Oct 2021
Viewed by 932
Abstract
Cringe humor combines the seemingly opposite emotional experiences of amusement and embarrassment due to others’ transgressions of norms. Psychological theories and empirical studies on these emotional reactions in response to others’ transgressions of social norms have mostly focused on embarrassment and shame. Here, [...] Read more.
Cringe humor combines the seemingly opposite emotional experiences of amusement and embarrassment due to others’ transgressions of norms. Psychological theories and empirical studies on these emotional reactions in response to others’ transgressions of social norms have mostly focused on embarrassment and shame. Here, we build on this literature, aiming to present a novel perspective on cringe humor. To do so, we introduce the psychological literature on embarrassment and shame, as well as the processes involved that allow humans to also experience these emotions on behalf of others, and draw theoretical links to cringe comedy. We then systematically disentangle contexts in which audiences experience vicarious embarrassment, and structure our argument based on the ongoing processes and consequences of the observed transgressions of norms based on the constituting dimensions of awareness and intentionality of the normative transgression by the social target. We describe how the behavioral expressions of the target along with the social distance and the current motivations of the audience shape the emotional experience and negotiation of social norms, specifically in response to intentional normative transgressions. While this perspective makes it evident that cringe humor is closely linked to the debate around social normative standards between the actor/actress and the audience, we conclude that the different manifestations and specific situational characteristics have fundamentally different consequences for the affirmation or renegotiation of social normative standards. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Media and Politics in the Age of Cringe)
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