CW: This article discusses topics of homophobia, transphobia and suicide which could be distressing to some readers.
A film that has gained a lot of recent attention, as with any film released by Pixar, is the recent animated feature 'Turning Red' on Disney+. The plot follows freshly-turned 13-year-old Mei Lee on her wacky coming of age battle with teenagehood. However here's the twist: Mei can turn into a giant red panda when her emotions become too excited. Director Domee Shi explicitly discusses in 'Embrace the Panda: Making Turning Red' how this transformation is a metaphor for "magical puberty".
When my friends expressed how much they enjoyed the film I was encouraged to watch it myself. I loved it. With all the key leadership roles on the film being women it was no surprise that it was one of the most accurate portrayals of being thirteen I had ever seen. From Mei drawing merman fanart under her bed to screaming all the songs from her favourite boyband ('4Town'), the teenage girls budding romantic feelings and sexuality are explored in a beautifully endearing way.
But not everyone agrees. There has been a polarising response to the film's explicit exploration of periods and crushes. I was surprised by the number of comments I saw online about people cringing at Mei's friend group singing or obsessing over their celebrity crushes. Domee Shi's message to "embrace the Panda" and love that 'socially unacceptable' part of yourself seemed to be lost on them.
All girls have liked or done things that they grow out of. My Tumblr blog that's collecting cobwebs is my own evidence of that. But why do people cringe when they see (especially teen) girls genuinely expressing and exploring their sexuality? And why do girls cringe at themselves?
A brief history of internet "Cringe Culture"
Urban Dictionary defines Cringe Culture as "the culture started on the internet of making fun of people and/or insulting them by calling them "cringey" or "cringe" for doing something that doesn't harm or somehow insult anyone or anything". The pinnacle of cringe culture was around 2016 with the popularity of Youtube Cringe Compilations focusing on debunking 'Social Justice Warriors' and teens exploring their gender and sexuality.
As someone who has grown up on Tumblr and uses Tiktok now, I have noticed the similarities in the sub-cultures both platforms have. Ali talks about how Tiktok differs from other mainstream social media.
"When we think back to our MySpace days, or early Facebook — anything we put out there, everyone else in our lives could see. But with TikTok, we’re just going through it and no one needs to know what is happening. No one needs to know that we’re browsing trans content or gay content, and for many young folks who don’t have control over their privacy, that’s the main dominant factor here. It’s just between you and TikTok."
Tiktok, like Tumblr was to my friends, encouraged a culture of privately expressing your interests in a way that did not need to be broadcasted to your wider social circle. It is like being a part of your own secret community.
It is because of this privacy that many LGBTQ+ subcultures formed online, all often being involved with the same kind of tv shows and music. These internet fandoms embraced being widely passionate about what you love in a way you might not be able to offline. It is easy to see why many LGBTQ+ or neurodivergent teens, who already felt like outsiders, would be drawn to anywhere they could freely express themselves.
From the ages of 14-17, I used Tumblr more than any other platform. I was obsessed with British Youtubers like 'Danisnotonfire', 'AmazingPhil' and 'Doddleoddle'. I had a side blog dedicated to Dodie Clark, and another joint blog for the cartoon 'Steven Universe' with my friend. All these interests fostered fanbases packed with LGBTQ+ people that encouraged me to explore my own sexuality and feel less ashamed of being my true weird self.
As for many fanbases surrounding adult men, Dan and Phil gained the reputation of being something that only teen girls were into because they found British men 'hot'. While this was mostly not the case, it does beg the question of why it would be a bad thing if true? In 'Turning Red', Mei drawing her crush in her notebook was inspired by Domee Shi's own teenage fanart of boys as well as the memories of the film crew being gripped by the rush of first love. What is it about an interest appealing to female desire that makes it less valuable or shallow?
You are cringy too
As Avni Shridhar states, because Cringe Culture targets those that are "harmless, just too awkward or earnest to exist on the ironic and sarcastic world of the internet" like minorities or children then it can foster self-hatred and repression.
"As a result of this bullying, no one is allowed to just have genuine interests anymore — it is safer to be ironic and cynical online. Cringe culture also encourages suicide jokes and self-hatred. People, especially children, are forced to limit their personal expression and creativity for fear of being included in a cringe compilation."
Because Cringe culture is related to the process of 'othering' those that do not socially fit in, we then can become uncomfortable ourselves when confronted by teens being authentic. Watching them being authentic reflects parts of yourself you have repressed that you fear makes you socially unacceptable. You realise you're just like them.
This is a trap I have fallen into myself. When I was younger I went through the classic 'I'm not like other girls' phase. I pretended to despise the colour pink and looked down on those who enjoyed rom-coms, dismissing the movies as fickle. What was actually happening was I invalidated other girls for liking stereotypically 'feminine' things because I did not like being vulnerable myself. I found it difficult to talk about my own crushes because I was afraid of being the very sort of girl people dismissed as ...well...cringey.
Ultimately, cringe begins with yourself. The takeaway from films like 'Turning Red' is to embrace those aspects of yourself that are deemed socially undesirable and to unconditionally love them anyway. So next time you wince at that girl doing a Tiktok dance question what parts of yourself you haven't allowed free. Give them some love too.