Storytelling — Cringe and the Banality of Shadows

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Narrativium

Thinking about cringe comedy recently, it struck me that the genre is built around characters who are entirely driven by their shadows, and draws its comedic power from the sheer banality of the unconscious inner lives thus revealed. An example is the character of Mick played by Caitlin Olson on The Mick. Olson played a similar character named Dee on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Cringe characters of this type can be traced back nearly two decades to characters like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, through several characters on The Office to modern incarnations. While cringe is an old element of comedy (you can find healthy doses in Chaplin), cringe as the defining trait of the (prototypically female, or somewhat feminized male) protagonist seems to be a 2010s phenomenon. The fully-realized form seems to have emerged around 2013. Not coincidentally, this was right after The Office ended. Arguably, that show was proto-cringe. Bleeding edge comedies between 2000 and 2012 gradually refined cringe-based narrative, leading up to modern examples.

The idea that a shadow can drive an entire character complicates Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which is usually understood as a structure with its middle half being buried in the shadow realm (of both the outer and inner worlds of the protagonist). A cringe character basically never leaves the shadow realm, so there is no heroism in venturing there, and no hope of ever making it back. The cringe self is not a redemptive self.

The signature trait of cringe characters is being smart in a shallow, low-cunning sort of way, but unable to resist an overpowering drive to do consequentially dumb, jackass-grade things, and then having to deal with the consequences. It’s all tactics in service of unexamined impulses, with poor emotional regulation and social self-awareness. Pure id with profoundly malfunctioning superego and missing-in-action ego.

But what truly makes cringe is not that you’re watching a train wreck unfold, but that the train wreck is meaningless. It is sound and fury signifying nothing. There is no grand truth, either personal or universal, being tragically unveiled by cringe. Nobody learns anything because there’s nothing much to learn, even though there is plenty to lose. Cringe is the spectacle of graceless and unnecessary self-destruction that serves no lofty, ennobling purpose. It’s just stuff reasonable people would figure out how to avoid.

Shadow-driven cringe characters are not like other shadow-driven characters in fiction. They are not antiheroes, villains, or serial killers with a tinge of dark tragedy about them. They are not allegorical fantasy characters like Jekyll’s Hyde, Batman’s Joker, or Eddie Brock’s Venom. Above all, the shadow that reveals itself through cringe is not a coherent being at all, comparable to the conscious self.

The cringe character subverts the conceit of stylized portrayals of shadow-driven beings — that the shadow, even if not integrated with the conscious self, is somehow integrated all by itself, with its own story to tell.

Cringe invites us to entertain the possibility that the shadow is a fragmentary pile of banal little things with no larger meaning associated with it, let alone a narrative drive of its own. That it is not One Big unconscious thing that has grown around a central repressed aspect of the self, but a thousand little things which add up to nothing. That what Dexter ponderously referred to as a “dark passenger” is more like an embarrassing lice infestation that makes you itchy. That any life meanings laboriously extracted through shadow work are not really worth it.

Let’s set aside storytelling and dive into the psychology of it for a bit.

***

I think the implied theory of the psyche revealed by cringe stories is in fact true in the typical case. This is perhaps why traditional psychoanalysis floundered: it went looking for One Big Thing, the inner hedgehog demon, when the shadow was mostly many little things. Seeking to understand the shadow through its projections is futile because there’s no there there. No overall gestalt that can cohere into a single illuminating insight into the unconscious, leading on to integration. Nothing for a story to be about, let alone for it to have meaning.

The idea that insights like “Aha, I’m still trying to prove myself to my mother, which is why I’m doing such and such self-destructive thing now” are lying buried, waiting to be uncovered and processed, is not even wrong. For almost everybody, a deep dive into the unconscious amounts to a exploring a thousand diverging bunnytrails, almost all of which will appear insignificant in the light of critical, conscious attention. That they shape behavior consequentially, or that they are laden with powerful emotions, does not make them actually significant in any narrative that might be recovered.

There is an approximately accurate mental model of shadows I find useful to work with — your shadow is the union of all your pushable buttons, and that’s all it is. So long as you have a single button left that anyone can push, you haven’t integrated fully your shadow in the Jungian sense. You can reconcile this with the common “buried demons” mental model of the shadow by thinking of each button as triggering a specific little demon. And they are mostly genuinely little. And harmless. Not big, mysterious demons that drive you to serial killing. Of course, there may be major ones too, like the button that when pushed unleashes a Hulk-like rage because it’s hooked up to the demon of some unprocessed schoolyard bullying. But the shadow is mostly the long tail (heh!) of smaller demons. The larger, more charismatic demons get all the attention, but they’re not that important, and mostly not even real.

For most people, the shadow is just a large swarm of small demons with no grand unifying boss demon lurking behind them, waiting to battle you in your final boss-battle psychotherapy session. Put another way, the heroic dragon-slaying model of inner work, which is supposedly the wellspring of Hero’s Journey mythologies, is basically wrong.

The button model does more than offer a different ontology of your unconscious menagerie of demons. It calls into question the whole Freudian-Jungian project of interrogating and integrating your unconscious (and secondarily, the project of making up externalized Campbellian mythologies out of what you find).

To the extent that much of the shadow is unimportant and banal, it’s not clear that this is a useful kind of project, representing any kind of interesting personal growth that makes you a more effective, fulfilled human. The more practical engineering solution — a triage in early adulthood to tackle major demons if any, followed by simply covering up your minor buttons as they become apparent, and making sure they’re only available to trusted intimates to push — might be more strategically sound.

Life is short, the universe is big and interesting. The innards of your psyche are only a small fraction of it, even though they are uniquely yours. Every minute you spend chasing down some unimportant inner demon is a minute you’re not spending doing one of the many other interesting things the world offers.

The older I get, the more skeptical I get of the idea that integrating the shadow (understood in terms of the most generously coherent reading the idea admits, murky allegories and all) is a self-evidently good thing to pursue. Most people who try are going to find out what they probably already suspected — the innards of their psyche are not particularly unique or interesting, and the rewards of integrating the shadow are not particularly superior to triaging your inner life and getting on with your outer life.

The older I get, the more I suspect that solemn, self-important, inward turns, focused on some sacred ideal of “inner work” comprising meditative contemplation, trauma processing, and so on, is an escape from the generally harder challenges of dealing with the outside world with grace, without waiting to achieve some iPhone-like ideal of vertically integrated inner perfection.

As with everything, mediocrity is a surprisingly interesting standard to aspire to in inner life and spiritual striving. It is certainly a standard that has has served me well enough. In my 20s and early 30s, I eliminated a couple of larger buttons, covered up several others that were dangerous to expose to the world as part of my public API, and reached a sort of mediocre detente (“I won’t push your buttons if you don’t push mine”) with my wife around those that seemed like too much work for too little reward to work out, but too hard to hide or protect in an intimate relationship.

I had a semi-facetious twitter thread recently about this aspect of it, arguing that the business-world concept of vertical and horizontal integration could be usefully adapted and applied to shadow-spelunking. “Integrating your shadow” in the traditional sense is something like a vertical integration project. I ended that thread with the quip that “self actualization is for insects” (a reference to the Competent Man trope crystalized by the famous Heinlein “specialization is for insects” line).

Setting aside my likely unpopular opinions on Quixotic spiritual questing, I want to get back to the broad phenomenology around cringe storytelling.

***

In terms of this “union of buttons” model, cringe characters can be understood as “mostly buttons.” A cringe character is someone who has done almost no triage. They have not processed major buttons, or covered up minor ones. They have reached no detentes with intimates around button-pushing. Their presence in the world is a frenzy of having their buttons pushed, and pushing others’ buttons. It is an ignoble life of misguided other-regarding cognitions and behaviors governed by what Ben Hunt calls sheep logic. This incidentally puts an interesting spin on “sheeple” as a slur. The mark of being sheep-like is not mindless deference to wolfish authority, but a cringe obsession with other sheep, marked by the exercise of extreme cunning in service of extreme banality. But that’s neither here nor there.

To be clear, this type of cringe character is unrealistic in the modern adult world. You cannot actually function this way outside of highly protected contexts where others are striving mightily to cover for you. But the cringe character archetype is interesting because of what its emergence says about the world.

As I noted earlier, interestingly, nearly all the best recent examples of cringe characters are female and comic. Besides the Mick, we have the leads of Fleabag, Broad Street, and several other shows I’ve noted in passing (I’m not particularly a fan of the genre; I just find it interesting that it is so prominent right now). I don’t think this is an accident. It is harder to present male characters as cringe as opposed to merely stupid (this is part of what made The Office so special) because there is greater pressure on men to present a coherent psyche in public. Men have no good excuses to not use reason when it makes sense to do so. Men are more free, less protected, and have less license to be vulnerable or unreasoning (hence the accurate observation that “men would rather do X bizarre thing than go to therapy,” a stereotype featured in a recent Ted Lasso plot arc).

Another way to understand why cringe is presented as essentially feminine in modern storytelling is to note that the formula I opened with — pure id with profoundly malfunctioning superego and missing-in-action ego — is a picture of a character whose capacity for reason has been suppressed or forced to present in distorted ways by a patriarchal society. Men are allowed and expected to reason, and are afforded opportunities to get good at it. They can also fail by reasoning poorly. The irrationality of the comic hero is stupidity.

Women must only use reason on the down-low, and are not afforded as many opportunities to get good at it. When they succeed despite these constraints, their intellectual capabilities present as uncanny intuitiveness (worked into, for example, the characterization of the mysterious Bene Gesserit sisterhood in the Dune novels). But they can also fail to reason at all. The irrationality of the comic heroine is unreason rather than stupidity. A stupid character is one whose inability to reason is clearly on display. A cringe character is one whose reasoning abilities are rarely put to the test at all. Unlike men, women are rarely portrayed as stupid (Elaine on Seinfeld is a notable example).

Viewed that way, feminine cringe is an update to the old trope of women as capricious, flighty, and temperamental, except that the traits have been moved from the dramatic to the comic register. The characters are also written with modern levels of agency for women, and offer more room for development. And without idealized male “reason” being presented as a contrast, cringe can point to things beyond just feminine character traits.

The typical cringe character is written as a single, childless, independent, hot mess of a woman, but this says as much about society as about her. She usually runs with a crew that includes unheroic and stupid, but pompous and self-important men. If children are present in the plot, she has trouble relating to them in any sort of maternal or nurturing way.

This description suggests that the cringe heroine is also a comic anti-heroine. Specifically, she is a fully realized comic form of the maladjusted party girl Sonya Mann proposed as the right archetype for anti-heroines. The difference is, where there are darkly coherent depths to the dramatic maladjusted party girl (such as a history of abuse perhaps), the cringe heroine has no such depths to her. Sonya’s model draws from Haley Thurston’s model of the heroine’s journey as a battle to endure the vicissitudes of fate in-place rather than to chase after adventure:

The Heroine’s Journey is about learning to suffer, endure, and be subjected to indignity while maintaining grace, composure, and patience. While most heroic stories involve some element of perseverance and strength of will, what makes Heroine’s Journey stories different is that a heroine’s perseverance is tested not to see whether she can persevere to achieve a separate goal, but rather simply to see if she can persevere, period. When you lay it out like that, it’s pretty hard to see the Heroine’s Journey as fundamentally heroic, to which I say: well yeah.

The Thurston-Mann model is an attempt to construct a coherent narrative template for heroines while still drawing on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey for the primary governing logic. Viewed in light of this model, the cringe heroine represents a failure to cohere into functional personhood, due to a basic weakness of character rather than backstory “causes.”

This is a good lens on it for narrative set in traditional milieus, but in more liberal, modern settings, where women have more agency, it may be better to discard Campbellian frames of reference altogether. One way to do that is to relate cringe to Ursula Le Guin’s carrier bag model.

The essence of Le Guin’s model is the construction of women as the highly responsible stewards of the essential work of maintaining continuity in life and community. They are the quintessential infinite game players who play to continue the game. Where self-aggrandizing males go off to kill (mostly illusory) dragons, neglecting their societal duties for useless glory winning finite games, the Le Guin heroine does not go on a journey at all, but stays in her community, enmeshed in mutuality, entangled in community life, and fulfilling duties defined by various roles. It’s not that she is reducible to a set of roles (daughter, mother, wife) but that naively individualistic men are reduced by their ill-conceived breaks from the group (“to be whole is to be part” is a mantra in one The Dispossessed). This more positive view of women is not necessarily in contradiction with Haley Thurston’s model of the heroine. You can unify the two by noting that in a society where women are repressed enough, the Le Guin heroine must necessarily turn into the Thurston heroine.

The mark of the Campbellian hero is the sword. The mark of the Le Guin heroine is the carrier bag — for carrying gathered berries literally, and relationships, memories, and communal wealth metaphorically. If the bumbling Campbellian comic hero clumsily drops his sword during a crucial battle, the bumbling Le Guin cringe heroine clumsily drops her handbag in a socially crucial situation, spilling all manner of embarrassing contents.

The cringe anti-heroine is some mix of a Thurston-Mann”maladjusted party girl” and an anti-Le-Guinian “failed carrier bag.” She causes a drunken scene at the party. She leaks and spills out awkwardly from the carrier bag.

The web of mutuality, instead of being a wonderful kind of belonging to a larger social reality across space and time, turns into an awkward and poorly navigated tangle.

It’s not that the ties that bind also oppress or chafe, or that the cringe heroine wants to flee from them like a Campbellian dragon-slaying hero. The cringe heroine is often eager to integrate into her social environment like her more put-together sisters and goes to great lengths to do so.

She wants to present a picture of “grace, composure, and patience,” but is simply not up to the challenge.

But, in the modern cringe mode, it is less a failure of character, and more a failure of society to make coherent demands of those who want to solve for dignity.

***

Why cringe, why now?

I suspect modern cringe comedy is a view of the unraveling of late neoliberal society from the point of view of an ordinary, mediocre woman.

Talented women who are good at solving for “grace, composure, and patience” in healthy societies make for positive, nurturing characters in both Campbellian and carrier-bag stories. The new Star Wars trilogy strives but mostly fails to deliver a portrait of the latter kind of society. Perhaps a good cinematic treatment of Le Guin’s Dispossessed will pull that off.

Talented women who are good at solving for “grace, composure, and patience” despite the incoherence of what that means (in either a failing patriarchal society or a failing carrier-bag society) turn into dark gothic characters holding indefensible societies together. Matriarch characters are often portrayed this way. An interesting recent example is the Asian matriarch, Eleanor Young, portrayed by Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians.

Whether you use Campbellian or Le Guin frames, the cringe character fails equally to rise to the challenge of “grace, composure, and patience.” In a healthy society, that reflects poorly on them. In an unhealthy one, it reflects poorly on society, and presents cringe as a kind of quixotic courage in the face of an insane world.

And in failing she reveals more than her own weaknesses of character and the banality of her shadow. She also reveals the vacuity of the world itself, and the banality of its shadow.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Matthew Dicks

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Terrific, thoughtful piece. While reading toward the end, Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids occurred to me as another interesting case study of the anti-heroine, though seemingly somewhere in between a healthy and unhealthy society.

  2. “A life that makes any kind of rational sense is for insects.”

  3. So a heroic journey is a B-student getting an A; a comedy is a B-student getting a C that one time; a tragedy is a B-student getting an D; a cringe story is a student that tries really hard and still gets D’s. I’m curious when the shift happened to good effort, poor results being cringe; Rudy Reuttiger, a football player who tried really hard and was still a “D” player, was an inspiration to others. You would think that in a world of participation trophies, earnestly trying would be rewarded. Or maybe it is a late-model civilization archetype—with participation trophies, the “tries hard but incompetent” persona is more visible (in growing civilizations these types would just be removed from the team), thus leading to more art representing that lived experience.

  4. jimmymcnulty says

    Happy birthday to John Krasinski!
    Who are the cringe characters on The Office?
    Michael, Dwight, Angela, Pam are my guesses.

  5. Anonymoose Rex says

    @ Henry D

    I suspect Participation Trophies came about as an attempt to compensate for a more and more competitive model. To conceal the utter competition underneath everything mawkish egalitarian traditions had to be cultivated. Prior to this “good effort’ didn’t count for nothing in the eyes of others so only heart-felt participation was rewarded.

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