I'd been looking for a word to describe the state of television today, and shock didn't seem to really succeed as the right one. And then, while listening to This American Life today, they said it: cringe. Today's TV programs make you cringe. What the program addressed specifically, as I do here, were "real-life" programs like Real World and Survivor and others that focus on non-actors set in actor-like scenarios and the camera captures the reactions. And then it occured to me: these shows indeed made me cringe.

This is the response the companies that put out these shows are gearing for, in addition to shock or surprise. By cringing, we relate to the characters, either by mockery, sympathy or empathy. The reaction is similar to overhearing an argument at a restaurant or witnessing any moment where people lose their cool and show their true selves. We never want to be those people, but we certainly have no problems watching other people do it every Thursday at 9 o'clock. It's that "Oh my God, I can't believe she just did that" reaction to other people's most embarrassing moments, which are usually embarrassing to everyone else but them and therefore makes it amusing.

In high school, I brought a video camera for a few days before Christmas break. It was an odd thing, considering how unpopular I was, but that didn't stop everyone from hamming it up when the camera was pointed at them. It must be hard when a camera is stuck in your face, to not make an ass out of yourself, even though, I think, that's exactly the response these producers are looking for. They're looking for the weaknesses in human nature, just as we subconsciously look for them in others. This is one of many ugly sides to people, the urge to mask the truth about ourselves while revealing the ugliness of other people. And yet, some connection is made between us and the people on the screen, though I'm sure we're thankful it's them and not us.

Maybe in a way, cringing is healthy for us to do in front of the TV, or maybe a bit more healthy than simply being disgusted or embarrassed for what we're seeing. We've gone from shock effect to cringing. My word, what will be next?

Cringe (kr?nj), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Crnged (kr?njd); p. pr. & vb. n. Cringing.] [As. crincgang, cringan, crincan, to jield, fall; akin to E. crank.]

To draw one's self together as in fear or servility; to bend or crouch with base humility; to wince; hence; to make court in a degrading manner; to fawn.

When they were come up to the place where the lions were, the boys that went before were glad to cringe behind, for they were afraid of the lions. Bunyan.

Sly hypocrite, . . . who more than thou Once fawned and cringed, and servilely adored Heaven's awful monarch? Milton.

Flatterers . . . are always bowing and cringing. Arbuthnot.

 

© Webster 1913.


Cringe, v. t.

To contract; to draw together; to cause to shrink or wrinkle; to distort.

[Obs.]

Till like a boy you see him cringe his face, And whine aloud for mercy. Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.


Cringe, n.

Servile civility; fawning; a shrinking or bowing, as in fear or servility.

"With cringe and shrug, and bow obsequious."

Cowper.

 

© Webster 1913.

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