To be perceived is very clocky; and yet we transition to be perceived. Trans people have a dysphoric relation to perception: we want and fear it at the same time. Do you think I’m hot? Please do not perceive me. No wonder being clocked often gets expressed via metaphors around sight. TERFs do not “see” us as our gender. If you can pass at work, then you’re “stealth.”
Cringe is the gap between how others see you and how you want to be seen, opening up the tricky ambiguities of how you see yourself. In Cringeworthy, pop psych author Melissa Dahl defines the term as a “forced moment of self-awareness.” When you see yourself through someone else’s eyes, and notice that you aren’t living up to your own self-image? Cringe.
Trans people aren’t the only ones who cringe, but we might say that dysphoria has an especially cringey structure. What is deadnaming if not a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you? Cringe is thus so much more than self-relation; trans people cringe at each other constantly. In a video titled “Cringe,” YouTuber Natalie Wynn—otherwise known as Contrapoints—argues that cringe operates as a form of negative identification: we cringe at others when they remind us of what we hate in ourselves. Another way of putting this: trans people often cringe at each other dysphorically. This can make you wince, or it can make you feel good. For example, Wynn describes “morbid cringe” as the “reassurance that there’s someone out there worse than [you],” to which philosopher Jolene Zubrow adds: “someone out there worse at being you than you.” You cringe at someone clocky. You cringe, morbidly; thank God someone out there is clockier than you.
Morbid cringe at least forestalls envy. In Ugly Feelings (2005), Sianne Ngai argued that envy is vilified because it often expresses real material differences; with dysphoria, these differences are often bodily. You look at someone who passes better than you; you want everything they have. Per Ngai, dysphoric jealousy expresses the unequal distribution of resources. The whiter and richer you are, the easier it is to transition. While HRT is covered by insurance (although getting it is still time-consuming and complex), gender-affirming surgeries must usually be paid for out of pocket; some procedures, like FFS, are priced at 35k minimum. When you envy someone’s body, you’re envious, in a very real way, of how much money they have.
While TIME magazine dubbed 2014 the “Trans Tipping Point,” COVID has, at least on an anecdotal level, created a second boom in transition numbers. WFH information workers, newly freed from the office, quietly began medical transition en masse. Online, this is called being “quarantrans.” You would think that trans people might rejoice in this. Isn’t the goal of trans liberation, in part, about making transition more accessible? Yes; on the level of the ordinary, however, it’s more complex.
Because we live in a society, we are rewarded for choosing individualism over solidarity with the very people who—because of cringe’s identificatory structure—we have the most in common with. We are rewarded for punishing people for failing to meet social norms, and the reward is assimilation. Wynn tells us to each individually reclaim what is cringy about us, but this is only the first step. Since cringe operates as a form of social control, it can only be overcome collectively.
In its first usage, stemming circa 1570, to cringe meant “to bend or crouch, especially with servility or fear”; in the original usage, cringing is both unconscious—a jolting, full-body shudder—and a relation to power, an attempt to avoid harm (e.g. “he cringed away from the blow.”) While “cringe” was correlated with embarrassment by the late nineteenth century, “cringe” as we know it didn’t truly emerge until Epic Fails. In 2003, “Fail” first appeared in Urban Dictionary. A “fail” was either an interjection used “when one disapproves of something, or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of suck.” While the term was first popular among gamers, it was popularized via rightwing forums. Across 4chan threads and Something Awful posts, “fail” soon appeared in Lolcats image macros (which, stylistically, flowed from the “I can has cheezburger?” cat). On YouTube, “epic fail” compilations began to surface. Soon after, epic fail content was circulating on the mainstream internet. If cringe can be said to have a visual aesthetic, then it arguably emerged on tumblr.
When I asked my friend Sibyl No why trans content was popularized via tumblr instead of Twitter—which emerged contemporaneously—she replied, “Furry art and sex work.” Seems true enough. “deviant art / cate wurtz / quirky culture was stronger on tumblr,” Sibyl pointed out. Tumblr’s 2018 decision to ban “adult content” devastated sex workers—many of them trans—who for years had used the website to screen clients and advertise. As for furries, a thread called “Why are the so many bi/trans/gay furries?” offers various answers. A user called Ehksidian argues that the furry community is more open about sex and gender, making it a furtive place for anyone “experimenting.” Another poster, CantonWolf, points out that fursonas “allow one to explore their identity.” Both fursonas and transitioning allow people to craft entirely new selves via desire, friendship, body modification, and sex.
Since cringe began on tumblr, it is perhaps only fitting that the anti-cringe backlash began on tumblr as well. Up until then, “social justice warrior,” or “SJW” was a merely descriptive and sometimes even positive term. But in 2011, it first entered Urban Dictionary as a pejorative, defined as “an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.” The SJW was thus what Sianne Ngai might call a “gimmick,” working too little (via labor-saving tricks, like having opinions to get likes) and, simultaneously, working too much (straining to get your attention). Cringe.
The critics had a point: for the post-woke leftists, SJWs are cringe because of the gap between what they think they want (justice) and what they actually want (narcissistic supply). This is meant to be the “gotcha moment,” as the SJW p0wns they/themselves, “fighting” neoliberal individualism while perpetuating it. The problem with the post-woke approach, as Hannah Black points out in “Clout Theory,” is its sense of scale. For Black, clout theorists “can only imagine political commitments as social strategies. If you take out the possibility of real material, spiritual, or collective commitments—really existing in that they make experience real—all of history, indeed, starts to look like various forms of striving for the corniest forms of recognition.” Instead of seeing the pursuits of validation and social justice as two journeys whose side quests sometimes interlap, the clout theorist just sees striving.
This anti-SJW critique could thus be summed up by the statement “you’re not special”—not least because the anti-SJW critics say this to us all the time. “There are only so many pieces of the pie. So don’t take more than you deserve.” In some ways, they’re right. Most people’s piece of the pie is smaller than ever before, while the very few bloat with wealth. “Under authoritarian and supremacist regimes,” wrote Lauren Berlant in 2019, “one is supposed to earn the right to exist rather than to be respected and cultivated because they exist.” Instead of everyone being special, no one is. If, per Dahl, cringe is the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us, then the SJW is cringe for believing, not just in their specialness, but in specialness at all.
If they weren’t so vicious, we could pity them; all they know how to want is the democratization of misery. They’re desperate for…American Apparel. For them, American Apparel is the opposite of cringe. Instead of claiming to be special, it is self-consciously “generic”—in a way that, crucially, does not translate to “accessible,” considering that American Apparel was never size-inclusive and was always overpriced. And so the dream has come back, or sort of. To escape claims of serial sexual assault, the company goes by Los Angeles Apparel now. But the ads look the same. White women—shot with flash, half sexualized child, half Hitler Youth—wear cotton spandex body suits. “Indie sleaze” is euphemistic. A more accurate term, coined by artist and poet Precious Okoyomon, is “anorexic white supremacy.”
But instead of Hunger Games-ing crumbs, what if we all had surplus pie? Berlant rejects this race to the bottom, which is, unfortunately, all that the anti-SJW critic imagines for us. In the same 2019 interview, Berlant describes having recently watched a documentary about Mr. Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? They describe “the right-wing rage at Rogers’s insistence that each child is special and deserves the comfort of explanation about what’s overwhelming about life, even at the smallest scales.” Like all forms of lashing out, this “right-wing rage” is equal parts viciousness and lack. How can you be loved and cared for when I—who want love and care so badly—can’t seem to get it at all? But Berlant asks us to look up, to where our true enemies lie.
By which I mean: In the past few years, “cringe” has been weaponized by the right as a form of social control. Pulling language from Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant’s forthcoming Health Communism, we might say that the right uses cringe to demarcate surplus populations. Zooming in on the medical industrial complex, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant show how racial capitalism weaponizes health, disability, madness, and illness to create a “surplus” class (with the understanding that, especially in America, the contours of surplus population are shaped by anti-blackness first). Because their care is sometimes more expensive, and because they are often unable to work, the medical industrial complex’s “surplus” class is deemed a fiscal and social burden to “productive” citizens, a categorization which is then used to justify extraction and dominance. If there is significant overlap between this surplus class and the populations which the right finds cringey, this should not surprise us, because it’s on purpose. When the right calls individuals and/or whole populations “cringe-worthy,” they tell us who they think deserves access to the social body and its rapidly shrinking resources.
Applying a a Berlantian reading to the same problem, we might say that cringe euphemistically delimits who is “inconvenient” to the social reproduction of power. Like Adler-Bolton and Vierkant, Berlant looks at the problem of surplus populations from a macro level: “We know that, just by existing, historically subordinated populations are deemed inconvenient to the privileged who made them so.” While Health Communism approaches this problem via the medical industrial complex, Berlant uses affect theory and psychoanalysis to ask what it feels like, individually and interpersonally, to be deemed “inconvenient.” For Berlant, someone becomes an inconvenience, not just because of social determinants, but when they threaten your sense of sovereignty. That is: your fantasy of being in control, of yourself and others, at all times. It’s the “confused, reactive, often not-quite-thought view that there ought to be a solution to the pressure of adapting to ‘other people.’” Individual sovereignty, just like national sovereignty, is thus a toxic lie. And yet, when sovereignty is threatened by that which is inconvenient (or, for our purposes, “cringe”) people often act just like “sovereign” nations do: with scapegoating, punishment, elimination. “Sovereignty” Berlant writes, “is thus a fantasy of jurisdiction. It is a defense of entitlement, reference, and agency. Wounded sovereignty is, in some deep way, parallel to the concept of wounded narcissism.”
Following Adler-Bolton, Vierkant and Berlant, we can see how “cringe” is weaponized by the right to socially reproduce power. In 2014, YouTuber Guy T posted a video called “My beef with the (SJW) transgender community.” This was not the first time that transness and cringe were conflated. The cringe SJW archetype was always queer-coded, frequently typecast with visible markers of “queer identity” such as blue hair, tattoos, and…pronouns—which, almost as soon as they entered discourse, became a right-wing punching bag. When I spoke to Berlant in 2019, I asked them why this had occurred; they replied as follows:
Trans people are cast by some of the people they’re inconvenient to as inappropriately demanding, as in: How dare anyone outside the current settlement of normative social life demand to be the referent and to inconvenience other people’s casual relation to language, nature, taxonomy, gesture, and concept? Even the smallest claim, such as not to be addressed by one’s state-sanctioned name and the pronoun conventionally attached to it, has been called “too much.”
As usual, Berlant was right. While Guy T was equating “(SJW)” and “transgender,” TIME magazine was declaring 2014 the “transgender tipping point.” What does this tell us? That, as always, hyper-visibility can make you a star—or a moving target.
Cis journalist Jessie Singal’s 2018 Atlantic cover (and the “concerned” transphobic liberals who loved it) scrambles to craft these divisions in real time. “Your child says she’s trans,” bleats the cover text. “She wants hormones and surgery. She’s thirteen.” These words were inlaid over a washed out, red-lit photo of model Mina Brewer. The story seems to be about Brewer, but isn’t. Brewer—who, at the time, was twenty-two, and used they/them pronouns (he’s now a he)—enabled Singal and The Atlantic to moodboard liberalism’s acceptable vision of trans childhood: white; misguided and troubled, but innocent; deferential to concerned parents until legal adulthood (and, ideally, indefinitely).
Unfortunately, Singal and the Atlantic are not the only ones who seek to legislate “acceptable” transness. Representation matters, sure, but you only have to look at Kim Petras, Hunter Schafer, Hari Nef, Caitlyn Jenner, Dorian Electra, Demi Lovato and Elliot Page to see what kind of transgender American society favors. Even black trans women lauded by media, such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, must conform to standards of acceptability and a lack of political demands besides their own representation. On a similar note, RuPaul’s Drag Race provides a rare outlet for trans people of color, but only begrudgingly. While openly trans contestants can now compete, as recently as 2018, RuPaul (who identifies as a cis gay man) told the Guardian that he “probably” would not allow a trans woman on HRT to compete. “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” As these instances from celebrity culture reveal, transness could only be mainstreamed into American life if trans people could also be partitioned into those who could be assimilated and those who couldn’t. In other words, those who were surplus, inconvenient, cringe. Stars: they’re just like us.
Drawing from Adler-Bolton and Vierkant, we can see using assimilation to divide trans people into acceptable and surplus benefitted the political economy. In 2014, the American medical industrial complex was still reeling from the Great Recession. Unable to care for its cis patients without single-payer, a wave of trans patients seeking gender-affirming care could easily be posited as a threat. While the social determinants of health already mediated who could, for instance, access HRT and surgery, bullying tactics like “cringe” further culled this influx of possible patients. After all, medical transition is, to a large extent, treatment that you have to seek out—and this is hard to do if you feel like you don’t deserve it. If, for instance, you are constantly being told, by yourself and others, that you are cringe, not worth it, a burden, then how could you feel like transition was something you deserved? How could you justify it to yourself? You can’t, and so you don’t pursue it.
Not transitioning is often an act of agency, and should be respected as such. Not transitioning is often derided as a form of cowardice; but in life, it usually means that someone has decided what they can and cannot afford based on other factors such as race, class, ability, and their own mental health. But it is also true that many people actively want medical transition either don’t pursue or avoid it because they feel they don’t deserve it. Only the non-cringe trans people do.
In late 2019, months before the first COVID case entered the US, “do not perceive me” began to circulate as a meme phrase. “Do not perceive me” first began with a 2013 New York Times article by Tim Kreider, a man who, according to Know Your Meme, was “accidentally CC’d on an email by someone disapproving of his goats.” Devastated by this shocking turn of events (lol), Kreider wrote an emotive op-ed about being talked about behind your back. Love, he concludes, does not stem from ignorance; it means knowing a person’s flaws and caring for them anyway. “If we want the rewards of being loved,” Kreider wrote, “we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” The phrase “mortifying ordeal of being known” began to circulate on tumblr shortly thereafter.
By the time “do not perceive me” was circulating mimetically, the term’s meaning had also reversed. “Perceive me,” people wrote underneath sexy selfies. “[insert name] can have a little perception as a treat.” “Do not perceive me” expressed collective exhaustion with perception as digital immaterial labor. But “perceive me” was also just…fun. Besides: if you’re on the internet in any capacity—even if it’s “just for takes”—can you honestly tell yourself that you don’t like attention, too? Then quarantine began, and “do not perceive me” hit differently: now, no one could be perceived. In-person socializing was off-limits and employees wore masks at work. Craving perception—not just being looked at, but being seen in person, touched—just became a normal thing to talk about.
Quarantine had thrown a new wrench “do not perceive me” discourse, but trans people have arguably always had a messy relationship to being perceived. We avoid it, and yet we also juice our lives to be seen. Getting clocked feels bad, but being hot feels good. Moreover, as trans theorists have long pointed out, gender is reproduced socially. The more you change your body, the more people will see you the way you see yourself. And so we want both. Perceive me. I don’t want to be perceived. No wonder dysphoria is chaotic, expressing itself as self-sabotage, half of you running away as the other half runs towards a camera.
Considering this dialectic or dysphoric (lol) relation to perception, it’s no wonder that so many trans people came out during quarantine. Transition can be hard, expensive, and sometimes unsafe. But worst of all, it’s annoying. Awkwardly coming out to coworkers; getting misgendered by your own surgeon…It‘s all a bit cringe, don’t you think? But, newly freed from in-person labor, a micro-generation of “quarantrans”—who, notably, skewed white and well-off, just like the WFH demographic—fast-tracked transition’s grow-out phase at home.
A new micro-generation of trans people should have been the pandemic’s silver lining; it was experienced as cringe. Quarantransition revamped one of Trans Twitter’s favorite hobbies: Generational Discourse, in which those who are recently out and those who aren’t scoff at one another. For “elders,” newly hatched chicks are embarrassing: walking cliches who don’t realize that yet, but also, reminders of their own past, cringe-y selves. The newly transgendered know that’s a cringe thing to be, but at least they’re hot and young. Each side finds the other so cringe-y. The question is why.
Scholar Colby Gordon once tweeted that dysphoria was “a baffling combination of dissociation and hyper vigilance.” Building off fantastic recent scholarship on the links between dysphoria and dissociation, Gordon points out that if dysphoria makes you a space cadet, then it makes you a cop as well. Dissociation and hyper-vigilance do not just coexist—they’re codependent. To quote Gordon again, “So much of survival depends on inhabiting a state of not-knowing, a preventative strategy of cultivating a fog that occludes the obvious (‘I am trans,’ maybe, or more likely, ‘I would like to transition.’) The other side of this survival mechanism is to know precisely how every person in any given room you’re in feels about, say, the size of your hands.” Hyper-vigilance, as Gordon points out, is based around material conditions and fear: medically, it’s the extra-sensitivity to possible threats associated with traumatic events. But when perception is itself a threat, then you’re always on guard.
When dysphoric hyper-vigilance gets extended to others, you’re most likely to treat them the way you treat yourself: with cruelty. If you are, for instance, a trans man who is hyper-vigilant about your height —if, every time you meet a cis man, you measure him in your head, you can’t help it—of course you notice when trans man are short. If Contrapoints is right, and cringe is a form of negative identification, then perhaps trans people cringe at each other because we make each other dysphoric. It’s a largely unconscious and extremely individualized response. What a Frodo ass bitch, you think. Glancing at the other guy. Get chic running shoes. They’re like lifts but subtle. Idiot. If cis-heteronormativity deems trans people cringe, we also reify its hierarchies by cringing at each other. To some extent, you can’t help it. You can’t “fix” your unconscious mind. The problem, pulling from Contrapoints, is when cringe becomes morbid cringe: when we seek out other people to cringe at to make ourselves feel superior.
Of course, it’s hard not to: our political economy literally incentivizes morbid cringe. To quote my friend Melon, “In order to assimilate into dominant society, you gotta replicate its structures.” Morbid cringe is an inherently hierarchical gesture, placing the object of cringe beneath the person cringing. It therefore reifies dominant logics of scarcity, austerity and control. Talking about this is difficult. Andrea Long Chu’s work reminds us that mainstream (assimilationist) trans culture hates self-hate. But perhaps this topic is also difficult because it reflects divisions around race and class. To gloss Sianne Ngai points again, envy is vilified precisely because it reflects material differences. Dysphoria tells us what someone else has that we could never afford: a BBL, bottom surgery. In making us ashamed of our envy, the state disciplines us against wanting the good life.
Pretending you don’t want to be perceived is a dead end; but pursuing perception, no matter the cost, is toxic as well. The dysphoric desire for perception operates from scarcity. We’re always making up for lost time. Whenever you transitioned, it was too late. If you were shot from the womb and came out as trans immediately after, you’d still have to heal the primal wound of AFAB (assigned fetus at birth). Which is to say: it isn’t just about feeling beautiful; it’s about filling a void. Cramming plaster into the thumb tack holes of your mind. Pain can make people crazy. The desire to be perceived and fill dysphoric lack can (to pull language from earlier) be used to justify impunity. I will be beautiful/famous/validated, no matter who it hurts, no matter the cost. No wonder the trans people who do this are so often white. Whiteness is itself a form of impunity; it is psychic and material insulation from consequences. If only the good life that the trans assimilationists promised us was real. If it were, then being seen as you really are would be what we want it to be: enough.
With thanks to: Beatrice Adler-Bolton, Natalie Henry, Sibyl No, Ayesha Siddiqi, Gasira Timir, David Hobbs, McKenzie Wark, Artie Vierkant, Precious Okoyomon, Maxi Wallenhorst, Colby Gordon, Jackie Ess, Amber Later, Sam Bodrojan, the Death Panel Discord