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Why We Find Cringe Couples Fascinating

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Apr 6, 2022

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Image Credit: Getty

A bizarre moment is underway in the celebrity zeitgeist: many are coupled up, and most are undeniably cringe. It’s not so much the fact that there’s a lot of PDA — it’s also the unabashedness in it. Take Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker — who reportedly concluded their nuptials on Tuesday — kissing with tongue at all the latest award functions. It’s not so much the kissing or the tongue, per se, either: it’s the deliberate poise in the moment of intimacy that makes us unable to tear ourselves away. A sly hint of a smile plays at the corners of their otherwise engaged mouths as cameras flash wildly away.

The other gold standard in celebrity couple cringe, of course, is Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly — both of whom are in the exact same category as Kardashian and Barker. The hot girlfriend-tattoo boyfriend, or the good girl-bad boy pairing is seemingly back in vogue — but not without a healthy dose of cringe.

But it’s not all tattoos and tongues. Meghan Trainor infamously revealed that she and her husband installed toilets next to one another. Exasperated members of the public started a petition to get Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to stop oversharing details about their marriage. Closer home, a clip of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt recently went viral, where the two coyly complimented each other in innuendo and euphemisms meant to keep audiences in on the flirtation.

What all the couples have in common is their complete and utter lack of self-consciousness. It’s a bit like looking at roadkill: it’s nauseating but hard to look away from. And yet, the fact that it happens in the public eye is a curiously post-pandemic phenomenon that deviates from the usual norm of celebrities keeping their private lives and moments of intimacy notoriously under wraps. Where the latter once added to their appeal and bestowed an aura of mystique, cringe coupledom has now emerged as the new “it” factor in celebrity pairings that keeps the media mill churning, and the interest alive. After a time when many suffered from touch-starvation and physical acts of closeness were potentially lethal, the excess PDA, copious oversharing, and cloying closeness stand out in terms of their sheer novelty and newness.


Related on The Swaddle:

Why Do We Cringe?


It also has to do with how we perceive public intimacy in general. “People tend to be more accepting of PDA when it’s done in appropriate settings,” Karen Blair, assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University, explained to Vice. Outside of this context, people react less favorably since they feel like an unwilling member of the action — literally. When celebrities indulge a little too freely in smooching or courting, it grates the eyes and ears because not only are we forced to witness it, but it’s also part of their PR machinery at play. As the “It” couples capture everyone’s curiosity, the Megan Foxes and MGKs of the world have a brand identity to live up to: being part of the slightly off-kilter couples who aren’t afraid to show it.

Witnessing this kind of self-aware PDA from celebrities generates one of two responses: cringe, or judgement, or both in equal measure. Together, they make for fascination — how is it that people are willing to put a vulnerable moment in such a big spotlight? “Perhaps it’s because romantic relationships demand a certain level of vulnerability that we find fascinating,” Refinery29 notes about the phenomenon. This question gets to the very heart of what cringing is and why we do it. It is a form of second-hand embarrassment, empathy, compassion, or scorn — either all at once, or any combination of them. With celebrities, there is an added layer of unattainability that cloaks their image, making the contempt even easier to express.

“What we cringe at plays a pivotal role in how we perceive the world,” wrote Aditi Murti for The Swaddle. In the attention economy, all this makes for a profitable enterprise. It is in celebrities’ interest to give the people what they want, and what the people want is to admire and judge in equal measure.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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