Last week, Sarah wrote a funny, accurate article about the show Girls (and if you’ve ever wondered what talking to the girl in the dance videos is like, you now have a very good idea). She’s right too: people love to bitch about Girls. It’s the hip thing to bitch about. When the show first came out, I was actually a firm supporter the program. There was a ton of press about how the show was racist because, in the very first episode, there were no black people. Seriously? It’s a show about entitled white girls. Why does there need to be a black person in it? I’m not complaining when some Chinese kung-fu show lacks white people. Get over yourselves. It was only the pilot. Why not let the series develop a little bit before you start smearing it all over the press? Or perhaps the show was shattering a little too much of your own entitled white girl self-delusion, making you uncomfortable by revealing to you just how vapid your life is? Or maybe you are just insanely jealous of how successful Lena Dunham’s been?
Whatever the reason people had, all the negativity toward the show left a really bad taste in my mouth. I was prepared to be a big fan of the show, even though by all rights I am literally terrible at watching TV shows. Perhaps this one would be different! And then I saw an episode.
At about the 15-minute mark in the first episode, I found myself yelling at the TV. Why?
It all comes down to what I call secondhand embarrassment.
secondhand embarrassment (ˈse-kən(d)-ˈhand im-ˈber-ə-smənt)
The unpleasant sensation of feeling shame, self-consciousness, or awkwardness for someone else who is too naïve, stupid, or just plain unaware to recognize that they should be feeling shame, self-consciousness, awkwardness, or some combination of the three.
I am not sure when I started calling this sensation I’d been feeling my whole life “secondhand embarrassment”. I seem to remember my brother Charlie saying it once, but it came up in conversation years later and he didn’t remember hearing it before. Maybe I got it from my older brother Mike. He’s usually pretty sharp with the neologisms. We have friends who call the feeling “the twingles”, which is a cute name, but betrays the true depth of anguish it causes me.
Regardless of its source, secondhand embarrassment is one of my most unpleasant feelings and will quickly ruin any film or television show I am watching. It is not funny when writers rely on putting characters into mortifying situations to generate laughs; it’s mean-spirited and lazy. Instead of making a joke or some clever turn of phrase, they put some hapless character into a situation for the audience to laugh at. I don’t want to laugh at someone too stupid to recognize they should be embarrassed, I want to laugh with someone because they have excellent timing and do something unexpected. It is the comedy equivalent of using an overheard conversation to create dramatic tension. Lazy lazy lazy.
The other night we were watching I Love You, Man and I spent the half of the film we made it through hiding. That movie is the perfect example of the sort of thing that fills me with secondhand embarrassment. Oh, Paul Rudd is a socially inept boob who fucks up every single conversation he has with another man! Hilarious! So clever! Give him the Oscar! Sure, I had a few chuckles, but the film was so unbearable overall that we turned it off. Right in the middle. And I didn’t care. I didn’t once find myself thinking, I wonder what is going to happen to Paul Rudd’s character? Will he make friends? I didn’t care in the slightest. I was so embarrassed for everyone in that film that I would rather die than watch the rest to find out.
Ok, I’m being hyperbolic. I’d rather cut three fingers off my right hand than watch the end to find out.
Another prime example of the sort of schlock that makes me cringe can be found in reality TV. Pretty much all of it. The first episode of this season’s Bachelor was so painful, I spent half the episode pacing around the apartment, busying myself, doing the dishes, tidying up the fridge, because I could not stand to watch the idiot women make fools of themselves in front of the blonde, white bread lead of the show. The woman who came out in a wedding dress?! Or the one who tried to do backflips—BUT COULDN’T?! Oh Christ, deliver me from that sort of hell.
A good non-tv/film example is during any poetry slam. Any poetry slam. Oh my god. Even the phrase “poetry slam” makes me embarrassed for people who take them seriously. Do people still do those fucking things or did we leave them to die in the 90s?
I can sit through just about anything else. Horror movies? No problem. Documentaries about people on death row? Easy! Ken Burns films with soft narration and banjo music? Bring ’em on. But put me in front of something where I feel embarrassed for someone who should be feeling embarrassed but does not and I’ll do anything I can not to sit through it.
Bringing it back to Girls, I spent so much of that one episode being mortified for all the characters that it actually made me angry like a parent getting angry at their child for being a fucking asshole. I shouted at them to correct their behavior. To grow up! Get real! Get a job, you lazy sack of shit! As a reaction, it’s different but ultimately similar enough to secondhand embarrassment that it’s worth lumping together. Indeed, they are close enough that Sarah’s post and a few other recent cinematic experiences got my brain churning on the topic.
Look, I know I’m not the target demographic for The Bachelor or most other reality TV. Maybe I am for I Love You, Man, but that is probably debatable. Those shows and that film are just a couple of example of this offense. I am sure that you, kind reader, have had many moments when you have experienced the shame that someone else should be feeling. The point is putting characters into situations that only serve to allow the audience laugh at them like a bully who has just pushed a smaller kid down on the playground is piss poor comedy and lazy writing. From the moment I was empathetic enough to feel embarrassed for people on the screen, I’ve been unable to sit through this crap and I don’t see it changing any time soon.