Welcome To The Era Of 'Awkward'

Remember when "random" became a catchall term, meaning anything from "silly" to "upsetting?" Well, now it's being unseated — by "awkward."

I first got a glimpse of this disturbing phenomenon at a screening of the highly acclaimed film Paranormal Activity 2. The haunted house lay silent in the middle of the night, and then slowly, ever so slowly, a door creaked open, pushed by a ghostly hand. While the rest of us trembled in (admittedly mild) terror, one viewer shouted, "Awk-ward!" I laughed, in part because it's funny when someone yells something in the silent theater, and in part because it was such an absurd thing to yell. Hauntings are a lot of things — creepy, unnerving, often implausible — but they aren't awkward.

Fast forward to today, when a photo titled "Awkward Justin Bieber Fan" arrived in my inbox. The (very NSFW) image depicts a young woman caressing the inflatable dick of a blowup Justin Bieber doll, while surrounded by sex toys and supplementary photographs of Bieber. I guess it's supposed to be awkward because someone caught her in her love shrine, but that's really not the photo's most important characteristic. It's gross. It's horrifying. Okay, it's a little funny. And "awkward" has become an all-purpose term to describe all these and more.

Witness Awkward Family Photos, which plays — often expertly — on the humor of old photos taken out of context. Some of the photos are genuinely awkward, but many are just strange, goofy, or sort of icky. Within these ladies, for instance. They are loving their Men in Black harem outfits and matching space pistols. They look silly, but they don't look awkward at all.

According to Merriam-Webster, "awkward" means "lacking ease or grace (as of movement or expression)," "lacking social grace and assurance," or "causing embarrassment." The third definition seems to be the one at play in Awkward Family Photos, but really, who's embarrassed there? Frequently, it's not the subjects, who are smiling back at the camera in blithe unawareness of their weirdness. Instead, I think it's supposed to be the viewer.

Get More: Awkward., MTV Shows

Take another example: new MTV show Awkward, in which "an unpopular 15 year old gains immediate, yet unwanted, popularity at her high school when the student body mistakes an accident she has for a suicide attempt." In the webisode at left, guidance counselor Valerie generously explains to students that they can "slip your questions, concerns, mistakes right into my V-box" because "my box is a safe place for you to explore. Who's embarrassed now? Not Val, who's cluelessly grinning as only an out-of-touch grownup can. Nope, it's us — we are experiencing the combined giggle and cringe that seems to be the desired result of today's "awkward" humor. From blowup Bieber to topless families in jeans to the endless uncomfortable situations of Bridesmaids, we appear to have entered an era of embarrassment humor in which we are both beneficiaries and victims.

Is there something about the early 21st century that makes us want to pay for our laughs with a wince? Maybe a generation raised online has come of age with a sense of humor acutely attuned to embarrassment, to the ways that sharing one's identity with a large audience can lead inexorably to shame. Many of today's twenty- and thirtysomethings once put our diaries on the internet, where, in some cases, they can't be removed — we certainly know from cringing. Or maybe we're just seeing a resurgence of a trope that's always existed, that of laughing at a clumsy naif while inwardly whispering, "thank God it wasn't me." And remembering how easily it could've been.

The truth is, calling something "awkward" is an empathetic act. We know that Bieber fan is totally fucking weird. But we're putting ourselves in her shoes, recognizing how awful it would be if someone came upon us with whatever happens to be our equivalent of a teen-singer blowup doll. So while the overuse of "awkward" is imprecise and annoying and occasionally mystifying (Paranormal Acitivity? Really?), it's also kind of sweet.

Awkward Justin Bieber Fan (Very NSFW) [BuzzFeed]