On fictional fighting felines, and the flaws of cringe culture

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Ayaana Pradhan

‘Warrior Cats’, a 2003 book series, is often seen as “cringy” due to its young target audience, but in reality it has fans of all ages.

A couple years ago, I was in an animation class, working on projects that have ultimately been forgotten. While waiting for the computer to boot up, I pulled out a freshly-printed copy of River of Fire– which had been the newest release in the “Warrior Cats” book series at the time, and began to read.

The kid next to me curiously eyed the bright orange hardcover, which was adorned with a pair of tabbies fleeing a forest fire. “What is that?” they asked, trying to read the book’s blurb.

“Oh,” I said dismissively. “It’s a ‘Warrior Cats’ book.”

I had tried to be discreet, but the effort ultimately failed. “Who the [expletive] here still reads “Warriors”?” sneered a student two rows ahead of me, her eyes alight with disgust. There were dry snickers from the front- a teenager, reading a children’s series? How preposterous! How laughable! A jester before their court! The feeling of mockery stung at my fingertips, but in the end, it was business as usual.

And so, my complicated relationship with Erin Hunter, their books of practical cats, and my cringe-inducing love for the series continued.

“Warriors”, or “Warrior Cats” as it is more commonly called, is a series of children’s novels by a team of authors writing under the pen name Erin Hunter. The books center around warring factions of cats that live in a forest, and the conflicts that happen between these factions for generations on end. Despite the target audience, the plots of the books are very child-unfriendly; murder and mayhem dapple the pages of Hunter’s feline fantasy. Currently, there are over 100 “Warriors” books, with more on the way. 

However, as it stands, “Warrior Cats” is a children’s series. By the time one enters high school, “Warriors”, and the rest of the world of children’s novels, are meant to be shed like adderskin and forgotten in a hazy, nostalgic blur. The issue now with my love of “Warriors” is not anything to do with the books themselves. It is to do with how I am seen when I mention them.

And here is where we come to the core problem at hand- cringe culture. 

Caleb Clark, writing for StudyBreaks.com, describes cringe culture: “generally refers to a mockery of groups or activities that are harmless, awkward and/or too earnest… Targets exist on a spectrum from more innocent fun like cheesy performances and bad newscasts to more pointed jeers at groups like feminists. Especially popular subjects include celebrities, furries and TikTok users who take the app seriously.” 

Teenagers are especially poised for this kind of mockery. Not only did our generation of teens grow up with shows that often relied on cringe for comedy like The Office and Modern Family, but the cringe phenomenon is often directed at socially-awkward scenarios, which makes for a rocky explosion when combined with the strong social pressures for teenagers to blend into the crowd.

To take the heat off the constant need to blend in, teenagers often turn to others as a point of mockery. Sure, I may struggle with this, but at least I am not that person. Thus, those who do not conform, whether that is because they have interests considered age-inappropriate, or poor social skills, or act in ways that seem unfounded and bizarre, are often mocked and put down upon by their peers. 

Warrior Cats is a children’s series, so many of its fans are children who are not as socially aware as teens and adults. The fans who are not children are enjoying a book series meant for children. This makes the series and its fans a prime target of cringe culture. A quick search on Google for “warrior cats cringe” fetches 1,760,000 results.

The cringe response is an evolutionary feature. Cavemen, if alone, were far more likely to die than they were when with their peers. Our brains therefore evolved to encourage conforming social behaviors while discouraging behaviors that might alienate oneself from the crowd, out of the fear of being alone. It is, in fact, based on an empathy response (meaning our brains emulate what the person we are seeing is feeling): Our brains recognize the embarrassment on behalf of the embarrassing person, and we feel it for the embarrassing person.

Aditi Murdi, writing for The Swaddle, sums up exactly what goes on in our heads when we cringe at something. “An empathy response involves the necessity of experience — one cannot cringe without knowing what an embarrassing situation feels like. Now, the contempt or compassion involved in this empathy response is dependent upon the personal experience of the person experiencing cringe, and how they process embarrassment. Cringe content exists exclusively for people to laugh at, or feel contempt for.”

What does this mean? When we cringe, we are feeling the emotions that we would feel if we were in place of the unappealing person. So when we feel contempt or mockery for that person, as is the case in cringe culture, it means we would feel the same contempt towards ourselves if we were the embarrassing one. So, in reality, that feeling of mockery is self-hatred and insecurity in disguise. Instead of dealing with our own self-loathing and insecurity, we choose to project it onto other people, and in the process it becomes a vile sort of “fun.”

Many of these insecurities and feelings of scorn are further propelled by societal bigotries we may not even be fully aware of. Consider, for example, how many television shows and movies use the idea of a man wearing a dress for comedy. Why are we often meant to laugh in these situations? This instills in us the idea that men wearing dresses are to be laughed at and mocked, and that if we ourselves are men wearing dresses, we too should be mocked. So, when we see a transgender woman, especially one that doesn’t ‘pass’ as a cisgender woman, we may be prompted to cringe at them and mock them. 

It extends to other bigotries, too. How many times are we presented with a character who is stupid or “not right in the head,” and are meant to laugh at them? How many times do we internally think “well, I do not want to act like that, people might think I am disabled?” How many times do we encounter these feelings of disgust, all of which find their root in bigotry and the fear of someone unlike ourselves?

I myself am autistic, and I feel that I have faced bullying because of it. If you were to ask those who bullied me if it was because I was autistic, however, they would tell a different story. They would say that it had nothing to do with me being autistic. Instead, they would say, it was because I was too loud, or did not have good social skills, or had weird interests that I talked too much about, or because I did not have strong physical skills. All of these traits are, after all, common denominators in cringe culture. But the issue is that all of those things are traits that stem directly from my autism diagnosis. Autistic people cannot control how loud our voices are as well as our neurotypical peers can. We tend to struggle with social skills. We have specific interests that we are deeply passionate for and often cannot control, resulting in often unusual fields of interest. (One of those interests, for me, is Warrior Cats.) We tend to lack the physical coordination that our neurotypical peers master. We are trained from a young age to fear and mock these traits, because they are different from the norm stem from a condition that is frowned upon by society. That is the thing about cringe culture. It does not explicitly target marginalized communities, instead, it targets them in all but name.

However, the feeling of contempt is not inevitable. While we will always cringe at things we find embarrassing, we do not have to respond to it with disgust. Remember, when you cringe, you are feeling what your brain thinks another person should be feeling. So what if you learn to stop fearing standing out? What if you learn to become unafraid of disgust from your peers and unafraid of embarrassment? The feeling of contempt will instead be replaced by a feeling of compassion. 

Murdi, again writing for The Swaddle, tells of an alternate response to secondary embarrassment: “Cringe as compassion is when our response to something ‘cringeworthy’ is a memory of one’s own failure. A person who wishes they were treated better in their moment of shame, will view others’ failings with compassion.” 

In other words, it is no longer the feeling of “I should be punished if I did this,” but rather “I would want to be treated better if I did this.” Again, to get to that point requires one to no longer fear of being embarrassing or “cringy”. It looks like a daunting task- but remember, many people have the choice of either being considered embarrassing, or no longer being themselves. What we need to do is lose that fear of standing out and looking strange.

Perhaps we should look at “cringy” people more closely. Are they truly being cringy, or are they having the courage to live as themselves in a world that discourages it? Are they truly being weird, or are they being weird by someone else’s standards? Perhaps we should not look at them as targets of mockery, or oddities to gawk at like a circus sideshow. Perhaps we should venerate them. For in a world that is trying is best to conform, to not draw attention, to blend in, they reject that fate. Their unique perspectives and inability to be tethered by the world of compliant social structures means they often will have ideas beyond our wildest dreams. And so, I will gladly proclaim my love for an (admittedly badly-written) children’s series, because there is something much more freeing in admitting that than trying to blend into a world that will, regardlessly, never truly accept my autistic self as an equal.

“Warrior Cats”, in fact, built itself up from this idea. The books start with a housecat wandering into the woods. He is adopted by one of the clans of cats who live there, even though they generally keep to themselves and reject outsiders. Immediately, he receives scorn for his differences. He does not think like they do. He is not aware of their social structures. He often embarrasses himself in front of the other characters because of it. They often regard him with disdain in return. But he goes on to be Firestar, the prophesied savior of the forest, who saves all that the cats have ever known time and time again. 

Cats, as a species, do not care for how they are seen. They only care for the people and objects they love, and their safety. They are honest, but not overly unkind. Cats are similar to us- but they have the courage to be themselves, regardless of the household around them.