Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," 1880-1881
"Luncheon of the Boating Party," Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-1881 (Corbis Historical / Getty)

The Weaponization of Awkwardness

Don't make a scene. Look the other way. Social discomfort has long been used to maintain the status quo.

“Young women say yes to sex they don’t actually want to have all of the time. Why? Because we condition young women to feel guilty if they change their mind.”

That was the writer Ella Dawson, in her essay reacting to “Cat Person,” the New Yorker short story that went viral, and indeed that is still going viral, this week. Kristen Roupenian’s work of fiction resonated among denizens of the nonfictional world in part because of its sex scene: one that explores, in rich and wincing detail, the complications of consent. Margot, a 20-year-old college student, goes on a date with Robert, a man several years her senior; alternately enchanted by him and repulsed by him, hopeful about him and disappointed, she ultimately sleeps with him. Not because she fully wants to, in the end, but because, in the dull heat of the moment, acquiescing is easier—less dramatic, less disruptive, less awkward—than saying no.

“After all,” as Dawson notes of the real-world implications of Margot’s decision, “you’ve already made it back to his place, or you’re already on the bed, or you’ve already taken off your clothes, or you’ve already said yes. Do you really want to have an awkward conversation about why you want to stop? What if it hurts his feelings? What if it ruins the relationship? What if you seem like a bitch?”

Consent, concession, the blurred lines between the two: The work of fiction, and the analysis of it, are each in their own ways deeply true. And they struck a cultural nerve this week—Dawson’s essay, titled “Bad Sex, or the Sex We Don’t Want but Have Anyway,” went viral along with Roupenian’s story—because they highlight, together, something that is widely recognized but rarely talked about: the version of sex that is bad not in a criminal sense, but in an emotional one. The kind that can happen, as Dawson suggested, partly as a result of cultural forces that exert themselves on women in particular: the demand that they be accommodating. That they be pleasing. That they capitulate to the feelings of others, and maintain a kind of sunny status quo—both in the immediate moment of a given social situation, and more broadly: Wait for the raise to be offered. Put in that extra minute of effort with the eye makeup. Nod. Smile. Once you’ve consented, don’t make things weird by saying, out loud, that you’ve changed your mind. “Cat Person,” on top of everything else, is an exploration of awkwardness as a form of social coercion; the conversation it sparked, accordingly, in “Bad Sex” and Facebook posts and essays and tweet threads, has been a consideration of that kind of awkwardness as a condition—and a chronic one.

That these conversations would be occasioned by a work of fiction is both ironic and revealing: The world itself, the one that is all too real, has long provided its own stories of perilous awkwardness. As revelations of sexual harassment and assault have come to light in recent months, awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment and, in general, Americans’ deeply ingrained impulse to avoid involvement in an “awkward moment when” have also shown their darker sides. Harvey Weinstein, on the tape recorded by the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as part of a New York Police Department sting operation, told her, “Don’t embarrass me in the hotel.” And: “Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.” And: “Please, you’re making a big scene here. Please.” So many of the other men accused of predation, it has now become painfully clear, have in their own ways used those soft but crushing social pressures as weapons, both in moments of abuse and beyond: Don’t be dramatic. Don’t make a scene. Please.

It’s a microcosm, in some ways, of the broader-scale betrayals that have been revealing themselves in this latest #MeToo moment. Awkwardness, after all, is supposed to be cheerful. It’s supposed to be harmless and lighthearted and laughable, a joke made at the expense of society itself. Funny-awkward. Painful-awkward. Relatably awkward. (Even the word, as written—the multiple ws, the jarring angles—is, yep, awkward.) So pervasive has awkwardness become in its collective self-deprecation—the age of irony colliding with the age of social media, all those interactions ripe for comic misunderstandings—that some have dubbed this moment a “golden age of awkwardness.” There it is in our language. There it is in our literature. There it is in our entertainments: Seinfeld and then The Office and then The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and then Insecure. Juno. Junot. All those BuzzFeed gif-ticles. All those delightful/horrifying entries into the Awkward Family Photos database. All those times that Taylor Swift was so very Taylor Swift. No wonder Curb Your Enthusiasm made its return this year: The era practically summoned it.

But “Cat Person” and “Bad Sex” and this #MeToo moment at large—the stories about that moment both fictional and tragically real—are reminders of how easily the stuff of pop-cultural whimsy can be twisted in ways that are malignant to those who navigate that culture. When Harvey Weinstein told Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, “Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway,” he was attempting to turn centuries’ worth of cultural conditioning—gendered conditioning—against her. He was weaponizing the mandate against scene-making, against disruption, against unruliness. He was grossly blatant about it; often, though, the pitfalls of awkwardness, as a negative imperative, reveal themselves more subtly. Last month, Sarah Wildman, formerly of the New Republic, published an essay in which she describes an encounter with the magazine’s literary editor at the time, Leon Wieseltier: He cornered her in a bar during an office outing, she writes, and kissed her without her consent. When she refused him, she recalls, he made a joke of it.

Wildman reported the incident; the report went, she writes, essentially ignored: another instance, as the magazine’s then-editor now describes it, of individual moral compromise made systemic at the publication. But it was not merely management who averted their eyes from the awkwardness. “No one knocked on my door,” Wildman puts it, “though I know now that at least one other editor had some idea of what had happened. I told a couple of my fellow writers, but no one spoke to me much at all. Likely no one knew what to say.”

No one knew what to say. It’s one of the simplest and most widespread mechanisms that helps open secrets to stay secret for so long: the impulse to avoid making scenes, to avoid making things weird. Women bear the brunt of these forces; men, of course, experience them, too. The people around her, Wildman suggests, felt awkward talking about harassment; as a result, her claims about her own experience—and she herself—got ignored. Awkwardness became a cyclical force, weaponized not through malice, but through the convenient delusions of benign neglect. Here is Franklin Foer, the former editor of the New Republic—and now a national correspondent for The Atlantic—speaking, with admirable candor, about his reaction to hearing some of the comments Wieseltier seems to have made about women at the magazine:

When I heard a comment like that, I think my response was probably shame or extreme discomfort, wanting to hide, changing the subject pretty quickly. To be clear, it wasn’t like I heard these types of comments every day, every month. It was things that would be scattered over the course of many hours, many months of conversation.

Confrontation is hard is part of the grand moral of this story. I wish I shrouded myself in the right thing and being confrontational in those kind of instances, but really I was just profoundly uncomfortable.

It’s an extremely familiar sentiment—a very specific strain, essentially, of the bystander effect. And it’s extremely understandable, in a Relatably Awkward kind of way. No one would want to be in Foer’s position—just as, indeed, no one would want to be in Wildman’s. But here, again, in the case of the New Republic, was That Awkward Moment revealed not as a funny banality, but as a threat: Wieseltier, after Wildman’s report, stayed at the magazine (and then briefly joined The Atlantic as a contributor); Wildman, eventually, left. The awkwardness-aversion helped to insulate Wieseltier; it helped to alienate Wildman. See something, say something. Except.

Last month, New York magazine ran an article headlined, “5 Men on Why They Didn’t Stop Harassment at Work.” One of those men, Steve, a software executive, described a situation in which a woman colleague had told him about feeling uncomfortable because the men she worked with were testing projects by streaming porn, and taking customers to strip clubs. “She had to fit in,” the executive said, “not make waves or get labeled as ‘difficult,’ so she asked me to keep quiet.” As Steve now recalls, “I didn’t say anything. It’s easy to come up with reasons not to get involved, so in some ways she simplified things by telling me not to talk. Plus, I was friendly with the guys and I knew it would be really awkward if I confronted them.”

Again: a twist. A betrayal. One of the ironies of awkwardness exerted in this way—as the trusty aide to the open secret—is that awkwardness itself, as a passing circumstance, can be a great equalizer. None of us, oooooof, cringe, 😬 , is immune to it. (“It is civilization that makes us awkward,” Benjamin Disraeli once noted, “for it gives us an uncertain position.”) Awkwardness is a form of “embarrassment,” in the sociologist Erving Goffman’s sense: a deviation between expectation and reality. A disturbance in the force. A misreading of the cue.

And Americans, in particular, have long written easiness and chattiness and pleasantry into our shared scripts. Many other cultures are perfectly content with moments of silence in the midst of a conversation; Americans, on the other hand—we who reflexively append awkward to silence—tend to rush to fill the void with idle, but blessedly voluminous, chit-chat. We have “real talk,” with the qualifier revealing as much as the conversation itself, and, relatedly, a deep and dedicated aversion to conducting what human-resources departments euphemize as “uncomfortable conversations.” Several years ago, The Atlantic coined the term phaking—and also dodge dialing, and also the cell phone side step—to describe the very common act of pretending to be on one’s phone to avoid in-person interaction with others. Urban Dictionary’s top definition of awkward explains the word as the situation in which “no one really knows what to say, or choose not to say anything.” It advises the reader, should she find herself in such a wretched circumstance: “Just back slowly away.”

But these skillful evasions and willful aversions have come at a cost. They have allowed for injustice. They have abetted impunity. They have encouraged people to turn the other cheek, and to do so in the name of the mandate that so many will understand, implicitly: Don’t make it weird. They have helped men like Harvey Weinstein to leverage the pernicious power of Please, you’re making a big scene here. And the dangers stretch far beyond matters of sexual harassment and abuse: Just as embarrassment can negatively affect people’s health outcomes (the physical body is so often a metaphor for the body politic), it can impede the health of the culture at large. So many conversations that are desperately necessary—about sex and gender, yes, but also about racial justice, about economic inequality, about the politics that affect people in the intimacies of their daily lives—can be thwarted by Americans’ pervasive aversion to awkwardness. In 2015, Claudia Rankine gave an interview to The Guardian. “Why is it so hard,” the paper asked the poet, “to call out racism?” Rankine replied, “Because making other people uncomfortable is thought worse than racism.”

It was a searing indictment. And it will be one of the broadest challenges of this moment—This Awkward Moment—not just to rethink the structures of power that have brought us here in the first place, but also to make Rankine’s insight less terribly true. It is possible. It is happening. Last year, NPR’s Code Switch aired a brilliant podcast episode that offered a deep conversation about moments of revealed racism. The episode, and a group of essays that accompanied it, were collected under the title “Hear Something, Say Something: Navigating The World Of Racial Awkwardness,” and they were just one part of Code Switch’s ongoing and much broader discussion about race in America. The latest incarnation of #MeToo, with so many people sharing frank and unflinching accounts of harassment and manipulation and assault, has similarly prioritized progress in the end over comfort in the moment. “Cat Person,” even as a work of fiction, took things that would traditionally have been the stuff of classically American eye-aversion and turned it into an opportunity for open discussion—not just by its author, but among its many readers.

The conversations and revelations are uncomfortable, yes. But they are necessary. They are urgent. And they are evidence of one of the ethics of this particular Awkward Moment: There is nothing wrong—and indeed there is so much right—with making things weird. With telling the truth, awkward as it may be. With standing up and speaking up and, finally, making a scene.