The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fontrum” as, well”¦ nothing. Because it’s not a real word. But Urban Dictionary understands my affliction:
Feeling embarrassment for someone that doesn’t have enough common sense to feel the embarrassment that they should be feeling for themselves for their actions. [sic]
You see, I have suffered debilitating fontrum, otherwise known as second-hand embarrassment, since childhood. Doesn’t it seem like the most post-modern of afflictions? It could only really arise in a cultural landscape flooded with reality TV and the celebrity-fueled gossip industry that motivates it.
It began with a twinge of something (embarrassment? anxiety?) when I would see celebrities say silly things on the afternoon talk shows that I watched religiously as a latchkey kid (sidenote: remember The Rosie O’Donnell Show?). But it has grown into something more, something physical. I can’t watch bad auditions on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance? without covering my eyes and internally screaming, “What are you doing?!” But my strongest reaction came when I was forced to watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s BrÃ¼no (2009) in a class two years ago. I warned my friends and classmates beforehand, but they were still taken aback by my reaction. I physically recoiled, as if attempting to curl into a smaller and smaller ball in the hopes that I could just disappear.
Of course, Baron Cohen makes an effort to draw these reactions out of people (though perhaps not to the degree that I felt them), while reality TV contestants seem to invoke it only as a means to an end. Their goal is not public embarrassment, but rather the publicity and fame that come with it.
My sister visited me a few weeks ago and insisted we watch The Bachelorette. One of the smartest, most accomplished people I know, my sister has delightfully trashy taste in television. She almost exclusively watches reality TV because, in her explanation, she doesn’t have time to keep up with the plot progression and character development of fiction (clearly she doesn’t have her priorities straight, but that’s a discussion for another day). She wants to be able to sit down in front of her TV, whenever, and be entertained by reality TV. She texted me last night, jokingly reminding me that the finale of The Bachelorette was airing, and I tuned in out of morbid curiosity. I knew I was likely going to feel uncomfortable, but I had no idea what was in store when I inadvertently tuned in at the precise moment when they showed a preview for the upcoming season of Bachelor Pad.
Wait a second, ran my internal monologue. This is a show cast entirely of rejects from past seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette? Living in a house? And doing nothing but drinking and fighting? And generally not acting like the grown-ass adults that they are?
Hello, fontrum, my old friend.
In the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman defined embarrassment as the result of “unfulfilled expectations.” He wrote:
Everyday occasions of embarrassment arise when the self projected is somehow confronted with another self which, though valid in other contexts, cannot be sustained in harmony with the first.
Is my reaction caused because I am so different from these people that I cannot relate to them in the slightest? Or perhaps – and forgive me for sounding like an outdated op-ed piece in the NYTimes Sunday Styles section – it is a result of the rather disconnected, technologically-oriented environment I live in. My guess is that it is a combination of both. I am used to communicating with my friends and family via e-mail, phone, Facebook”¦ words can be chosen carefully online, and there remains an invisible boundary and a sense of intentional distance in this communication, particularly with strangers. Watching people put themselves out there, being so vulnerable in such a public forum, is so strange and uncomfortable to me.
Andy Warhol predicted that in the future, everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. But he never said I needed to enjoy that time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to enjoy my safe, fontrum-free TV.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on filmschooled’s tumblr.