I suppose there was a time when it was cool to be graceful. This was the age of the Cary Grants and the Audrey Hepburns, all elegance, style and sophistication. Maybe if I’d been born then, in another generation, I would have had to fight ferociously to suppress my innately awkward nature. I’d have had to apologize for tripping over my own feet and saying “You too!” when the pizza delivery guy tells me to enjoy my meal. But fortunately for me, and my many socially incompetent comrades, we are living in an age when awkwardness reigns supreme.
Take a look at television. For the most part, big, juicy punchlines are a thing of the past, given the same cultural cold shoulder as MySpace and feathered hair. Almost all the big sitcoms of recent years thrive off of a very specific type of humor, one that results from subtly and hilariously uncomfortable moments. Think of “The Office,” “30 Rock,” even “New Girl.” This type of comedy is light-years away from its “Leave-it-to-Beaver”-like predecessors. There was a time when everyone wanted to be the Brady Bunch — perfect, stylish and totally unattainable — but now, so many programs on TV depict worlds where the characters are as strange, or even stranger, than we are.
“30 Rock” character Liz Lemon, a relatively successful television producer, admits to wearing a drug store plastic bag in lieu of underwear when she forgets to do laundry, and says things like “I have to go talk to some food about this.” “New Girl” character Jessica Day, an elementary school teacher, has been known to fall into ponds and make strange, double-chin inducing faces when she doesn’t know how to deal with social situations. She’s also frequently called “adorkable,” rendering her blundering existence as endearing rather than cringe-worthy. There’s even a TV show called “Awkward,” which I’ve never seen, but will nonetheless use to prove my point. In short, the TV darlings of the 21st century tend to be a little weird and, well, awkward.
Today we not only tolerate awkwardness, we actually expect it. Conversely, we tend to reject anything or anyone who seems unreasonably, miraculously perfect. Jennifer Lawrence trips at the Academy Awards and talks about sweating, and America promptly falls in love. Gwyneth Paltrow, on the other hand, refers to her divorce as a “conscious uncoupling” and seems to subsist solely off of kale and chia seeds, and is therefore generally perceived with distaste. We want the gorgeous creatures who grace the cover of Vogue to suffer from the same human discomforts and social faux-pas that plague the rest of us. We want awkward, not perfect. Jen, not Gwen.
The word “awkward” itself has become absorbed into the basic vocabulary of this generation. Think of the number of times you use the word in any given day. I would estimate my personal daily usage to be a minimum of five, but occasionally ranging upwards of 10, depending on just how many uncomfortable moments I endure. “Awkward” has also taken on a broad scope of meaning, and can be used in reference to a near-limitless slew of circumstances. It can refer to the mundane — for example, the Starbucks guy mispronouncing your name, or realizing your shirt is on backwards. It can also take on a more sinister connotation, like “I just ran into my ex with his new girlfriend and she’s a Victoria Secret model and I was wearing gray sweatpants and no makeup and it was just so awkward.”
I like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert on the subject of awkwardness. I’ve been told by friends that the aforementioned Liz Lemon and I are essentially the same person, an assertion that was later confirmed by a “Who is Your TV Soulmate?” Buzzfeed quiz. I wear this comparison as a badge of honor, not in spite of the fact that she spent most of college perfecting her rock collection and is bummed out by the word “lovers”… “unless it’s between the words ‘meat’ and ‘pizza,’” but precisely because of them. I’d like to think that there is at least some distinction between me and Liz, perhaps in the sense that unlike her I’ve never adopted a cat and named her Emily Dickinson. But the truth is that I am okay with being awkward — in fact, I’m proud to be this way. I know how to hold a conversation and my friends are still willing to be seen with me in public … so I don’t think I’ve yet reached a level of awkwardness that demands serious self-reflection or a full-scale intervention. Rather, I’d like to hope that when this conversation occurs — me: “How are you?” friend: “Good, how are you?” me: “Good, how are you?” — it’s charming rather than painful.
Perhaps the takeaway from all our adorkable TV companions and celebrity idols is that awkwardness should be embraced rather than suppressed. If and when someone tells you to your face that you are an awkward person (yes, this has happened to me), don’t balk and react in horror. Instead, smile, and say “thank you.” Nobody is perfect and today it seems like fewer and fewer people even want to be. So embrace your inner dork, weirdo or wacko and know that the next time you accidentally call a teacher “Mom,” I’ll be there, looking at you with a knowing smile, recalling the countless times I’ve done the same.
Sophia Crisafulli has been known to respond to almost anything with “you too!” ex: “Enjoy your movie!” “Enjoy your dinner!” “Have a nice flight!”