“A character, sir, may always ask a man who he is.” — Luigi Pirandello
Cringe. That awful feeling that gravitates your shoulders together, tightens every muscle in your face and sticks a needle in your soul. Cringe is a divider, the benchmark on which we measure what’s acceptable to enjoy on the internet and what is mocked endlessly. It is pure embarrassment, both second and firsthand, though somewhat arbitrarily assigned. I’ve been cringe in publication before — admitting myself as a Five Nights at Freddy’s and Sonic fan, as well as a “Morbius” analyzer — but none so far as these. When it comes to the characters I’ve intimately known, these are the three — across Shakespeare, musicals and anime — that always come to my mind.
I was in eighth grade when it first happened. As we were seated in my English class, I fixated on my class copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” trying my best to decipher a path through its Shakespearean labyrinth of language. One character handed me a glowing thread and we began to understand each other. I don’t even remember the scene, but I remember when it clicked. I remember starting to skip over lines, just looking for the four capitalized letters and colon, the lines that spoke to my soul. I remember starting to giggle as I began to understand this gremlin and began to feel understood by the bard, despite being centuries apart. I glanced around at my friends, who were confused by my barely-contained laughter, and explained:
“Dude, Puck is literally me.”
Now, what the hell was I on about? Well, for those unfamiliar with that totally niche classic, Puck’s basically the prototypical “silly little guy.” His defining character traits and contributions to the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are causing problems on purpose and through incompetence, but choosing to laugh at both. This is what stood out to me, more than any other fictional character I’ve read: a perhaps self-deprecating admission of my childhood cycle of self-sabotage. I was never the best-behaved kid, so I think having a character that exhibited his mistakes as entertainment for himself rather than further degradation contained within a text almost half a millennium ago — something about that was supremely significant to me.
The second time was as a high school freshman, fixating on something that you possibly might’ve heard of: the hip-hop historical musical “Hamilton.” What I’m going to confess is definitively cringey — the character I found myself again intensely relating to, more than any other character, was that eponymous protagonist Alexander Hamilton. Not the historical figure, of course, but this musical reimagining of the character. Looking back, my reasons were not as complex as relating to Puck. Alexander was simply a character who shared my love for the art of the argument, stemming from an annoying assumption that he was always in the right. I also related to his driving impetus being as existential as one should get in high school — to leave behind a legacy. What I reflect on now is how embarrassing admitting that makes me feel, or at least how it used to feel.
What’s always been odd to me is how long it took me to develop that kind of intimacy with these characters. It’s not like I was new to stories — in fact, I intensely consumed them up until middle school, nearly always having my nose stuck in a book or eyes glued to a screen. Maybe it was more that my sense of self wasn’t solidified until middle school ended, or that character flaws — whether they be absent-minded or argumentative — weren’t ever presented to me as complex and potentially useful up until that point.
Looking further back, however, I think there’s one more reason why I couldn’t see myself in these characters until now. I want to issue a challenge to you: Name a single mainstream Desi American male main character that wasn’t fulfilling some kind of stereotype. Really, I would love you to — and send them my way if you know them! I’ve spent my entire life searching and coming up pretty much empty. If genuine representation of my existence as a child of immigrants, a teenage threat to my country and maturing under the simultaneous effeminization and over-sexualization of my heritage exists, it’s exceedingly rare if not nonexistent. The mythical fairy Puck and the color-blind casted Alexander — maybe these were the first times I could really see and hear myself in media, being able to project my identity of Color onto them. They were figuratively me before I could see them as literally me. However, it was later in high school that I found myself identifying with my newfound identity of disability.
I met him in the first episode of — and God it’s somehow physically paining me to write this for publication — “My Hero Academia,” an anime centered on a world of superheroes with a powerless boy named Izuku Midoriya, promising he’d be the greatest of all of them. I watched the first episode and thought it was interesting but then subsequently forgot it. Then, in high school — for reasons I’ve written on at length — I was hospitalized in the spring of my sophomore year. I left with a diagnosis that would change the rest of my life, that would close so many doors for me that I didn’t even realize I wanted to keep open.
When the reality of this situation started to really set in, I turned back to fiction, back to Midoriya. In his seemingly impossible goal, he does receive a power — but it’s there where the series’s commentary on disability inches further. In a world where inequality is so greatly and obviously exacerbated by abilities granted at one’s birth, Midoriya’s powerless body can barely handle the gift it’s granted and it injures him to use it. I’d joke with my friends upon watching him destroy himself for his goals, that he was again “literally me.” Seeing him evolve and persist despite this was a reprieve, a power fantasy unlike anything I could experience as I recovered from initial flare-ups. It felt like we pursued our goals together, with all the sweat, tears and blood in my mouth I could spare.
But why was I so embarrassed, you ask? Maybe it’s cringy evidence of my “main character syndrome.” Maybe it’s in large parts thanks to the reputation of the fandoms that surround these works. Maybe it’s because for a long time, I saw what was represented in me —my distrait, my disputatiousness, my disability — as purely flaws to be ashamed of. But you know what? I’ve had enough of judging myself, much less judging others. I’m making this promise to myself — to keep caring for chaos, to always advocate for my ideas and to eternally embrace my identity. For the characters that knew me intimately, for the never-represented kid I grew from, for the characters I hope one day I can create — I will always be authentically and literally me.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.