The Year of Sincere
We consume everything through the framework of irony or sincerity -- but in the end, what's the difference?
There has perhaps been no other phrase in cultural criticism in the past decade more polarizing than “let people enjoy things.” What began as a plea to snobby critics to grant permission to enjoy mass-produced, low-brow culture quickly turned into a potent weapon in the arsenal of super-fandoms.
“Let people enjoy things” then became a lightning rod for discourse, with many commentators asking how it was possible to critique anything if we were to view everything through the myopic lens of the abstract, hypothetical of “people’s” enjoyment. Vox called the phrase a “fight against criticism,” The Baffler entreated us not to let people enjoy things. And so, “ironic” and “unironic” became essential qualifiers to every expressed taste or opinion thereafter – almost as if any taste gravitating towards the mainstream had to separate itself from the “let people enjoy things” camp. Irony, then, suffused every single cultural moment – emerging as the defining tonality of the chronically online left.
Kareena Kapoor and all the upper class, sassy characters she’s essayed are all “unironically” iconic now. The Kardashians continue to air their family drama to a rapt audience of ironic viewers. The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives and Dubai Bling find a captivated, dryly amused audience in the same chronically online people who regularly call out capitalism and elite culture (guilty). Celebrity gossip is purveyed with a tinge of self-aware silliness – everything about Jada Pinkett Smith, say, or Gwyneth Paltrow, and the products they hawk is ironically unbearable even if the culture still can’t get enough of them. An irreverent art exhibit by Toiletpaper Mag in the newly launched NMACC was a self-aware Instagram bonanza – seemingly commenting on the present moment of ironic detachment in our digital lives with its own dose of irony.
The detachment from the self – and from what we’re consuming – has probably led us to detachment from the world itself. And so we have irony creeping into politics, seeing as irony is increasingly our dominant mode of consumption. Already, we’re living in a world where headlines have to be clarified as not being those of The Onion. Self-referential humor and irony had some potential as the language of the people, as long as the punchline was above us. Little did we expect political parties to co-opt it. In November this year, the BJP Instagram handle posted a Spotify Wrapped of Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi: his geographical location was “Dholakpur” and “Soros HQ” and his favorite song was apparently “I am a loser.” As Ben Schwartz puts it in The Baffler: “Dark humor about the CIA is nothing new. But humor from the CIA? That’s something new.”
Even corporations have picked up on the potency of irony in enabling acceptance – even among the critics and the cynics – which arguably led to the biggest phenomenon of irony-washing in the decade: Barbie, the Greta Gerwig film produced by Mattel. The film had many self-referential quips in it: Barbie’s lament that she couldn’t be a fascist because she “doesn’t control the railways or the flow of commerce,” the Mattel CEO’s entire arc, the fourth-wall breaking little aside about Margot Robbie being too pretty to talk about the pitfalls of pretty. More recently, Kim Kardashian promoted a nipple-bra using the climate crisis: “the planet may be getting warmer, but with this bra, you’ll always look cold.” And, depressingly, irony and self-referentiality seeped into the Israel Defence Force’s social media accounts too – a ploy to propagandize the world in favor of its carpet-bombing of the Gaza Strip. “Satire can be seen as throwing down the gauntlet. That doesn't mean that the other side won’t just pick it up and throw it back at you,” Schwartz adds.
Simultaneously, it also became uncool to not care, to be detached. It seems like we’ve become self-aware about our hyper self-awareness. “We need to drop this whole edgy mean heartless persona that our generation has going on. There is so much evil in the world. It’s so cool to care. It’s so cool to love others. It’s so cool to educate others.u can love people for no reason. U can be nice to people for no reason,” read one viral post on X. Many others followed suit, pointing out that ironic detachment has divorced us from our own feelings. The wildly popular resurgence of Zeenat Aman on Instagram for her earnest, sincere meditations and recollections speaks to a growing tendency to find comfort in sincerity again. Similarly, one of the most beloved films of the year was Kathal, the Mammootty-starrer Malayalam film that shunned self-referentialism and told a sincere, honest tale. It was hailed as one of the most moving films of the year as a result. And that points to something urgent: in all the defensive posturing around letting or not letting people enjoy things, we had forgotten what it felt like to be moved.
At some point, the line between irony and sincerity began to blur. “The notion of enjoying something ironically has now become so diffused within our culture, ironic enjoyment is nearly indistinguishable from sincere appreciation,” notes one paper from 2020. “The ever-increasing mediation of our lived experience by social media means increasingly that we no longer do anything without considering how we might be perceived engaging in a given action, even with respect to the consumption of media products.” It is a social death knell to watch Marvel, reality shows, or exclusively listen to the chart-toppers – the only way to acceptably do so is to consume all of it ironically. A lot has been said about irony-poisoning – the process by which people get so steeped in irony that they absorb certain (harmful) beliefs sincerely. It almost seems as though we have become incapable of sincere enjoyment, sincere critique, or sincere consumption – leaving little to differentiate sincerity from irony.
Prince Harry’s memoir was ironically mocked, yet climbed to the top of the bestseller charts; “nepo babies” were ironically stanned, yet the public did not find any fresh face worthy of their sincere appreciation, thus keeping the nepo babies in the spotlight. The lost submarine carrying a couple of foolhardy explorers prompted endless memes about the irony of a Titanic submarine sinking; any sincere fear for the passengers’ fate qualified by the armour of “lmao” at the end. The compulsory proclamation of detachment became a defense against accusations of letting people enjoy things and yet, suddenly, it seemed we were all enjoying not letting people enjoy things so much that there ended up being no real difference. Critics notwithstanding, for instance, the ironic reclamation of Barbiecore ended up with Barbie the movie grossing a billion dollars worldwide; same as the fatigue against criticism of Taylor Swift’s music leading to her unironic worldwide embrace, turning her into a billionaire.
This in turn prompts serious questions about what it means to enjoy and be critical of things, leaving the framework of irony and sincerity behind, given that it makes no material dent to the very consumption patterns we claim to mock. Why, for instance, is it worse to binge-watch Dubai Bling unironically than doing the same thing ironically? In the end, what difference does it make? Arguably, the inability to consume or engage with anything with sincerity is born out of the inability to hold enjoyment and criticism in tension with each other. We’re aware that these are artistically bad cultural artifacts, and we don’t want to be criticized for engaging with them – simply because the culture no longer deems it respectable to disagree with something and still enjoy it. Lest this read like a smarmy plea to, once again, “let people enjoy things” – it bears mentioning that criticism is necessarily born out of sincere engagement. You can’t, after all, understand what’s hollow about Beyoncé’s or Taylor Swift’s politics without seriously engaging with their work.
The irony–sincerity dichotomy is no longer tenable. Sincerity – or “let people enjoy things culture” – has killed criticism. And yet, the results of irony-washing have also been dire: we can’t have anything earnest anymore. Succession and White Lotus just happened to be two good shows steeped in self-referential irony; but then we had The Idol (which was worse than a dud), rom-coms that insisted on knowing they were stupid rom-coms, Christmas movies that were obviously ironic and cool Christmas movies, and of course all the Marvel properties that continued their streak of compulsory bathos in every scene. This last prompted a flurry of satirical reels, with creators imitating Marvel’s brand of self-referentiality to absurd, if true, effect. And so we no longer have anything truly sincere. As one post on X puts it: “one of the big things we’re missing lately is dumb movies that are good. seems like everything is either dead serious or dumb in the wrong way. some of the best movies on earth are dumb in the right way.” A comment referred to Cocaine Bear as a good example, which itself did not remain sincere or unironic in the zeitgeist for too long.
We’re just now realizing the broader implications of being so steeped in irony. Figures like Elon Musk ascended to absolute power over a major channel of digital communication because everybody refused to take him seriously: he was the ultimate purveyor of irony, an edgy meme-lord who joked his way into taking over the “townsquare” of the people. Beloved figures like Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand, returned on the sincerity wave – but in an avatar that dares not challenge the new status quo of box office muscle and nationalism. The tug of war between irony and sincerity has led us into a questionable place – not taking Elon Musk seriously enough, and taking diehard Swifties too seriously. What was the purpose of irony to begin with? Arguably, it was to make fun of things which weren’t in our control – not to make it a personal brand of self-aware detachment.
The irony–sincerity dichotomy also prompts questions about the choices we’re being offered. Mass culture is mass for a reason: everyone kind of likes it, and nobody is special for disliking it. At the same time, the inability to admit to liking something signals a broader loss of originality: amid box office crises, the OTT boom, political censorship, and an economy in recession, there are no risks in art any longer. There is nothing new to claim as truly yours, nothing to gatekeep, nothing to develop an obsession over. The larger stagnation in art, the creation of a giant monoculture, the box office push and the decline of stardom have all led to a dearth of options, the death of creativity. We don’t really want to like what’s in the mainstream – but what other choice do we have?
Does this signal the decline of subculture culture? Everything has been irony-washed to such a great degree that every taste has turned into a “type” to be mocked. The art-critic type, the Swiftie type, the indie-music type, the art-film type – there is no “high” or “low” culture that has been spared from derision for taking itself too seriously. So there’s now a camp that regards everything as sincere and worthy in response.
Irony used to be subversive. When it went too far, sincerity emerged as its antidote. Now, in the age of feminist Barbie and climate-aware Skims, we no longer know the difference. But, hey, at least we’re self-aware about it.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.