Our friends’ toddler will not be getting cheesed. Her dad was toying with the idea of cheesing her, because he thought she might enjoy it. She's generally a pretty adventurous, excitable kid; the sort of toddler who will agitate to go on fairground rides wildly unsuitable for her age. But then her mum brought up the time her grandmother had accidentally thrown a sock at her, prompting an afternoon-long meltdown. On reflection, they decided it would be better to avoid cheesing her, at least for now. Perhaps they would wait until she was a bit older.
This is a discussion that many young parents with social media accounts may have had over the past week or so. On February 28, a Twitter user named @unclehxlmes posted a video captioned “just cheesed my little brother,” in which a man (initially presumed to be unclehxlmes) threw a slice of processed cheese at an unsuspecting and slightly terrified-looking baby. The tweet has since been deleted — unclehxlmes claims he simply lifted the video from Facebook, that the child in the video is not a member of his family and that he now feels uncomfortable with the level of attention it has received — but not before it went hugely viral.
Whoever it was who first chucked a cheese slice at a baby, their actions have led to countless more cheesings worldwide: the #cheesechallenge (sometimes also #cheesedchallenge) soon became a Thing. Memes are born quickly; and typically, they die just as fast. The #cheesechallenge has already peaked — although at the time of writing, it is technically still going.
In part the answer is probably just “because the videos are funny,” although to be honest I'm not quite sure if anyone should really be laughing. On a certain level, #cheesechallenge videos might be seen as little more than documents of the bullying of one’s little children. Chrissy Teigen, for example, has definitively taken a stance against cheesing her kids, tweeting at the peak of the challenge that “I love a prank as much as anybody but I cannot get myself to throw cheese at my adorable, unsuspecting baby who has all the hope and trust in the world in me.” An NBC article on the phenomenon quotes a children's rights expert named Sandy Santana, who claims that although cheesing “is not abuse,” parents should nevertheless be careful not to shock their babies and cause them unnecessary discomfort.
In truth however, when we watch #cheesechallenge videos we do not typically identify with the caregivers cheesing their children; although they are shot from the point-of-view of the cheesers, they invite us to identify with the cheesed. The cheesing is inevitable — since the video exists and is being watched, it is certain to happen — and so the agency of the cheeser hardly seems to matter. We actively engage ourselves in the video not by thinking: I am a camera; I am about to cheese this child, but rather by anticipating what it would be like for this child to be cheesed. We see the baby — active or sleepy, cranky or giggling — and attempt to gauge their reaction.
From where does our solidarity with the cheesed infants arise? Quite plausibly, from our shared plight.
Will they look cross, will they burst into tears? Will they smile and clap their hands? How long will it take for them to notice that the cheese is there? When they do, will they grab it, peel it off their faces, try to eat it? It is in this that the joy of the #cheesechallenge consists.
But from where does our solidarity with the cheesed infants arise? Quite plausibly, from our shared plight.
The world is cheesing us constantly — including, I might add, with this whole #cheesechallenge thing. (“Meaning is dissolving,” a friend of mine tweeted about the challenge, “the sign has forever uncoupled itself from the signified, semantic anarchy is imminent.”) Increasingly, the internet age is defined by confusion on a mass scale. Our lives are utterly uncertain: precarious work and a sense of constant crisis — crises in which, with something like climate change, the agency of our political classes is never quite clear — make it impossible to plan for the future.
Each day brings with it a new rush of events, most of which the media will have forgotten about well before anyone has had any sort of chance to let their significance sink in. Since the #cheesechallenge broke, the president of the United States has called the CEO of Apple, “Tim Apple,” then lied and said he did it to save time. His erstwhile electoral rival tweeted an out-of-context sassy reaction gif, and her idiot supporters went wild for it. Trump's former campaign manager was found guilty of tens of millions of dollars worth of bank and tax fraud and received a shorter prison sentence than a black woman did for unwittingly attempting to vote in the 2016 election despite being ineligible. John McCain’s daughter, a gentile, accused a Jewish cartoonist of anti-Semitism after he drew a caricature satirizing her way of expressing her views on Israel, then called in sick from work after people mocked her for it. The former British Home Secretary Amber Rudd shot a video in which she read out “abusive” tweets she had received, in a bid to get people to mind their language on social media; mere hours later, she used a BBC radio interview to refer to the current shadow home secretary as a “colored woman”. Rudd's colleague, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, was forced to pay the Chunnel management company Eurotunnel £33m as part of a settlement deal, related to his awarding of a ferry contract to a company that had no ships. Despite similar mishaps having cost taxpayers £2.7 billion over the course of his career, there is almost no pressure on Grayling to resign. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley claimed in parliament that the deaths of civilians at the hands of British security forces during the Troubles were “not crimes.”
That's just the U.S. and the U.K. There's almost certainly some even more ridiculous shit happening elsewhere.
With each new occurrence, there follows a new wave of increasingly baffling takes. Is “billionaire” a slur against the wealthy? Is the Muslim woman just like the Nazi guy? Does Bernie Sanders’s use of basic crowd-safety tools reveal his hypocrisy over immigration? Who the fuck even knows any more?
Even the feeling that we might need to respond to any of this is exhausting. What on earth is there to say? All we can do is look on passively, like an infant in its high-chair, glancing worried into its parents faces, attempting to gauge their intentions, paralyzed by the befuddling uncertainty of whatever that is, that they have in their hands, that they seem to be about to chuck at us. But they couldn't possibly, could they? And then they do.
Well, I should say “we.” How complicit am I in all this? I am, after all, a professional writer. I don't struggle to say things. I make my living by writing about all the confusing things that keep happening. Without the endless rush of precarity and nonsense, I'd be starving to death. To what extent is what I do part of the great cosmic cheesing that we seem more and more beholden to with every passing day? Is everything I publish just another unwarranted attempt to shock, to provoke a reaction from the already fried senses of an exhausted audience?
Sometimes, I like to think that I might be able to justify my existence by using my writing to help clear up some of the confusions we are facing, but noble intentions are only truly noble if they also happen to produce noble results. Just by publishing anything at all, I am adding to the vast web of The Discourse, weaving still more dense knots in this labyrinthine complex in which, if we are not careful, we will all soon be entangled. Suppose reticence were even an option (which of course, for me, in terms of my material circumstances, it is not) — would it be ethically best?
But I'm not in charge of The Discourse: I just have a particular, small, voice within it. My orientation towards everything that happens, and everything that is said about what happens, is only slightly less passive than that of most people. I am still part of the audience as well.
And as an audience, despite our exhaustion, I'm not sure that we want all this to stop. What I think we want, rather, is for The Discourse to shock us in ways we can absorb. We want to receive something unexpected from the world which nevertheless allows us to giggle with joy; we long to be able to peel whatever we have just been whacked with off our faces, and gleefully consume it regardless. We still want events — but we want them to bring news we can be happy with. So starved have we been of anything resembling a victory that even the smallest, most spiteful thing might do. When news broke last Thursday of a billionaire dying during penis enlargement surgery, I saw people on social media celebrating like they’d just won the lottery.
In the #cheesechallenge videos, the babies don't normally respond by eating the cheese: but when they do, there is something incredibly reassuring about it. Perhaps, ultimately, this is why so many have felt driven to cheese their young — and why so many millions have looked on. We want to think that maybe, we could be strong enough to handle it too.