LET'S TALK ABOUT...Cheugy
In this issue of Cringe, we will deep dive into Friction in all forms, and for our Let’s Talk About, we will be discussing all forms Cheugy and the friction between Gen Z and Millennials.
When does something stop being trendy and start being cheugy? And is it time to stop trying to ever be up to date? This word that emerged out of TikTok to call out anything that’s “off-trend” or “recently expired” especially if its associated to millennial culture has been applied to a wide array of different things: including Pumpkin Spiced Latte and Harry Potter to literally any Apple product. But the sheer existence of Cheugy just underlines how impossible it is to stay relevant when the trend cycle is spinning so rapidly and it raises the question: What is the point of trying to keep up at all? As trends change at ever-changing paces, the time limit we have to enjoy something new without being criticised for it and to have to ironically mock it gets laughably short. All of this is why there are people declaring that there is nothing wrong with cheugy, and attempting to own their cheuginess because maybe the resistance to cheuginess is cheugiest of all. If fighting cheuginess is a lost cause, maybe we should just embrace it and enjoy whatever lame thing brings the glimmer of joy we have so little of in today’s world.
Cheugy is a Gen Z term coined by software developer, Gaby Rasson, while she was attuning Beverly Hills High School in 2013 and then introduced to the wider culture via TikTok in the spring of 2021 by LA based copywriter, Hallie Kane, with Kane describing the word as “The opposite of trendy, stylish in middle school and high school but no longer in style.”. Today the list of things that are cheugy is ever-growing; the tabs frequently discussed are caring about the Kardashians, rose gold jewellery and thinking Chrissy Tiegan and John Legend are couple goals. The New York Times writer Taylor Lawrence adds Gucci belts with the large double G logo, being really into sneaker culture and anything chevron pattern. While Buzzfeed News reporter, Kelsey Weekman, sums it up by arguing that whatever is cheugy now was the millennial girlboss aesthetic of the mid 2010s. Cheugy is in part of a generational divide, it's not the same as basic but whatever Gen Z deems as cheugy is what millennials called basic. As Alex Luger put it in the New York Times, “We were basic in ours 20s and now we’re cheugy in our 30s, but whereas ‘basic’ was millennial poking fun at other millennials, Gen Z uses cheugy as a way to distance themselves from their out-of-touch try-hard millennial elders.”.
Gen Z’s adoption of cheugy as a way to gently roast millennials feels in keeping with the much publicised and possibly over exaggerated feud between the two generations which often focuses on deeply trivial things like skinny vs baggy jeans or side vs centre parts. The term took off on TikTok, the social media platform with the most cachet among Gen Z while it designates as cheugy a lot of things associated with different social media platform, Instagram, a more stereotypical millennial app. In fact, if you want a quick explainer for cheuginess, you could do a lot worse than listen to Bo Burnham’s song White Woman’s Instagram. As well as the song being a good list of cheugy characteristics, it also touches on the other common denominator to cheuginess: that it is predominantly applied to women. Something that launched a debate on whether cheugy is like ‘basic’, just another misogynistic way to police women on the things they buy. Like Burnham’s song, cheugy is specifically about white women which is something influencer and writer, Keira Bria, picked up on soon after the term went viral for the first time saying, “I believe that it’s not a phrase that came from Gen Z to millennials but actually from white girls to other white girls.” Unlike cheugy, other viral trends like The Karen and The Becky came first from the black community as a way to identify or poke fun at certain kinds of white women who embody white privilege in a particular way. Cheugy almost feels like white Gen Z’s have reacted to this popular criticism of whiteness and tried to insulate themselves from the criticism so they can join the fun. Bria commented, “I find it so interesting to be sitting back watching white women micromanage what makes other white women cool.”. Unfortunately though the result is a lot of casual misogyny directed at women and internalised misogyny that women direct at themselves.
In The Social Network (2011, directed by David Fincher.) Mark Zuckerberg is clear about what is making his new website a success and that is “coolness”. But since Facebook’s early days, a whole series of popular social networks have popped up, each winning the success of young people diminishing the coolness of the last. While Facebook remains giant, how long has it been since it was considered “cool”? The word “trend” has been used since the 50s and derives from the proto-Germanic word “Tranijan'' meaning “turn and revolve” which gets at how by definition, trends are always in motion; what’s in currently is already on its way out. From trend eras gone by, we can often organise them by decades over time. Trends have been speeding up however, in the early 90s the laid-back slacker aesthetic was brought in to the mainstream by bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, but by the middle of the decade the style was embraced by advertising in the fashion industry, the coolness of the grunge look became diluted.
Today, the cycle is happening on overdrive in a matter of months, weeks, days or hours developing what’s known as microtrends. It’s no surprise that the cheugy label emerged on TikTok as TikTok and social media more broadly have cultivated this new fast-paced trend ecosystem with their obsession with trends. On Twitter, trends barely last a week when the trending term was born from Twitter hashtags. Thanks to social media rather than trends trickling down from influential media voices, they get hoovered up by anyone who posts something viral and instead of a small number of people doing something while everyone watches and slowly catches up, everyone starts doing it immediately causing the cycle from trendy to cheugy is very quickly complete. Cheuginess underlines just how short the life cycle of “cool” is right now because if we look at things that get called cheugy, some of them were seen as pretty cool not too long ago.
Liking Harry Potter as an adult for instance comes up a lot. It can be seen as an easy shorthand generational target for going after for millennials who grew up with Harry Potter when it first released, but in the 2010s, Harry Potter seemed like it was untouchable nearly universally beloved cultural treasure and was exploding its universe, undergoing a cultural revival. In 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child debuted on the West End in London, drawing praise for its more complicated investigation of Slytherin characters as well as its progressive move of casting a woman of colour in the lead role as Hermione Granger, where white actress Emma Watson portrayed the character for the 10 year movie stint. Yet, while the franchise is still successful, its cultural capital was suddenly threatened when it was mired in controversies associated with its creator, JK Rowling and the controversies surrounding lead actors Johnny Depp and Ezra Miller. With one fan telling The Washington Post, “We can still love and cherish the story but we can no longer economically support the franchise.”.
Harry Potter is not the only cultural product whose newfound cheuginess aligns with a re-examination of its politics from this new generation. Arguably, the defining cultural product of the 2010s is the musical Hamilton and its defining artist and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. First performed on Broadway in 2015, Hamilton epitomised Obama-era America’s idea of the liberal progressive ethos. Hamilton was undeniably cool, but Gen Z aren’t as into Lin-Manuel Miranda as millennials were. While Hamilton’s original coolness stemmed from how fresh and different it felt to cast people of colour as the Founding Fathers and interpret national history through the medium of hip-hop, the show has faced a reappraisal drawing criticism for not going further than casting to more radically question many of the dominant narratives of the Founding Fathers.
There is nothing inherently bad about the things that get called cheugy and they don’t necessarily damage the environment or feel problematic, they’re just considered a bit mainstream or cliche or out of style. In fact, the biggest factor of commonality across a lot of cheugy things is that they deliver a sense of comfort and nostalgia which maybe clashes with the more cynical world view. In 2021, Buzzfeed’s Daniella Emmanuel launched a quiz to determine which of the 12 most popular TV shows of all time were cheugy. Ryan Murphy’s Glee earned the highest percentage with 87%, thanks to its soapy high school drama plotlines, the earnestness of musical theatre and acapella troops, and the nostalgia of some of its song choices. If you take away the obvious correlation between being older and seen as cheugy, the shows that are considered the most cheugy all have an earnest, comforting nostalgic lack of cynicism at their core - This Is Us, How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy and The Big Bang Theory.
The comforting aspect of cheuginess also explains why being a Disney adult has come to be seen almost universally as cheugy. After the launch of Disney+ in 2019 made the Disney canon that adults had grown up with immediately and easily accessible. But given the uncertain and anxious time we’re living through, is it any wonder people are seeking out comforting, nostalgic and escapist media to consume? Friends, described by Emmanuel as “objectively cheugy”, may be dated and out of touch in many ways, yet it's cheugy ‘comfort food’ warmth makes it more popular than ever with a giant viewership with worldwide Friends Fest gatherings and the recent Friends reunion. Meanwhile, the shows that didn’t get voted as cheugy on Buzzfeed tend to be newer and cooler but they may be having to work a lot harder to underplay or caveat any perceived earnestness. For all Brooklyn 99’s sweetness, it’s more focused on zanier comedy and can be fairly self-conscious about its emotional moments. New Girl’s slow-burn Ross and Rachel update, Nick and Jess feel less cheugy and realer, but that also makes their relationship lower stakes and less idealistic as if their romance isn’t taking itself too seriously. There’s a quirky self-effacing quality to these shows that undercut any soapiness and thus avoid the cheuginess label but do this rarely allowing themselves to be too straightforward.
Cheugy may have started out as an insult from Gen Z to millennials, but it’s now embraced by plenty of people especially millennials in a way to define cultural moments of their generation just like basicness has been reclaimed before it. Ironically, this act of reclamation may be enough to shed any cheugy association. Going back to the word’s originator, Gaby Rasson in The New York Times explains, “Looking good for yourself and not caring what other people think, that confidence exudes non-cheuginess”. So can you really be cheugy if you’re happily embracing cheugy purely for yourself? We’ve become used to being judged by the things we like, the culture we consume, the clothes we wear, and just generally what our taste is but is that really the best way to understand who we are? The 2000s rise of the ultra discerning hipster who prided themselves on their taste in chasing ever more exclusive trends was wildly lamented and mocked by our culture at large. But today, complaining about cheugy feels like it comes from the same place; judging people based on the versions of themselves they put online, as if we should all spend endless effort and attention to how the public details of our style keep up with or stay ahead of mainstream trends.
It’s an exhausting expectation and the end point is that everything you like will eventually become cheugy. So if cheuginess is inevitable, maybe we should embrace our inner cheuge and just let people enjoy the things they enjoy without worrying about if they’re cool. Criticising someone for unself-consciously leaning into the things they love says more about the person throwing the insult.