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Notes on ‘Cheugy’

Brenda Martinez

13 MAY 2021

In her seminal essay, Notes on ‘Camp, Susan Sontag wrote that “to name a sensibility, to draw its contours and recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” In our contemporary era, sensibilities seem to come and go and come back again at an incredibly quick pace; culture moves at lightning speed. But culture is also a continuum, and history can be a tool to observe and unpack contemporary phenomena. With that in mind, we decided to channel Sontag as we try to explain not camp but the newest sensibility on the block: cheugy

 

A new-but-old sensibility, cheugy is a Gen Z term to describe a distinct style – mostly jokingly, mildly pejoratively, and usually aimed at millennials. The inimitable Taylor Lorenz has already written about cheugy for the NYT (the first sign that a bit of internet culture is headed towards its peak and subsequent decline), writing that cheugy can “be used, broadly, to describe someone who is out of date or trying too hard.” 

 

There are now boundless TikToks that break down cheugy into an easily digestible visual language; and if you’re inclined towards text, Urban Dictionary now has several definitions of the word. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a whole IG, Cheug Life, dedicated to documenting all things cheug —  which in and of itself feels like a cheugy interpretation of meme accounts.

 

Because the word seems to have shifting definitions, we thought we’d pull a Sontag and jot down some musings on cheugy, rather than diving into a formulaic essay. And anyway, an essay? From a millennial? Cheugy.

 

  • To start: cheugy is essentially a modifier for “basic”; at its core, it simply points out what or who is passé. Definitions vary, but what it boils down to is a distinct way of approaching the world: a little bit behind the times. Decidedly uncool. Probably millennial. 

 

  • A short list of the canon of cheugy: 
  1. Chevron print 
  2. “Live, laugh, love” on wooden decor 
  3. Rae Dunn (sorry, girl) 
  4. Christian Girl Autumn 
  5. Disney adults 
  6. Gucci belts 
  7. #GirlBoss 
  8. The phrase “I did a thing”
  9. Buzzfeed

 

  • According to the above list: what is cheugy, if not a WASP aesthetic persevering? 
  • Unlike camp, cheugy is entirely in the eye of the beholder. What one person may think is cheugy, another may not. But make no mistake: the main arbiters of cheugy are Gen Z, and that should come as no surprise. They’ve transformed the internet and the landscape of culture itself, which is why there are endless reports, think pieces, surveys, etc, aimed at understanding them (all of which have a certain cheuginess to them, ours included). Those reports and write-ups will only continue as Gen Z ages — that is, until Gen Alpha becomes the demographic du jour. 

 

  • Now that I’m writing this out, I’m starting to think it’s less Sontag and more listicle, which feels very cheugy, especially coming from a millennial. And writing about it a week after the phenomenon started its online decline is extra cheugy. 

 

  • Speaking of the trajectory of cheugy: in what may become an inevitable part of the lifecycle of a meme or any online phenomenon, the woman who coined the term cheugy in 2013, Gaby Rasson, has turned it into an NFT. You know, for the tech cheugs. And once brands’ personified Twitter accounts, like Wendy’s, start to use the phrase? It means the word is dead. (Though, if I’m honest — cheugy already feels cheugy to me.)

 

  • Cheugy is, amazingly, a bit of true internet slang, like “le$bean/ledollarbean” (which came from the text-to-voice feature on TikTok as users tried to skirt around censorship), “uwu”, “oomf”, or doggo-speak. It’s remarkable for that very reason. 

 

  • As a relevant aside, a lot of slang attributed as “internet slang” or “Gen Z slang” is actually appropriated or misused AAVE (look no further than the absolutely cringe SNL take on “Gen Z Slang” with their skit, Gen Z Hospital; more than half of the phrases used to poke fun at Gen Z in that skit have their origins in AAVE). But unlike AAVE, cheugy has been correctly attributed to its maker, which speaks volumes about what aspects of our cultural landscape we validate over others.  

 

Another quote from Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp’ can easily apply to cheugy: 

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.”

Pure cheugy lacks self-awareness. It is simply in how one moves about the world and what someone likes, regardless of the cultural forces that dictate what is cool and what is not. Deliberate cheuginess, better phrased as ironic cheuginess, is a little cringe. 

 

  • In short: you’re cheugy if you’re trying too hard to look or be cool, because even the things that are “cool” can be cheugy depending on the context and the person. Everything is cheugy, eventually.

Cheugy is yet another addition to the ongoing generational discourse between millennials and Gen Z. But the word also speaks to how we create in- and out-groups, using visual & even text-based markers to define what is ‘cool’ and what is passé. That, in turn, becomes the cultural currency of our industry, which helps brands tap into distinct groups to define their audiences and develop campaigns. With that said, though: we’re in an age where cultural consumption feels like homework and the tides of the zeitgeist seem to shift every day.

At New Moon, it’s our job as cultural observers to not only know what’s ‘cool’ but also what’s ‘cheugy’. What’s emerging. What’s changing. Not every movement or moment is for everybody or every brand, that’s why niche marketing exists. It’s fine to exist at an entirely different cultural frequency; hit us up if you want to find yours.

Lots of love,
Brenda