Let People Like Things: Stories from the home front of the millennial wars

You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to know that it’s never a good idea to start a war on two fronts, but somehow that’s the strategically ill-advised position that millennials have been backed into, while two battles are waged along generational lines: one against our elders, and another against the youths that aim to depose us.

For many years, that first conflict was the only one we had to worry about, and the antagonists were the same group I suppose every generation clashes with at some point: our parents. The Baby Boomers, perhaps you’ve heard of them. That bloated, hegemonic generation of former hippies turned stone-cold capitalists, who forged most western political and financial systems in their own consumptive image.

In recent decades, the Boomers grew fond of blaming millennials for “killing” entire industries and traditions (mid-priced restaurants, breakfast cereals, diamond engagement rings, among a long list of others); they called us soft and spoiled and self-centred, and linked these failings to a malevolence of so-called “participation trophies” (trophies, I’ll point out, that none of us asked for, and that the Boomers had taken it upon themselves to design and dole out); and they explained away our financial insolvency as the natural consequence of our love of brunch. We responded to these criticisms mostly by rolling our eyes, while also pointing to the tanked economy and ruined planet as evidence that their generation wasn’t all that great either.

But that song has been sung a thousand times by now, and though the quarrels continue, the antipathy has been slowly ebbing into apathy. Blah, we’re spoiled, blah, they’re selfish, etcetera etcetera infinity. Like a sports rivalry nobody else cares about (apparently the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings have a whole thing?) our disagreements have dissolved into comfortable, boring background noise.

:Gen Z has entered the chat:

Who is Gen Z Really? - SF Weekly

I can’t point to one specific moment that ignited the Millennial / Gen Z blood feud, but I can guarantee you it was some kind of Tiktok, and that somewhere in that Tiktok, skinny jeans were mentioned. The early skirmishes always involved skinny jeans. And side parts, and house plants, and loving Harry Potter, and the crying with laughter emoji, and whatever else a bunch of high school students deemed to be indicative of being of a certain age and thus irredeemably uncool. As a lol-ing Ravenclaw, I was a prime target for this ridicule but it did not wound me deeply. Being cool was never something I cared much about when I was actually in high school; it would’ve been a real heel turn to suddenly start attending to the capricious whims of some sixteen year old as an adult.

Trying to debate the issue(s) felt vaguely demeaning as well. Why should anyone have to justify their taste in clothing/decor/fantasy novels at all, let alone to people in an entirely different stage of life? Teenagers and adults who are approaching (or in) their thirties like different things– this is something we should all feel okay about! It’s normal, natural even, and certainly not something anyone should feel defensive about. Or go on the offensive about– but that’s what the teens have done. In recent weeks and months, they’ve escalated tensions via renewed propaganda efforts; having coined a new term destined to go viral purely for how appealing it is in its nonsense: cheugy.

Plenty of publications have attempted to explain the etymology of the word; its pronunciation (“chew-ghee”) its backstory, its definition, whether it’s intended to be negative or if it hovers closer to neutral. I don’t particularly want to get into all of that here, mostly because it’s tedious, but the central idea of cheugy is that it applies to things that are no longer considered cool. (Who is doing the considering here is unclear, but the concept of coolness has always been vague and largely intangible.) The image the word most commonly evokes is that of a millennial woman who is probably white and probably suburban, who is vocal about her love for Starbucks, or Disney, or Uggs, or Friends, or some other omnipresent brand, who has possibly gotten mixed up in the world of multilevel marketing and uses phrases like “Girl Boss” unironically.

If you’re thinking that you know this woman, and that you have no room in your vocabulary for cheugy when you can just go on calling her a basic bitch like you’ve always done, let the discourse assure you that the words are not synonyms. “Basic” is apparently a criticism reserved for taste that tends towards the generic, while “cheugy” indicts tastes that are outdated or overdone. Personally, I don’t know that I buy this distinction. To me, cheugy sounds like just another way to bash the basic girls who grew up.

If you read a primer on both of these words, you might begin to question the usefulness of either of them. “Basic” examples I have come across include but are far from limited to: manicures, Lululemon, Oprah’s book club, astrology, pumpkin spice lattés, and the entire season of fall. “Cheugy,” meanwhile, has been used to encompass everything from cake pops to cartoon Minions to rose gold iPhones to one specific font used on straw sun hats. These are some fairly disparate ideas for such small words to encompass. I like a lot of things on both lists, and have no use for quite a few of them– does this make me basic, cheugy, both, neither? Is there some kind of cheugy threshold you must cross before you’re worthy of this particular form of disdain, some kind of sliding scale? Does any of this matter?

What Is 'Cheugy'? You Know It When You See It. - The New York Times
via NYT

I told you I didn’t care about being cool when I was in high school, and that’s true, but I was still embarrassingly fastidious about presenting myself in a certain way, of adhering to the tastes and aesthetics of the type of person I wanted to be– or at least the type of person I wanted to be perceived as. For at least two years, I exclusively wore Converse sneakers, and band t-shirts I bought from one specific basement store on Queen Street West. I turned my nose up at any records made after 1991, the year I had arbitrarily decided that “real music” took its final breath, which meant that my iPod mainly contained songs from before I was born. I had a black peacoat adorned with pinback buttons, one of which helpfully just said “Punk” on it. I read Sylvia Plath. I constructed my identity inside the box I felt most comfortable being seen in, and I organized my world by putting other people in boxes too, boxes that I could judge and condemn and dismiss out of hand– shops at Abercrombie, willingly attends school semi-formals, wears Sperry’s, or, god forbid, listens to pop.

Cheugy and basic did not yet exist as popular terms of art, lo those many years ago, but if they did I have no doubt I would have used them liberally. I like to attribute this less to my having been a spectacularly pompous fifteen year old, and more to the fact that this is the function of all fifteen year olds who are desperately trying to carve out a space for themselves in this life; who can only figure out who they are if they have a definite articulation of who they are not. To me, that meant juxtaposing myself against my peers, but I guess for teens today it means highlighting the contrast between themselves and the people twice their age. Which is a bit annoying, but I suppose I understand.

Still, if I could give Gen Z some advice, as a decidedly uncool elderly person, it would be this: you don’t have to use broad words to narrowly define other people. You don’t actually have to define other people (or yourself) at all. The internet in particular encourages us to view each other in flat and unforgiving terms, to reduce friends and strangers alike down to their most readily digestible consumer habits. But the world opens up to you when you begin to give people more credit, when you let them surprise you with their layers and contradictions. When you give that same credit to yourself. Years have passed since I finally bought my first pair of Abercrombie jeans, since I first turned a song by the Pussycat Dolls all the way up. I remember both experiences as a bit like being reborn, not as any “type” of person, but just a person. Fully realized, and free to live according to no one’s standards but my own. I wish the same for all the kids who so readily disregard entire human beings with words like basic, cheugy, or whatever gets invented next.

(My other advice does involve hair parts– just a word of caution that the on-trend middle part will draw attention to any asymmetry in your facial features, so if you have lopsided cheekbones or a weirdly large left nostril, you may want to keep that in mind.)

The transition from being scolded by your elders to being scoffed at by your youngers happens with more speed and more overlap than anyone ever expects. But a lot of this intergenerational strife could be avoided if we all just took a step back and let people like things. Whether that’s the cut of their jeans or some ubiquitous television show, or avocado toast, or using an iPad camera to take pictures in public, let’s all forgive every benign trespass of coolness– or at least let it happen without imposing our smug judgement. Let’s wave white flags at every cohort. Maybe peace is cheugy, but let’s give it a chance.

3 thoughts on “Let People Like Things: Stories from the home front of the millennial wars

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