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On being basic

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Synonyms for “basic:” Uninteresting, bland, everyday. Also synonyms for “basic:” feminine, privileged, oblivious, scorn-worthy, popular.

According to Urban Dictionary, “basic” is an adjective that translates to “only interested in things mainstream, popular, and trending,” but this is a rare circumstance in which Urban Dictionary is lagging a bit behind the cultural zeitgeist. “Basic,” for the last five to 10 years, has become an increasingly incisive insult against young women–particularly white women–who like things that other young women like, and as such are worthy of widespread societal disdain.

In a recent conversation with a female friend of mine, I threw out the thought that people have finally tapered off their use of “basic.” My friend shook her head, eyes wide, and emphatically said that in her male-dominated STEM field, at least, “basic” is still very much alive, and very much linked to its function in casual misogyny.

(Note: “Basic” as a linguistic term is originally stolen from Black slang, and I’m not qualified to speak on the subject of that particular cultural appropriation; read Kara Brown’s piece in Jezebel for full etymology and context.)

“Basic” as it is (apparently still) used now connotes intellectual laziness, superficiality, acceptance of and participation in social trends – it’s the uncritical consumption of the status quo. And yet that supposedly perpetuated status quo is incredibly niche within itself; it refers only to that which is popular among a young, female demographic. As it currently stands, “basic” is a heavily feminized and heavily class-specific epithet; the woman to whom it refers “cherishes uninspired brands – a mix of Target products, Ugg boots over leggings, and Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes … and lives a banal existence, obsessed with Instagramming photos of things that themselves betray their basicness,” as Anne Helen Peterson outlines in her article for Buzzfeed News.

“Basic,” then, has become the precursor to the “basic bitch,” which is an even more cringe-worthy popularization of a gendered slur, and it’s excused in casual conversation because it’s supposedly true. The “basic bitch” – charmingly characterized as a life-threatening disease in College Humor’s 2014 video, “How to Tell if You’re a Basic Bitch” – is the archetypal woman who “conforms to the most bland and uncreative stereotypes of late capitalist femininity,” according to Michael Reid Roberts at The American Reader One of the “defining characteristics of the basic bitch is that she doesn’t know she’s basic.”

I am far from the first to poke holes in the fabric of this kind of basic-ness; Noreen Malone at The Cut, Peterson at Buzzfeed News and an author-less op-ed at The Everygirl each attack the “basic” epidemic from a new angle, and their pieces are complicated and compelling. The obvious vacuum in the “basic” conversation, though, is the lack of discussion of the historical constancy of the anti-“basic” outcry, a documented trend of scoffing at the collective affection of young women. “Basic,” Malone explains, “isn’t an especially new or insightful insult.” And indeed, it’s not; unfortunately, the United States in particular has a history of demonizing and dismissing the social identities young women create for themselves and for their cohort.

While being “basic” is supposedly just the equivalent of “liking mainstream things,” it’s become more about liking what young women like – women in their teens and 20s, specifically. There’s a long, ignored history of disparaging and devaluing popular trends because they’re buoyed by the enthusiasm of young women. As Alexandra Pollard at The Guardian says, we operate in “a culture in which older men are the bastions of good taste,” and “young women’s enthusiasm is dismissed as a sort of mass hysteria, blocking their ability to discern good from bad.” Basically, things are bad because they’re basic, and things are basic because they’re beloved by women.

Pollard specifically tracks the influence of young female fans in popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, noting with no little irony that David Bowie was popular with female fans and unpopular with the male demographic: “Cut to 43 years later, and it seems those girls were pretty spot on as far as that ‘bizarre, self-constructed freak’ Bowie was concerned.” Beatlemania was likewise bolstered by female devotees; “The Beatles belonged to every teenage girl,” reminisces novelist Linda Grant. Alexis Chaney at Vox similarly reminds us that adult men in the 1950s believed, “that ‘Elvis can’t sing, can’t play the guitar, and can’t dance. Yet 2,000 idiots per show yelp every time he opens his mouth, plucks a guitar string, or shakes his pelvis like any striptease babe in town. What’s happening that makes these girls scream, faint, [and] pay lavish devotion for these musicians?’”

Had “basic” been a term at the time, can any of us argue that these fangirls wouldn’t have fit the bill?

It becomes uncomfortably clear that liking “basic” content doesn’t invalidate someone’s taste unless that someone is young and female, both of which are supposed to automatically discount that someone’s opinions from the cultural conversation altogether. I’m not arguing that a boozy brunch is on par with the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon, but, “The interests of teen girls have always been maligned,” Chaney points out. “Things that are appealing to and popular with young girls are still coded as bad and insignificant, regardless of whether they actually are.”

The “basic” insult “is meant to, in some way, make a woman feel bad about herself for wearing, consuming, or even just liking perfectly nice things that lots of other people like, too,” as the Everygirl article so eloquently states. Mainstream interests that are linked to stereotypical masculinity, for example, do not receive remotely the same level of popular ridicule – sports leagues are international, multi-billion dollar industries; vintage car showings are alive and kicking; the choking-on-cigar-smoke-so-thick-it-looks-like-San-Francisco-in-here steakhouse is a refuge for the old and the “manly.”

Elizabeth Minkel at NewStatesman asks, “Why are screaming girls, overcome with excitement for a group they love, considered a punch line, the pinnacle of immaturity, and something extraordinarily shameful, when the largely male, adult crowds at sporting events openly weep, bellow, paint their naked bodies in bright colours, clutch each other, and even commit physical violence due to emotion, both when their teams lose and when they win?” Why are men who subscribe to the mainstream not equally “basic” as the 20-year-old girl who orders a vanilla bean Frappucino? (A man who ordered a vanilla bean Frappucino would ironically declare his “basic-ness” for all to hear, preemptively defending himself against accusations of femininity.)

“’Basic’ is, at bottom,” says Peterson, “a stereotype. And like all stereotypes, we fling it at others in order to distance ourselves from them. These people are this thing; therefore, I am this other thing.” It becomes especially effective as a tool of self-policing among women, “a way to shame women and girls for not being special enough, not tough enough, not ‘cool’ enough,” Everygirl explains, self-aware and shame-faced. “We lobbed the insult at each other, because in using it, we were also declaring our own uniqueness, our own lack of basic-ness.”

Disliking basic-ness is  “internalized misogyny given a name. It is the phrase ‘I’m not like other girls,’ packaged as an insult,” as the Everygirl article highlights; it’s an extension of the mentality where women feel the need to differentiate themselves from other women in order to gain approval from the (male) world at large, because God knows that being like “other girls” is the worst thing a girl can be. ““Basic,” Everygirl contends, “took off the way it did because it gave us a word to put down other women we deemed as unoriginal trend-followers.” The confidence for a woman to be unapologetically basic, then, comes out of unlearning that internalized shame and sexism.

I am not blameless in this toxic smorgasbord of expectations and gender roles; as a teenager, I was absolutely someone who prized being “alternative” over being “basic,” who preferred “Sherlock” to “Sex and the City,” who praised Kristen Bell over Kesha (I’m sorry, Kesha, I know better now). I never went so far as to verbally belittle “other girls” for their Uggs and NorthFace jackets (of which there were many during Denver winters) to their faces, but I insistently – and ignorantly – intellectualized my disengagement from the typical “teenage girl” lifestyle. I was complicit in the casual criticism flung at other girls for their comfort, their character, their diction; I was uninformed of the toxicity inherent in the “basic bitch” trend.

What I have hopefully learned since then is that there’s nothing special in blind disgust; the obsession with someone being “basic” is just a not-so-subtle evolution of misogyny and a misdirected judgment of other people. Who cares so much about someone else’s harmless lifestyle choices that they feel the need to memorialize them in a one-dimensional paradigm? Popular things are usually popular for a reason; you don’t have to swim with the crowd, but don’t stigmatize those who do. Calm down. Drink some Kombucha.

I’m not saying that you should strike “basic” from your vocabulary completely, but be aware of what you mean when you feel the need to roll your eyes at fairy lights and avocado toast. If someone’s basic-ness makes them happy, who are you to refuse them that?

 

 

Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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