You enjoy a glass of summertime rosé as much as the next girl. Your seasonal drink game at Starbucks is on point. You coordinate your candle scents by season. You think leggings are life. You literally, and I do mean literally, can not even.
You are, as they say, basic.
…or are you?
The term “basic,” at least as we now know it to be, is almost as young as internet culture itself. Several variations adorn the millennial lexicon: It can be an adjective (“Does owning the complete box set of ‘Friends’ make me basic?”), a noun (“Oh my god, she is such a basic”), or accompany other delightful descriptors a la “basic white girl” and, my personal favorite, “basic bitch.” Though context and intent might lessen or strengthen the insult, each variation 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.
Each variation 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.
Let’s talk about where the word first came from.
The phrase pops up in writing through the 20th century, but its usage is more general — not yet a targeted insult. “You’ve had all you can take of good-looking vacuums and shallow socialites. So you try to be basic. You are such a basic character yourself,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her Unabridged Journals, describing her attempts to socialize in upscale fraternities in 1950.
It’s not until 1985 when “basic” resurfaced in pop-culture, this time in the lyrics to Klymaxx’s In the Ladies’ Room. “These women are puttin’ their hands all over his Yamamoto Kanzai sweater that I bought, and I’m much, much unhappy about that,” she says in the song’s intro. “I’d hate to come down to their level and become a BW. A basic woman.”
There it is, “basic” in its first true iteration. It even came with a handy acronym: BW, a basic woman, a lesser-than female who hits on taken men, one who Klymaxx’s lead singer would rather not stoop to deal with. The BW is not yet a bonafide 21st-century basic — we don’t care about her interests or turn our noses up at her brunch Instagrams — the put-down is as generic as any other insult, save for that it’s always targeted toward women.
We start to see the word attached to “bitch” in 2009, both on Urban Dictionary and in a Youtube video by Lil Duval. In the 2011 song Gucci Gucci, Kreayshawn lists a number of high-end designers, following with the refrain “them basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.” She uses “bad bitch” to describe herself, the antithesis to basic.
‘Basic’ spread like Pumpkin Spice on the first day of Fall. We ascribed highly-specific qualities to a once-general word, painting a white, capitalist picture of Ugg boots, vodka sodas, and an affinity for reality television.
Meme culture, smartphones, and the internet in general all exploded around this time, and slang previously only used in smaller, marginalized groups suddenly burst into the mainstream. “Basic” spread like Pumpkin Spice on the first day of Fall. We ascribed highly-specific qualities to a once-general word, painting a white, capitalist picture of Ugg boots, vodka sodas, and an affinity for reality television.
But let’s pause there: It’s not actually about Uggs and Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
“There is not a set list of characteristics or possessions that make you basic. Rihanna could become the official spokesperson for Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and nobody would think of her as basic,” wrote Kara Brown for Jezebel, in an article pleading for all of us to stop over-analyzing ‘Basic.’ (Whoops.) “You know why? Because Rihanna does what she wants and what she thinks is cool and doesn’t give a damn about anybody else. She’s dope because she thinks she’s dope.”
“Basic” took off the way it did because it gave us a word to put down other women we deemed as unoriginal trend-followers. A way to shame women and girls for not being special enough, not tough enough, not ‘cool’ enough. We lobbed the insult at each other, because in using it, we were also declaring our own uniqueness, our own lack of basic-ness.
We lobbed the insult at each other, because in using it, we were also declaring our own uniqueness, our own lack of basic-ness.
In a lot of ways, it’s internalized misogyny given a name. It is the phrase “I’m not like other girls,” packaged as an insult.
And, much like that tired, sexist phrase, it’s also losing power.
Most American, millennial women know what “basic” means by now. I think it’s safe to say the Starbucks-and-rosé loving among us have stopped caring that we might offend the sensibilities of someone into “cooler” things. We use the word to describe ourselves whilst gleefully arranging our scented candles and shopping at Target. Like many insults, “basic” needs to exist free from irony, free from self-awareness, in order to actually sting.
“One of the defining characteristics of the basic bitch is that she doesn’t know she’s basic,” explained Michael Reid Roberts for American Reader. “Arguably this means that the more people become familiar with the word, the less useful it becomes; there are literally less basic bitches to name.”
I’m glad we live in a world where it’s becoming exponentially less cool to be “not like other girls.” A world where all things feminine (and, heaven forbid, mainstream) are not immediately viewed as less than. A world where women can feel more comfortable enjoying things they like without being shamed by another person’s selfish need to feel cooler and better-than.
A world where we can all live our damn lives in peace, pouring ourselves a glass of rosé as we do it. Cheers.