The slang use of the word “basic” emerged during my high school years and was marked by the appreciation of Starbucks, UGG boots and yoga pants. These three preferences were enough to make someone “basic.” According to an article by Buzzfeed, basic came into usage around 2011. However, according to the piece “that original usage had nothing to do with middle-class white girls. Instead, 'basic bitch,' like so many things that become commonplace within mainstream (white) culture, was appropriated from black culture.”
By 2014, the term basic as it is now understood was widely recognizable. CollegeHumor shared a video titled, “How To Tell If You’re a Basic Bitch.” This is where the slang version of basic derived from: the designation of a woman as a basic bitch. However, as the Buzzfeed article points out, “basic bitch” was the slang primarily used by the Black community. “Basic bitch” also had different connotations before it was co-opted by white culture when it was also shortened to basic.
Basic, in its mainstream slang form, is used to indicate a woman (almost always white in this iteration of the word) who likes things that are popular. The sin of a basic is consuming what other white women consume. The basic woman’s habits are boring. Of course, she likes the popular thing. She likes it because it’s popular.
The wrongdoing of someone who is basic goes beyond that. The basic woman is wrong because her personality is hinged on her taste. Her taste is unoriginal. Therefore her whole being is unoriginal. Therefore she is basic. Because the regular thing to do is decide that someone’s whole essence is encapsulated by their pumpkin spice latte order and thusly condemn them. Basic is, or was at one point, strictly negative.
Since then, basic has grown and changed. Now, partaking in any number of activities can make a person basic. Basic activities include (but are not limited to) buying scented candles, wearing Timberland shoes and ordering white wine. My most distinct basic characteristics are as follows: I like brunch, Warby Parker glasses and the musical, "Hamilton." I can’t even track what’s basic anymore. As far as I can tell, you’re basic for liking anything that people like.
I do think that basic has lost some of the power it once had. I think we’ve collectively leaned into it. While it may still tend to be negative at times, women use basic familiarly now, with affection. And while it was never a particularly impressive or barbed insult, it has found an even more casual place in the vernacular and serves just to call white girls out for doing anything that at least one other white girl might like doing. It has even turned to a term that can be used for men, though basic dudes are more commonly known as “bros,” as can be seen in a CollegeHumor video published the year after the basic bitch video came out.
Even though basic isn’t the insult it used to be, I think it’s interesting that it existed at all. If we deconstruct the motivation behind calling someone basic, it might shed interesting light on the expectations we have for women.
When women call other women basic in a judgmental way, we play into a patriarchal assumption that women have to prove their power by belittling other women. In media, we frequently see women in competition. Female characters are “frenemies” or straight up challengers after the same man. The purpose of female friendships as they are often represented is to exhibit rivalry — to demonstrate that women are too dramatic/petty/emotional (take your pick of adjectives) to simply be friends with another woman or a group of women.
Think about how it’s supposedly a compliment to tell a girl that she’s “not like other girls.” That she’s better because she has differentiated herself from other women; other women typically possess some shared, negative trait but this one woman does not have it. Using the designation of basic convinced women to do this for themselves, to boost their position in the hierarchy by demeaning the tastes of a different group. Noreen Malone, in an article for The Cut, writes that basic, as an insult “derives its power from the knowledge that if you can recognize someone or something as basic, you probably, yourself, aren’t it.”Basic also depends on the oft-internalized idea that women exist to be seen. It relies on the assumption that women’s tastes are performative. Basic only works because we expect that the whole motivation behind women’s preferences is to tell others (like men) something about her, that everything she does has the express purpose of making people think she fits into some specific group. But when she picks the wrong things, or wants people to feel a specific, arbitrarily-determined wrong way about her, we deem her basic. Women are not allowed to just like things. Every single thing they choose to consume is picked with the purpose of crafting a persona. Essentially, calling someone basic assumes that what a woman prefers — from clothing to coffee order — was chosen for the purpose of telling you who she is, and that your judgment is something that matters to her. It probably doesn’t.
As writer Dana Schwartz once tweeted, “Let's stop calling girls basic for liking things that are objectively likable…” Insults, especially gendered ones, lose their power when women refuse to bow to the pressure of undermining other women to secure their own status.
With all of that being said, basic has already started its descent into so-last-year insults. It was weak at best, and as the sheer inanity of it becomes apparent, it just grows weaker. It loses its power if you lean into it, if you reclaim it, if you decide that being basic just means that you like things that are likable. Good for you.
Danielle Colburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org