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In Defense of Basic | What Does It Meme?

If you want to burn someone so badly you dismiss their entire identity, you call them “basic.” It’s an insult leveled at someone unforgivably bland; whose interests are dictated entirely by what’s trendy or in mainstream fashion, and whose personality is no personality at all. On-screen, we can spot the Basic Girl in movies and shows old and new, through her love of “trendy” fashion, brand-name items, or pop culture. Stories about this kind of character have long reinforced a common message: being The Basic Girl is bad. But is un-self-consciously enjoying mainstream interests really as terrible as pop culture has long made it out to be? Here’s our Take on why it’s time to embrace being basic—if that’s who you really are.

TRANSCRIPT

If you want to burn someone so badly you dismiss their entire identity, you call them “Basic.” It’s an insult leveled at someone unforgivably bland; whose interests are dictated entirely by what’s trendy or in mainstream fashion, and whose personality is no personality at all.

In the peak of the label’s popularity in the early 2010s, being a “basic” suggested a recognizable constellation of mainstream likes, such as Pumpkin Spice Lattes, yoga pants, or the TV show Friends. But since the main identifier is an adherence to whatever’s popular, the signifiers of “basic” change with the times and the trends. Today, for example, the embodiment of ‘basic’ is the VSCO girl — named after the photography app — who is a modern update to the basic girl of the 2010s and faces much of the same belittlement. Whatever she may be into at any given moment, the “basic bitch” is disdained for being (as various Urban Dictionary definitions put it) an extra regular female,” “overly generic,” or “typical and a dime a dozen”

On-screen, we can spot the Basic Girl in movies and shows old and new, through her love of “trendy” fashion, brand-name items, or pop culture. She’s conventional and cares about how others perceive her — a trait that today can materialize in a borderline-obsessive love of social media. Stories about this kind of character have long reinforced a common message: being The Basic Girl is bad.

More recently, though, stories are starting to question this assumption. Is unselfconsciously enjoying mainstream interests really as terrible as pop culture has long made it out to be? Here’s our take on why it’s time to embrace being basic — if that’s who you really are.

The Rise of Basic

The “Basic Bitch” term was first added to Urban Dictionary in 2009, attributed to comedians Lil Duval and Youtuber Spoken Reasons, who painted this figure as fake or inauthentic. To be basic wasn’t necessarily female to start — rappers like Tyga and Lil Wayne declared that they were not basic. In 2011, Kreayshawn’s song “Gucci, Gucci” cemented the “basic bitch” in the popular vocabulary as someone who was obsessed with popular brands. And in 2012, teen Internet Star Lohanthony, known for his viral video on the subject defined the basic bitch as “someone who does what everyone else is doing and isn’t their own person at all.”

The early to mid-2010s were peak “basic,” with searches for “basic” hitting an all-time high in 2014, the year of the popular College Humor video, “How to Tell If You’re a Basic Bitch”, and the Vogue article in which Emma Stone embraced being called a “Bland Basic Bitch.” In these years, an online obsession grew with defining “signs” of the basic bitch and how to tell if you were (or knew, or were dating) one. While the concept originated in the Black community, it evolved to take on more white preppy connotations, being associated with a fondness for brands like Hollister and Abercrombie, and of course, Starbucks.

“Two years later you’re tweeting about Starbucks, hashtag caffeine.” - College Humor, “How to Tell If You’re a Basic Bitch”

As The Cut identifies, other “basic” characteristics included “Reading Jodi Picoult, wearing pink Red Sox gear, drinking Skinnygirl Margarita drinks, watching The Notebook, [and] citing faux Marilyn Monroe quotes.” In 2010, Celebrity gossip blog Oh No They Didn’t released the post “Basic Bitches 101” which compiled a list of “basic” female actors and musicians and defined basic traits as things like looking “virtually interchangeable,” being famous for “doing something else than what they originally entered the entertainment business foror using “someone else’s [sic] success as a catalyst for their own.” In 2013, Ms. Not Right Now wrote that “basic” is an uncanny ability to aspire to mediocrity.”

Outgrowing Basic

On-screen stories about the Basic Girl tend to suggest that basicness is a condition to be overcome — a waypoint on the road to some realer, more worthy individuality. Typically, if the Basic Girl is pitched as the protagonist or a likable supporting character, she outgrows her basicness.

Alexis Rose: “Yes, love that journey for me!” - Schitt’s Creek 1x02

In Leap Year, the protagonist Anna begins the movie embodying the more negative aspects of basicness: she’s kind of boring, rigidly conventional, and obsessed with superficial ideas of feminine success. Her story centers around becoming more “interesting,” as she comes to realize she wants something more original out of life than the perfect apartment with the perfect, rich doctor husband.

Another character who shows the deep connections between basic-ness and privilege is Schitt’s Creek’s Alexis Rose. When we meet her, money and status are the foundations of rich girl Alexis’s whole identity, so she hasn’t learned to prize individuality or genuine self-knowledge. It’s only when she loses her comfortable lifestyle and is forced to suddenly survive “regular life” that she can discover who she really is and journey out of the condition of being basic.

Outgrowing basic can sometimes be accomplished by simply choosing a love interest with perceived depth. Bianca in 10 Things I Hate About You starts off as basic until she demonstrates growth by falling for a guy who isn’t popular or shallow. Torrance from Bring It On likewise outgrows her basicness by leaning into her creativity and becoming aware of her white privilege while also choosing a love interest who’s seen as deep and “alternative.”

Torrance Shipman: “So, is that your band or something?”

Cliff Pantone: “The Clash?” - Bring It On

In stories like these, basicness is a flaw that needs fixing. It can’t just be a normal or neutral aspect of a character’s personality. And characters who don’t outgrow their basicness are shown in a negative light.

But if you look more closely at these characters, it’s not actually their basicness that’s the problem; it’s that their basicness is painted as entwined with a host of truly negative qualities — like being privileged, vain, gossip-obsessed, or cruel. There isn’t necessarily an actual correlation between any of those traits and basicness, though.

Take The Office’s Kelly Kapoor — a model basic girl. Her basicness is reflected in her bubbly extroversion and obsessive knowledge of pop culture.

Kelly Kapoor: “Beyonce, pink the color, Pink the person, hot dogs, basically anything that is awesome. Snow cones…” - The Office 2x14

Meanwhile, she’s also manipulative, self-involved, and hooked on drama, but these qualities aren’t a result of her being basic.

Eleanor Shellstrop is a bad person at the start of The Good Place, and she’s basic — so we might be tempted to associate her basicness with her amorality. But the problem isn’t her basic tastes — it’s that she lacks purpose, moral principles, and concern for others. Even after she outgrows her negative qualities and even adopts a few more obscure interests like moral philosophy, Eleanor retains her love of all things basic, as well as her basic-girl’s exuberant self-confidence. So she demonstrates that a basic girl can even save all of humankind from eternal damnation, without renouncing her fundamental basicness.

Avoid Basic

From the start, the appeal of calling someone else basic seemed to be a pronouncement of your own un-basicness. As Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen observed: “‘Basic’ is, at the bottom, a stereotype. And like all stereotypes, we fling it at others in order to distance ourselves from them.”

Gina Linetti: “Do you know how many basic bitches would kill to have the same personality as me?” - Brooklyn Nine-Nine 2x15

The opposite of the Basic Bitch is the original and daring Bad Bitch. And on-screen, too, the desire to be anything-but-basic has resulted in tropes such as the “Not Like Other Girls” Girl, who prides herself on the sort of individuality that basic girls presumably lack.

The film Miss Congeniality challenges this mentality through its main character, Gracie, who reflexively dismisses the kind of typically girly and conventional girls who compete in beauty pageants. In the end, Gracie comes to appreciate that being “like other girls” isn’t all that bad.

Whether you identify as a Basic Bitch, a Bad Bitch, or a Not Like Other Girls Girl, though, it can often feel like there’s no way to win. You’re perceived as either mindlessly following trends, or “pretending” to be different by rejecting them — damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And while at first, the Basic label might just feel like a harmless joke, it’s almost only targeted at young women. The “basic guy” — essentially, a “bro” — mostly escapes heated criticism. And it so happens that basic traits commonly coincide with traditionally feminine characteristics. Urban Dictionary’s definition of the “basic bitch” even describes her as “upholding [...] the status quo and stereotypes of their gender, without even realizing it.” In other words, contempt for the basic girl may be rooted in sexism.

Fatin Jadmani: “I get called a girly-girl like it’s a bad thing. So I’m double the amount of girl and somehow that’s not feminist.” - The Wilds

The fear of being shamed for having mainstream interests can restrict young women from being themselves, during that time when they’re figuring out who they are, what they like, and how they want to express themselves. In a Teen Vogue article, Jackie Veling recounts a story of deciding whether to wear Ugg boots to work: “There was this unshakable feeling that wearing these boots would somehow erode the carefully cultivated image I had created for myself as a smart, professional, serious employee… I didn’t want to be seen as one of those girls. You know, the basic kind.”

Embrace Basic

There are some upsides to letting yourself be a little bit basic. The basic person’s mainstream interests allow her to find bigger communities of people who enjoy similar things. And if there’s a great show, movie, song, or clothing item that everyone’s loving, someone basic gets to shamelessly enjoy that, without overthinking it. You might say the ability to consume media without feeling the need to be critical is one of the Basic Girl’s superpowers.

Even more than the Bad Bitch, perhaps the truest opposite of the Basic Girl is the Hipster — the character who automatically rejects everything mainstream, often going to unnecessary lengths simply to be viewed as “different”. Ironically, the hipster’s tastes can be just as dictated by what’s popular. But the Basic Girl can actually be more content and confident in herself than the Hipster or the Not Like Other Girls Girl because she’s not plagued with self-consciousness.

Emily Cooper: “The entire city looks like Ratatouille.” - Emily in Paris 1x01

One of the key traits of the Basic Girl is often that she thinks she (and her life) are pretty great. Returning to that treasure trove of slang, Urban Dictionary, there “Basic Bitch” is described as “tragically/laughably unaware of her utter lack of specialness and intrigue. She believes herself to be unique, fly, amazing, and a complete catch, when really she is boring, painfully normal, and par.” But who is this objective observer that gets to declare the Basic Girl is not as amazing as she feels? If her experiences feel special to her, isn’t that good enough?

Because to be basic is to like what’s popular, often, basic is used as a shorthand for lacking personality. But what if the Basic person actually likes those popular things — why should she hide that?

Rory Gilmore: “So what kind of music do you like?”

Lindsay Lister: “I don’t know, uh, Michelle Branch, Matchbox 20.”

Jess Mariano: “Jeez.” - Gilmore Girls 3x19

Following trends doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mindless; it can just be a way to discover new interests that come highly recommended by others. And having common tastes doesn’t automatically devalue someone, or mean they don’t have depth. Indeed, in The Office, Kelly has more personality than almost any other member of the office

Likewise, Cher in Clueless is a textbook Basic Girl in that she likes fashion, makeovers, believes popularity is a measure of worth, and is at times quite shallow. However, she’s still compelling, creative, and smart. At the end of the movie, Cher and her friends are still being totally basic — talking about planning their weddings and fighting for a wedding bouquet — but it’s clear that Cher has no shortage of intellect or personality outside of her basicness. Likewise, in Legally Blonde, another underestimated blonde Elle Woods may love shopping and mani-pedis, but that doesn’t mean she can’t top her class at Harvard Law.

Reporter: “How did you know Chutney was lying?”

Brooke Taylor-Windham: “Because she’s brilliant, of course.”

Elle Woods: “The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would’ve known.” - Legally Blonde

In recent shows, we’re at last seeing basicness incorporated as a neutral or even positive trait in characters. Shows like The Characters and Emily in Paris acknowledge a new phenomenon: being proud of basicness. Emily in Paris’s main character is initially marginalized for her love of brands, her social media savviness, and her perceived basicness. But it’s these same qualities that allow her to save the day, winning her the respect and affection of even her snobbiest French colleagues.

This change in attitudes is reflected in writer Daisy Buchanan’s article for The Guardian about why she’s “proud to be a basic bitch.” Quote: “We’ve reached a tipping point where there is something incredibly refreshing about admitting that you love what is popular.”

CONCLUSION

Both on-screen and off, it’s time that we realize basic is nothing to be ashamed of. Whether you love learning TikTok dances, can’t help but keep Taylor Swift on your playlists, or keep a spare pair of LuluLemon leggings in the back of your closet, at some point or another, there’s something common and mainstream you won’t be able to resist - and that’s just fine.

While popularity is of course not the only measure of quality, it’s also true that certain figures or creations become popular because they have genuine merit or undeniable appeal. The Basic Girl reflects a mindset that we could all work towards: she does what makes her happy. Instead of needlessly avoiding anything because of what others think, she’s happy to open up her Candy Crush app, retake her favorite Buzzfeed quiz, or sit down to binge Sex and the City for the millionth time. At her best, the Basic Girl is true to herself, and if that makes her boring, she doesn’t really care who knows it.

Donna Shellstrop: “Ya basic!”

Eleanor Shellstrop: “No, mom, ya basic. And that’s okay.” - The Good Place 3x06

SOURCES

Bakar, Faima. “Live, Laugh, Love: The Enduring Culture of Being a Basic Bitch.” Metro, 25 Sept. 2019, www.metro.co.uk/2019/09/25/live-laugh-love-the-enduring-culture-of-being-a-basic-bitch-10676956/.

“Basic Bitch.” Urban Dictionary, 1 May 2014, www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Basic%20Bitch.

“Basic Bitches 101: An ONTD Original.” Oh No They Didn’t!, LiveJournal, 14 Nov. 2010, www.web.archive.org/web/20110801223149/ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/53279039.html.

“Basic.” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, www.etymonline.com/word/basic?ref=etymonline_crossreference.

Buchanan, Daisy. “Why I’m Proud to Be a ‘Basic Bitch’.” The Guardian, 14 Apr. 2014, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/14/proud-to-be-basic-bitch.

Cheek, P.R. “The Deconstruction of the ‘Basic Bitch.’” The Misadventures of Ms. Not-Right-Now, Wordpress, 26 Feb. 2013, www.msnotrightnow.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/the-deconstruction-of-the-basic-bitch/.

Deeley, Rachel. “Why the Basic Bitch Ruled This Decade.” The Business of Fashion, 5 Dec. 2019, www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/end-of-the-decade-basic-bitch-ruled-millennial-gen-z-vsco-girl-normcore-gorpcore-ugg-boots-michael-kors-lululemon-the-north-face.

Gay, Jason. “Emma Stone: Funny, Fashionable, 4 New Films.” Vogue, 21 Apr. 2014, www.vogue.com/article/emma-stone-the-amazing-spider-man-2.

Lange, Maggie. “The ‘Basic Bitch’: Who Is She?” The Cut, 10 Apr. 2014, www.thecut.com/2014/04/basic-bitch-who-is-she.html.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “What We’re Really Afraid Of When We Call Someone ‘Basic.’” BuzzFeed News, 20 Oct. 2014, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/basic-class-anxiety.

Veling, Jackie. “I Stopped Using the Word ‘Basic’ and So Should You.” Teen Vogue, 6 Nov. 2017, www.teenvogue.com/story/why-i-stopped-saying-basic.