Over the past year, we have arrived at an odd cultural and lexicographical moment: To dress “normal” is the height of chic, yet to call someone “basic” is the chicest put-down, one that shows no signs of disappearing. This is despite the increasing obviousness, with ever-more widespread usage, that basic isn’t an especially new or insightful insult. It’s just about the oldest one in the book.
Basic, according to the BuzzFeed quizzes and CollegeHumor videos that wrested the term from the hip-hop world and brought it into the realm of white-girl-on-white-girl insults, means someone who owns things like Uggs and North Face and leggings. She likes yogurt and fears carbs (there is an exception for brunch), and loves her friends, unless and until she secretly hates them. She finds peplum flattering and long (or at least shoulder-grazing) hair reliably attractive. She exercises in various non-bulk-building ways, some of which have inspired her to purchase special socks for the experience. She bought the Us Weekly with Lauren Conrad’s wedding on the cover. She Pins. She runs her gel-manicured hands up and down the spine of female-centric popular culture of the last 15 years, and is satisfied with what she feels. She doesn’t, apparently, long for more.
The basic bitch — as she’s sometimes called because it’s funnier when things alliterate, and because you’re considered a poor sport if you don’t find it funny — is almost always a she. In more sophisticated renderings, her particularities vary by region and even neighborhood, but she is almost always portrayed as utterly besotted with Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte. It is the setup to nearly every now-familiar punch line about a basic bitch, her love for the autumnal mass-market beverage. Pumpkin Spice Lattes are “mall.” They reveal a girlish interest in seasonal changes and an unsophisticated penchant for sweet. They are sidewalk chalkboards announcing their existence in polka-dot bubble letters. They are from the mid-aughts. They are easy targets.
Basic rolls beautifully off the tongue. It’s a useful insult. Like trashy or gauche, it derives its power from the knowledge that if you can recognize someone or something as basic, you probably, yourself, aren’t it. It also feels restrained, somehow. You don’t quite have to stoop to calling someone a slut or a halfwit or anything truly cruel. It’s not as implicating as calling someone tacky — the basic woman is so evidently nonthreatening she doesn’t even deserve such a raised pulse. Basic-tagging is coolly lazy. It conveys a graduate seminar’s worth of semiotics in five letters. “So basic,” you think, scrolling through your Facebook feed. “She’s basic,” you offer to a friend, commenting on her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. It was a word we’d been looking for.
But why? It seems to me that while what it pretends to criticize is unoriginality of thought and action, most of what basic actually seeks to dismiss is consumption patterns — what you watch, what you drink, what you wear, and what you buy — without dismissing consumption itself. The basic girl’s sin isn’t liking to shop, it’s cluelessly lusting after the wrong brands, the ones that announce themselves loudly and have shareholders they need to satisfy. (The right brands are much more expensive and subtle and, usually, privately owned.)
The basic girl is also someone who isn’t into androgyny. She likes being a woman, or at least she buys the products that are so inherently female-skewing they don’t even NEED to be explicitly marketed to women, like low-calorie margaritas invented by Bravo heroines. She delights in all the things that men dismiss as unserious or that don’t often even register for them as existing — celebrity gossip, patterned disposable cocktail napkins that mean something sentimental. She expresses traditionally feminine desires, like wanting to get married or to have kids. She doesn’t have a poker face when it comes to those things, and doesn’t see the point in trying to develop one. She likes what she likes and she doesn’t care if it doesn’t make her outwardly special. The word basic has become an increasingly expansive stand-in for “woman who fails to surprise us,” as seen in this Vice tournament of basic bitches that includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Mother Teresa and Shirley Temple and both Michelle Williamses, among others. And so the woman who calls another woman basic ends up implicitly endorsing two things she probably wouldn’t sign up for if they were spelled out for her: a male hierarchy of culture, and the belief that the self is an essentially surface-level formation.
It’s all enough to make you wonder if what people actually are really interested in is permission to use the noun and not the adjective. At least a Basic would have the stones to call someone a bitch, if that’s what she meant. After enough white wine.