The basic bitch: a lifelong struggle with relating to Generic Womanhood

Friday, 14 November 2014


In 1999, I smugly recorded in my diary that on non-uniform day at school, I'd been one of only two girls in my form not to wear head to toe sports brands. Aged 14, my favourite outfit consisted of cord flares (Gap; too big as I'd misread the label and looked at the US sizing), a bottle green velvet jacket (Camden Market) and cherry red Dr Marten boots (£30 in the sale. £30). The girls who tended to wear head to toe sports brands and mock my cord flares, were 'trendies': the basics of the late 90s. In 1999, trendies wore Kickers or Fila sweatshirts with bootcut jeans and listened to boy bands and UK garage. I inked Kula Shaker lyrics onto my homework diary in metallic gel pen; they did the same with the lyrics to Sweet Like Chocolate. 

In 2004, I was a student. The trendy, transported into the campus environment, had evolved, and my best friend and I, angsty and awkward, were by now referring to them as 'generics'. Generics wore Miss Sixty jeans and sometimes their boyfriend's sports stash. They had super-straight hair and made a lot of noise in the dining hall. They were your rag reps and your Christmas ball committee and they sniggered behind their hands whenever the Christian Union rep made an announcement about something. They didn't write angry letters to the student magazine when the Union bar ran a Playboy-themed night. They chatted loudly in the corridor about how they were definitely cutting back on carbs. I only had two small potatoes with dinner this evening. Do you think that's ok?

It's 2014 and the trendy who became the generic has now evolved into the 'basic', or the 'basic bitch'. Despite the origins of the term, it's come to to define a particular sort of young white woman. The basic likes Uggs and seasonal beverages and posting dubiously-attributed Marilyn Monroe quotes on Facebook, while watching Sex and the City and scrolling through her 'wedding inspiration' board on Pinterest. Should you wish to find out, Buzzfeed et al can give you examples of what a basic posts on Instagram, the sort of texts she sends, how she treats her boyfriend and what she gets up to on a girls' night out.

The US-centric stereotype doesn't always translate, but the idea of the basic is universal. And as Noreen Malone wrote in this piece for The Cut last month, it's taken off because it '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.'

Malone sums it up perfectly when she describes the basic as 'the woman who fails to surprise us'. She buys into what society and capitalism tells us it means to be a woman today. She's unoriginal, and she doesn't care. What's noticeable about the current usage of 'basic' is that it doesn't simply describe unoriginal patterns of consumption; it also describes patterns of thought and modes of expression. Feminists can be 'basic'. Mothers can be 'basic' (witness the rivalry between Mumsnet and Netmums and the stereotypes the former has of the latter). Fashion and lifestyle bloggers who don't necessarily buy in to generic consumerism but actually see themselves as pretty 'alternative' can also be 'basic'.


As if you couldn't have guessed it, from my tales of 1999 and 2004, I have to confess to a lifelong struggle with all that is basic. At the age of 14, major aspects of my personality and behaviour were little more than a construction to throw other girls off the scent and give them something to talk about. If they're mocking my clothes and my taste in music, at least they're not mocking the way I look or the fact I don't have a boyfriend. It was only in recent years that it became clear to me exactly what I'd been up to, diverting their mockery at the same time as inwardly marking myself out as better than them. If you grew up being given funny looks by all your popular, incredibly generic peers, if you ever felt like a tortured soul or called yourself 'indie' or wrote in your journal that you were pretty misunderstood, really, you've probably had a lifelong struggle with relating to all that is basic. Sooner than you know it you're 30 years old, and you're still avoiding basics and rolling your eyes when they pop up in your Facebook feed.

Those of us who can't deal with 'basicity' have a tendency to (inwardly) mark ourselves out as 'not like Those Women'; those generic ones over there. In a hangover from our school years, we categorise and separate out. We're more unique, more interesting, more special. Today the tables have turned, and the basic is no longer queen. She may subscribe to all that is on-trend and acceptable for women, but she's no longer cool. What I believe is an uncomfortable truth for many of us as feminists, however, is that decrying basic culture is kind of problematic. We know it, and we do it anyway. Noreen Malone started to explore this and hit the nail on the head when she concluded her piece saying:

'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.'

When you're calling another woman basic, you probably haven't got to know her very well. And it's fairly reliant on your perception of what society sees as 'things for women' as inferior. Ouch. I'm not going to pretend I'm the first person to feel conflicted about the popularity of the word. In fact, the thinkpieces about it have been numerous. Anne Helen Petersen, for Buzzfeed, described women being dismissive of all things basic as little more than class anxiety, citing the term's origins as having class connotations and explaining its current usage in the same way:

'Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them. To consume and perform online in a basic way is thus to reflect a highly American, capitalist upbringing. Basic girls love the things they do because nearly every part of American commercial media has told them that they should.'

Petersen ends her piece by telling us that mockery of the basic woman is 'troubling' and 'regressive':

'To call someone “basic” is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.'

Responding on Thought Catalog, Anna Dorn vehemently disagrees. Calling out basicity, as she sees it, is 'rooted in female empowerment'. She gets the argument that deriding other women as 'basic' for choices they have made in the vacuum of patriarchal society is misogyny, but she doesn't ascribe to it.

'...basic-bashing is not about punishment. It’s about women rising up. It’s about women saying – We can be real people with real thoughts and opinions. We can wear our natural hair. We can be loud and curse and be offensive. We can say fuck heels because they hurt. Basicity is about giving power to the fringes, because basics – the walking embodiment of male subordination – ultimately have all the power.'

She concludes that '...basic-bashers can’t be misogynistic because we don’t stand to benefit from patriarchy.'


Both Petersen and Dorn are partially correct. As women, defining ourselves as superior to basics is somewhat rooted in anxieties surrounding consumption and class - even when we write off feminists as 'basic' because their commitment to the cause goes about as far as reading Lena Dunham's autobiography and thinking that a women's magazine running a feature on feminism 'is everything'. But it's not the full story. It's about buying in to expectations that we'll always define ourselves in opposition to some other group of women. Not like those women, thinking this, supporting that and wearing those clothes. Writing off women as friends and sisters because our opinions are superior or because they haven't reached a certain level of consciousness yet, sealing ourselves off and sneering at the Other. Radfems vs libfems vs funfems vs whitefems.

When we differentiate ourselves from all that is basic, we're representing all that is real and diverse and exciting about being a woman on the fringe when it is, indeed, what is generic and safe that has the power. Every woman who's ever felt free to be the person she really is knows that. Generic and safe is the ideal, and when you don't fit the mold you're often made to feel bad about it. Being able to say 'That's not me and I don't care' is liberating. But defining 'basic-bashing' as feminist praxis? 21st century empowerment as declaring that we're not like other girls and effectively writing off those generic specimens of womanhood as people who matter? It's indisputably problematic.

It's here that disagreements over the nature of sisterhood are bound to come in. Feminism doesn't mean liking all other women, or even being able to relate to them, but sneering at other women and calling it empowered shouldn't even come into it. Call it what it is: an extension of the way women have always been socialised to relate to other women, judging them and eyeing them up as competition and fuelling our anxieties about being interesting and clever and real.

Having always written off that which we now call basic, I've felt challenged in recent weeks not to buy into that any longer. Don't like particular women for particular reasons? Fine. Name them. But basic-bashing isn't about women rising up. It's upholding the status quo and shutting women out of potential opportunities to learn, grow, and identify with one another,


Emma said...

In my experience, all the "basics" (I called them clones) were the girls who liked shopping, clothes, shoes, handbags, clubbing, make-up and never read any books. They listened to cool music and mocked anyone who liked uncool music (uncool = B*witched, Spice Girls etc). They would never be caught dead wearing sports clothes but they all wore flared jeans/cords.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the UK and this concept of 'basic' is completely unfamiliar to me and my peers. I wasn't popular at school but everybody was friends with each other despite our differences and there weren't big divides or cliques like in US culture. I think that's why the film 'Mean girls' is completely irrelevant in the UK - we just can't identify with it.

Hannah Mudge said...

I think the way cliques play out at school varies a lot. But you are right, things were not as polarised here as they were in USian popular culture.


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