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,

Feminist t-shirts, call-outs and commodification

Sunday, 2 November 2014

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution of sorts, to distance myself from the sort of feminism that only actually mentions a feminist campaign or organisation when it's tearing it down. There's nothing wrong with critique and highlighting issues within reason, but by the end of last year I'd become thoroughly bored with performative call-outs as a primary form of engagement. This has had its plus points: for one thing I haven't had to spend most of my precious little free time telling everyone how I'm not here for this sort of feminism and not here for her brand of feminism, thanks very much. And one debate I haven't had to wade into recently has been the one surrounding ELLE's next step on its mission to bring a reinvigorated feminism to the readers of glossy magazines. 

It is definitely a good few years since I first wrote about my discomfort with the commodified 'trendy feminism' campaigns that women's magazines have run, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in the last five years or so. Here's one disclaimer: I do appreciate ELLE's commitment to focusing on women's issues in recent years; they've managed to do it better than other women's magazines (putting aside that whole thing with the 'rebrand' of feminism. But I get it. I know they can't exactly take a crap on consumerism; I'm just not going to say I'm comfortable with it). But I haven't been able to force myself to care all that much about the magazine's new partnership with Whistles and the Fawcett Society and, it seems, various attractive famous men (another disclaimer: I own an original Fawcett Society 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as I've supported its work for the last eight years). 

It's nothing we haven't been through before. Feminist merchandise at £45 a time (£85 if you want a sweatshirt), unavailable any bigger than a size 16. The publicity opportunities for politicians and celebrities and the 'outrage' that David Cameron wouldn't wear one. We know that there are some redeeming factors - well-known public figures at least claiming to support gender equality; exposure to people who might not otherwise think very much about feminism or think it's something they can be a part of. If it changes anyone's life and makes them a feminist or somewhere, somehow, improves a woman's life, then, I will concede, fair enough. In the spirit of the times, online news outlets have shown us image galleries of people wearing these t-shirts and proclaimed that Benedict Cumberbatch being our ally 'is everything'. So far, so predictable.

Things took an interesting turn on Saturday night, when Twitter got wind of the Mail on Sunday's front-page exposé of exploitative conditions in the factory where the t-shirts have been made. One worker is quoted as saying: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism? These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’ The Fawcett Society was absolutely on the ball with crisis management and quick to issue a statement saying it had been assured by Whistles that the factory producing the t-shirts complied with the highest ethical, sustainable and environmental standards possible. I don't doubt that this was a key consideration for Fawcett, and as we've seen, Whistles and ELLE have subsequently issued statements to the same effect. Ensuring standards are met isn't always easy and the garment industry is a minefield in this respect.

Much has been said about the credentials of all involved in the campaign and in the Mail on Sunday's exposé. Politicians taking part in publicity stunts - how much do they know about how their clothes are made? The investigative journalism tearing down a very public feminist campaign, published by a newspaper with absolutely no previous form for supporting gender equality or migrant workers. What I haven't been able to get behind, though, is the smug trashing of Fawcett, ELLE, and anyone who's supported their campaign and bought a t-shirt. It's a sad state of affairs when the first sign of interest in either ethical working conditions or marginalised women from the Mail comes at the expense of feminism, and the glee with which the whole thing has been reported needs nothing but contempt. What it doesn't need is to be held up, alongside the screengrabbed tweets of Fawcett supporters and well-known names, as 'everything that is wrong with feminism', a stick to beat the same old women about the same old things in the same tedious fashion. Nobody wins.

ELLE and Whistles have received a trashing, despite their best intentions. The Fawcett Society has, as far as I've seen, gained some support for its professional handling of the situation - yet has clearly still received a trashing. The Mail on Sunday has jumped at the opportunity to take part in the same tedious progressive/left/feminism-bashing they've been doing for years. And I'm betting it won't devote much time to covering exploitation of women and migrant workers overseas in the future, because clickbait misogyny and xenophobia will always be much higher on its agenda. Women working in factories in Mauritius are still working in the same conditions. The garment industry won't get an overhaul any time soon - and certainly not thanks to the sort of people on Twitter who, as ever, will keep on posting screenshots of Things Well-Known Feminist Campaigners Have Said and devoting hours at a time to sneering at them. Politicians will continue to display a dubious grasp of what 'improving women's lives' means. No-one will ever mistake David Cameron for a feminist.

So: no victories. Feminism got commodified, celebrities got column inches, activists got called out, and the majority of women in the UK remained completely untouched by whatever it was trying to achieve. Good job, everyone. I'm continuing to support the Fawcett Society because I believe it is a real force for good. I genuinely hope that this whole situation is resolved for the best and that all involved are able to make it clear that they did their utmost to ensure ethical production. But if awareness-raising initiatives can't make a break with consumerism and celebrity PR opportunities, then I can't help thinking that we'll see something similar happen again. The co-option of feminist activism into profits for t-shirt manufacturers has been much discussed in the wake of #YesAllWomen and more recently, FCKH8's 'Potty-mouthed princesses' video. Women in the movement can't prevent this sort of thing from happening, but campaigners can be smarter about how they hope to engage women with feminism.

Blog Design by Nudge Media Design | Powered by Blogger