In Defense of Being Basic
Note: This article primarily addresses the experiences of white, middle-class and above, heterosexual girls and women. Most of the items, hobbies, and trends mentioned here require a certain degree of privilege and socio-economic status to even access.
It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are showing the first hints of their fiery future, and the pumpkins have officially taken over.
Your morning coffee? Pumpkin. Your Friday night beer? Pumpkin (and cinnamon-sugar rimmed). Your cheese? Yes, that too is now pumpkin-flavored because nothing is sacred. And I love it.
After sweating through my clothes on the subway every morning for three months, I’ve finally made it to the other side. With Labor Day Weekend in our rear-view, it’s unofficially fall and time to take our blanket scarves and leggings out of storage, pin rustic-chic wedding ideas to Pinterest boards we created despite not actually being engaged, and sip our damn PSLs in peace.
My excitement for the coming season will almost definitely be greeted by eye rolls. There will be memes decrying the unoriginality of nearly every item and activity the season has to offer, from corn mazes to crafting rustic home decor. But while this derision certainly reaches its peak between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, it’s hardly unique to the spice-scented days of autumn.
In fact, you don’t have to look very far to find similar ridicule for everything from La Croix sodas to over-sized sunglasses, things that seemingly have little in common except one undeniable characteristic: they’re popular with young women.
Let’s start by defining what we mean when we call something basic. As I’m using it here, basic refers to things that have achieved mainstream popularity or are particularly trendy and, therefore, are seen as unoriginal, insipid, and annoyingly pervasive. This can include food, beverages, music, books, television shows, movies, clothing styles, home decor, and even hobbies. And should you dare to openly enjoy such things, congratulations, you too are now basic (more specifically, a basic bitch).
According to Buzzfeed (and who am I to contradict them?), the phrase dates back to a 1985 music video by a pop/R&B group called Klymaxx, reached its peak in 2014, and remains pretty ubiquitous today. And there’s a long, rich history in between; after all, a Lisa Frank notebook by any other name is still basic af.
Why are so many of the things that achieve mainstream popularity with women considered simple and unsophisticated — as guilty pleasures at best, and honestly, not very good at worst?
What gets defined as basic changes with trends and time. In 1999 a basic bitch wore platform Steve Madden wedges and posted inspirational quotes to her MySpace in glitter font. In 2019 she wears Lululemon yoga pants and posts boomerangs of her drinks at brunch. She may have taken on different forms over the years, but she’s generally always a she, and that’s the point.
Can things that are popular with young men ever even be considered basic?
The idea that women should feel ashamed for the things they enjoy, or that those things are somehow objectively not good, is a profoundly misogynistic construct and, unfortunately, one that’s socially pervasive and echoed by men and women alike. In fact, the phrase itself is used far more frequently by women describing other women than it ever is by men.
In my very scientific and representative survey of my Instagram followers about what they considered basic, every single one of them described things they associated with women: brunch, Uggs, “pumpkin anything,” Essie nail polish, hard seltzer. Not a single person, of any gender or sexual identity, named something they associated with traditional masculinity or male culture.
We’ve just accepted that femininity and anything even remotely relating to a traditional female identity is profoundly uncool and even embarrassing. This is why it’s socially acceptable for little girls to play sports but the horror of all horrors if a little boy wants to do ballet. It’s why we mercilessly mock Twilight while pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the Star Wars franchise. The underlying and not so implicit lesson is clear: being like a boy is great, but being like a girl is not. Girls are inherently inferior beings whose interests deserve endless ridicule.
Ultimately, this is the reason that Uggs, chick flicks, and apple picking are basic, and Jordans, Marvel movies, and fantasy football are not.
Which brings me to my next question: can things that are popular with young men ever even be considered basic? If you were to list things that are popular with young men and that fit the criteria of the definition I started with above, what things would be part of that list? Video games? Sports? Expensive sneakers? Superhero movies? These are all things that have reached mainstream popularity and are pervasive in our culture but are more popular among men than women and so have eluded the basic label.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly things that some men like that have been criticized and mocked, particularly those things once a part of nerd culture. But today it’s hard to find a boy or man who doesn’t play video games or who doesn’t get excited about superheroes, and yet none of these things are considered basic. Quite the opposite — in becoming so culturally pervasive, those things actually lost whatever negative connotations were assigned to them to begin with. They are now relevant and interesting and good.
It’s why it’s socially acceptable for little girls to play sports but the horror of all horrors if a little boy wants to do ballet.
Things that unite straight boys and men manage to escape the very criticisms that created the basic label in the first place. At worst some of the things I listed may still be referred to as “bro-ey,” but even that doesn’t carry quite the same negative connotation or stereotypes that basic does. If you’re a bro, you’re not necessarily also brainless, uninteresting, or devoid of an original personality.
When I think back on my experiences growing up, so many of my friendships with other girls were formed around a passionate attachment to the things we loved in common. We went to Backstreet Boys concerts where other girls would weep as they sang along to songs that meant something very real to their pre-teen hearts. We had sleepovers where we’d cut pictures of celebrity heartthrobs from teen magazines. We went to malls and shopped for glittery outfits from Limited Too and hoop earrings from Claire’s.
These shared experiences were crucial in developing our early female friendships, but those relationships do not aid in creating the same resources that they do for men. When boys and young men form bonds around shared interests like sports and video games, they’re just boys being boys. Both the shared interests and the relationships themselves are nurtured because they are a source of social capital, providing networking opportunities and ways to learn appropriate male behaviors.
On the other hand, girls’ and young women’s friendships are fraught from the beginning. We’re raised from an early age to see other girls as competition, rather than as a source of support and opportunity. We’re also advised that other girls are catty, that we’ll fight and be mean to each other, especially as we get older. We’ll have dramatic arguments and choose boyfriends over best friends as soon as the opportunity arises. And that’s natural.
We announce that we’re “not like other girls” and we “get along better with guys because girls are too much drama.”
But it isn’t natural. Our relationships with other women are challenged almost from their inception, and so we bond over the things that make up our shared culture. Then, later, when we discover that being a girl and liking things that other girls like makes us uncool and uninteresting and basic, we do our best to distance ourselves from all of it. We announce that we’re “not like other girls” and we “get along better with guys because girls are too much drama.”
So, when I asked the women in my life (and on my Instagram) to name things they considered basic, is it surprising that they exclusively listed things relating to their experiences of female preferences and identities? Of course not.
I do think that it’s important to be aware that lifestyles, more than products, are being marketed to us nearly every second of the day. Targeted advertising is responsible for so many of the preferences we tend to think of exclusively as our own. This is almost always more true for women than men. Still, there is nothing wrong with liking what you like; there’s nothing wrong with liking things other girls like. If the idea of having brunch with friends in Pinterest-inspired outfits appeals to you, go for it. If it doesn’t, that’s cool too. But we shouldn’t feel an ounce of shame for either of those choices. Chances are pretty good you’ll be criticized for either way.
So, at the start of this most basic of seasons, I’ll raise my rhinestone-encrusted reusable mug of pumpkin spice latte and toast all the basic things I still love despite (or because) it’s apparently so imperative that I don’t.