“Calling all the basic b*tches” begins Youtube user and Internet sensation Lohanthony, twirling his leg and finally leaning into the camera to tell his audience “you’re basic.”
Lohanthony’s video was published in June 2012, and it’s the event that several people I interviewed pointed to as the entrance of the term ‘basic’ into mainstream lexicon— with mainstream being young, mainly white, teenage girls that comprise the majority of Lohanthony’s fanbase of 1,367,470 (on YouTube alone). But what is the ‘basic bitch’, or what does it mean to be ‘basic’?
In November, I emailed several student groups on campus, including suburban high and middle schoolers, the Institute of Politics’ Politics of Race and Ethnicity Group, the First-Year Urban Program, and the Asian American Women’s Association with a poll asking about attitudes members held about the intersection of the terms ‘basic’ and ‘white girl,’ as in the Common White Girl Twitter stereotype (see @CommonWhiteGirl, @CommonWhiteGrl, or @girlposts for more of an explanation). I found that 76.9% of those polled were familiar with the ‘Common White Girl’ accounts (the most famous of which, @girlposts, has 5.14 million followers). In addition, I found that a similar percentage, 73.8%, believed that though ‘white girl’ is not synonymous with ‘basic,’ ‘white girls’ are often ‘basic.’
I grew up in suburban upstate New York in a predominantly white community (though I myself identify as AAPI) so I have become familiar with today’s use of the terms “basic” and “white girl” in terms of the community that I was in, in that the ‘basic’ girl is one who sips on her Starbucks vanilla bean frappuccino, uploads selfies to Instagram daily, and wears chestnut brown Ugg boots from October to March. I have been wondering how the term ‘white girl’, which denotes a stereotypical suburban teenager (Davies) who loves “Starbucks, Ugg boots, North Face Denali fleece jackets, and pumpkin spice lattes” (Davies) has become termed “basic” by teenagers and bloggers alike, as the term “basic” derives from the term “basic bitch” which emerged into African American culture in 2009. In this blogpost, I will discuss the appropriation of the term “basic”, along with how racialized, if at all, the term “white girl” is. In addition, I will also hope to shed light on how people of color have come to accept or reject this trope of a “white girl” and on what the roots of their attitudes on this issue are.
Part I: Some Basic Information on the Term ‘Basic’
Today, it’s difficult to post a picture of a Starbucks cup (red for the holiday season) without being charged as being ‘basic’ in the comment section, and it’s hard to wear Ugg boots with pride when you know that you’ll be derisively called ‘basic’ by your peers when you venture out to public. But the term ‘basic’ has origins far from this connotation, of the suburban world of Ugg boots, lattes, and Bath and Body Works 3 for $15 lotions. It is actually rooted, like many ‘trendy’ words, in African American culture.
The first mention of the term ‘basic’ online was on August 3, 2009 when YouTube user LilDuval posted the video “Basic Bitch” (LilDuval). In it, LilDuval exclaims “if you a black girl and your weave is red, green, purple, or blonde… yous a basic bitch,” and “if you go on a date with no money and expect him to pay for your food and he don’t, yous a basic bitch and you shoulda had a backup plan” among other scenarios that he deems “basic bitch” worthy. Writer Logan Anderson agrees, writing in the Louisiana State University Legacy Magazine that the term “basic bitch” was originally in the African American community an extension of the term “ratchet,” a “stereotypical lower class African American woman— someone who wore Rainbow clothing, lace front wigs, and drew on her eyebrows… a woman that a highly ranked, white, male Republican would derisively refer to as a ‘welfare queen'” (Anderson). It’s a far cry from what we, and Lohanthony, deem ‘basic’ today.
The timeline I created here further highlights the transformation of the term ‘basic’ in pop culture. Shortly after LilDuval’s video was posted, the term “basic bitch” was modified on Urban Dictionary to fit his context, and the term “basic bitch” was picked up by Tyga in his 2010 song “Hard in the Paint,” as he raps “don’t compare me to no basic bitch” (Tyga). Lil Wayne quickly followed Tyga later that year, rapping in “I Am Not a Human Being” that “I thank God that I am not basic” (Lil Wayne). Basic, in these two songs, has a definitively negative connotation in which it is, like Anderson writes, an adjective or stereotype that describes people of a lower social and economic class.
The turning point in the term ‘basic’ being used in the music industry is in the release of Kreayshawn’s song “Gucci Gucci” in May 2011 (Kreayshawn). The song’s repetitive hook states “Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada/ the basic bitches wear that shit, so I don’t even bother,” making it seem that you don’t have to be poor to be ‘basic’; being ‘basic’ seems to be, in this song’s context, a crime of being unoriginal and following safe crowd trends in order to fit in, not of being poor. In addition, being ‘basic’ is no longer something that only women and men in the black community can be; Kreayshawn, or Natassia Gail Zolot, is a petite white woman who is appropriating black culture, and more pertinent to this conversation, black linguistics (Viera). Gucci Gucci has over 48 million hits on YouTube as of 2014, and it’s what many online sources point to as the beginning of the word ‘basic’ entering mainstream (read: white) lexicon, a sort of linguistic gentrification if you will. Being basic, one writer states, seems like a new phrase, but it really is “only new to one narrow part of our culture— white people” (Davies), reminiscent of say rock-n-roll to white audiences with the introduction of Elvis. By the transitive property, it seems like Kreayshawn is our Elvis in that she brought the term “basic bitch” to white consciousness.
Today, the fact that the term ‘basic’ originated from African American culture is virtually unknown, with a vast majority— 80.6%- of respondents stating that they do not associate the term ‘basic’ with African American culture (some respondents were more enthusiastic about this, saying “hell nah” and “I don’t [associate basic with African American culture] but unfortunately society does”). One respondent even wrote that “there definitely are basic people within the black community,” suggesting that there are people representative of today’s suburban white teenager-style basic in black culture and a lack of knowledge that the original ‘basic’ women were black.
Though the term ‘basic’ has been appropriated into describing someone who is completely different from the original connotation, it is still representative of someone who fits a certain basic (literally), generic stereotype.
It’s interesting also to observe the dropping of the phrase “bitch” from the phrase “basic bitch,” as if it is making the phrase more age-appropriate for younger mostly white teenagers who have taken over the term. Nevertheless, the term ‘basic’ has come a long way from its original context to its current connotation.
Part II: Understanding Basic-ness Within the Context of Teenage Identity
In “The Disconnectionists,” Nathan Jurgenson discusses the idea that there’s a “conflict between the self as social performance and the self as authentic expression of one’s inner truth” and that there is a group of people advocating the unplugging from social media citing the fact that the Internet has “normalized… an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance” (Jurgenson). Jurgenson and the Disconnectionists bring up an interesting point— has the “basic” identity evolved because it turns out that a lot of people of certain demographics do a lot of the same things, or has the fact that women tend to buy the same type of clothes or participate in similar activities not stem from online peer pressure? In other words, would Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes have gained as much prominence without the power of social media and the desire to ‘fit in’ by suburbanites? I hypothesize (as someone who has tasted the candle-like pumpkin spice latte) that no, they wouldn’t, and that peer pressure definitely has a role in the spread of what is ‘cool’ and not, and by extension, what ‘basic’ girls do to fit in (and counter-intuitively, this groupthink contributes to the defining of ‘basic’ identity). Ms. Not-Right-Now puts it best, defining ‘basic’ as “an uncanny ability to aspire to mediocrity” (Ms. Not-Right-Now), and one woman who states that she’s “proud to be a basic bitch” wrote that “basic means according to the Internet: a white girl who likes cliché things that ‘every other white girl’ likes,” making it seem like the term has evolved heavily because of the fact that social media has made it possible for everyone to know what people are caring about in all aspects of life, be it activities, food, or sartorial choices (Booth).
Researcher Danah Boyd writes in it’s complicated that American teens use social media in a way that reflects existing problems in society and reinforces their deep-seated beliefs, and that teens bring their “values and attitudes, hopes and prejudices” online with them (Boyd 160). She additionally writes that social divisions remain salient online, and that “class politics intertwine with race” (Boyd 160), which makes understanding why teens may call each other or another group of teens ‘basic’; it’s an expression of helping classify the ‘other,’ just like they do in the cafeteria. Calling out a group of stereotypically middle and upper class girls for the way they dress or act is nothing new and is a normal expression of us-vs-them mentality or teenage angst, and a more dated term might be something like ‘prep’ in the early 2000s for the Abercrombie-wearing set. Teens calling each other ‘basic’ is just making fun or poking fun at being too “normal” or unoriginal, and many embrace the term. It’s nothing radical or new, except for the appropriation of African American culture that’s intrinsically part of the phrase (alongside white suburban teenage girls calling their hair ‘ratchet’ after a day of not straightening it).
I think that this is supported strongly by the fact that the essence of being ‘basic’ varies by regional tastes and by age; for instance, Jezebel ran a feature called “The United States of Basic Bitches” which details the “Chicago Trixie Basic,” “Dallas Basic,” “Manhattan Basic,” and “San Francisco Basic” along with others, showing that being basic, or generic, varies by regional taste and is not static (Ryan).
Part III: White Girl- Racist or Classist Caricature?
From what we have explored so far, it seems that ‘basic’ now describes the quintessential American ‘white girl’—but who is she?
I’ve found online the terms are often lumped together, like in the Buzzfeed headline “16 Questions All Basic White Girls Never Knew They Needed to Answer” or “25 Things All Basic White Girls Do During the Fall,” so to understand these terms a little bit better, I’ve created a chart to compare things that ‘basic’ girls and ‘white girls’ like and do in order to draw a comparison.
(Walker, Marshall, Hudspeth)
It’s easy to see that there are a lot of similarities between the two groups, as denoted by pink asterisks. I would like to note that this list is not comprehensive and is taken from only three articles describing the characteristics of ‘white girls’ and ‘basic’ girls.
I hope that this chart shows that race is not as big of a factor in the term ‘white girl’ as one would expect, as I did not see anything in either columns that had anything to do with race. It seems more that the two stereotypes and tropes are instead based in consumerism (brands like Ugg, North Face, Victoria’s Secret, and Starbucks are named, as well as the website Pinterest which allows for users to compile virtual shopping lists of things they would like, recipes they would like to create, wedding ideas, or things of that nature). This is supported by my poll data, which found that 68.75% of respondents stated that not all ‘white girls’ are white, and as one responder put it, “the reference to a ‘white girl’ is anyone whose behavior corresponds to the white girl stigma.”
However, in a departure from my findings, I do think that there is some sort of racial component inherent in the ‘white girl’ trope; it would be considered racist to use a similar trope for people of color (ex. There aren’t articles out there derailing black girls or Asian girls). There is some sort of element of privilege inherent in the fact that white boys and girls can use the trope ‘white girl’ to make fun of each other, because, as one young woman interviewed in Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria puts it, “I’m just normal!” (Tatum 93).
Tatum writes that adolescence is when race becomes salient, as evidenced by what she called the “birthday party effect” in which parties for young kids are often as diverse as the classrooms are, but parties as students get older at puberty are often segregated by race (Tatum 57). My hypothesis that the trope of a ‘white girl’ is based in this notion that adolescence is an age where race becomes salient; seeing the similarities between ‘white girls’ who are usually materialistic middle and upper-middle class girls and the stereotype of Jewish American Princesses (JAPs), why has one taken off on a storm throughout all forms of social media, whereas the other, JAP, has not (Betches Love This)?
Though the term JAP is still used by Jewish American teens, it is not salient enough for the greater public to take on to make fun of or poke fun at. One of the students I interviewed, Sam, stated, “You can call a non-white person a ‘white girl,’ but I would not call one of my non-Jewish friends a ‘JAP.’”
I wanted to know how women of color felt about the term ‘white girl,’ and if teens felt that the term is applicable to people who are not white. 68.75% of my respondents said that not all ‘white girls’ are white, and a similar percentage, 65.6% felt that you could call someone who isn’t white a ‘white girl.’ This would counter my theory that whiteness, or race in general, is salient in this demographic that is using the term ‘white girl’ interchangeably with ‘basic.’
On the other hand, other I learned that 51% of women of color I interviewed felt that they could identify with the term ‘white girl,’ while 49% of them felt that they could not because they are not white. I also asked respondents how they would feel about getting called a ‘white girl,’ if they were women of color, and I got a wide array of responses. Some were neutral on the subject, saying things like “offended” or “okay with it because they are obviously joking,” but I had a lot more negative responses (this was an optional question, so this could be biased in that people with stronger feelings left responses and those who were more lukewarm on the subject skipped it). These ranged from “offended because that means I’m a materialistic snob” and “it plays off a stereotype of being a middle/upper-middle class white girl” to “it hurts because when black women are called and compared to white girls, it is just another reminder of how much this country rejects black womanhood” and “as a person of color, I’m offended when someone calls me a ‘white girl’ and goes on to suggest that I’m denying my own race by ‘acting too white.’”
The negative responses I received about how women of color would feel about being called ‘white girls’ leads me to believe that for the greater community at large, being a ‘white girl’ does not depend solely on race, but for women and people of color, being called a ‘white girl’ is more than being told you’re materialistic, representative of a certain lifestyle/socioeconomic background, or as one person wrote, “a stereotypical/characteristic less intelligent, usually young Caucasian female who follows popular trends and is caught up in inconsequential details.” It’s like being told that you are conforming too much into the white majority (like being called an ‘Oreo’ or a ‘banana’).
One woman interviewed even said that she “automatically feels as if that’s degrading because ‘white girl’ is linked to ‘being basic,’” noting the negative connotation basic-ness has to women of color as well. Being basic, it seems, is something that no one wants tied to his or her identity, regardless of race and class.
Part IV: Conclusion
I wanted to learn more about the face of the ‘white girl’ movement by conversing with someone who is the purveyor of the ‘white girl’ code, namely, one of the owners of the many Common White Girl Twitter accounts. Though I reached out to five of them (the ones that I could find had business emails in their Twitter biographies), I only received answers from two of them, one of which asked me to text him/her (which I felt a bit too uncomfortable doing). The one Tweeter that I was able to talk to stated that s/he believes that ‘basic’ and ‘white girl’ are the same thing, but this is not the opinion of everyone, and wrote that s/he felt that ‘white girl’ is a class-based term, an opinion that many of my poll respondents had held. I think that the most interesting things that I learned from corresponding with the Tweeter was that the account follows many women of color, and that most of the Common White Girl’s followers are people of color.
As a woman of color, I agree with one of my respondents in that though I would not feel great about being called a ‘white girl,’ I would still feel like it would make sense if I was carrying a Starbucks cup, as the phrase has become deracialized in some circles to the point in that it’s a meaningless stereotype, akin to the word ‘prep.’ However, I do hold issues with being called ‘basic,’ as I still feel like it is an appropriation of black culture even if its connotation today is a complete departure from its past.
At the same time, it seems that reading too far into these stereotypes is in and of itself ‘basic’, as Jezebel writer Kara Brown wrote, “overanalyzing basic is the most basic move of all” (Brown). As one of my respondents put it, “being ‘basic’ or being a ‘white girl’ is basically like being called a ‘dumb blonde.’ Not all blondes are dumb, and there are certainly people who don’t have blonde hair that could be the butt of a blonde joke.”
(Author’s Note: I would like to note that my statistics are up for consideration seeing that I did not have a randomized sample size nor was the number of women of color and white women equal or controlled in any way. I used a very informal survey.)