Watch: SNL Writer Reclaims the Term 'Basic Bitch' From the Mouths of Women-Hating Women
In a standout scene from the new Netflix series "The Characters," "Saturday Night Live" writer Natasha Rothwell sings about being a “basic bitch.”
The video depicts Rothwell, who’s black, running up to a white friend in pearls enjoying a meal al fresco, who promptly calls her “basic” for wearing Forever 21 yoga pants, prompting a song and dance number about all the things she likes that are now synonymous with being a “basic white girl” (Nicholas Sparks, Diet Coke, inspirational quotes, etc.).
The video is funny and catchy—but the underlying subtext of its three minutes could fill an encyclopedia. While the term “basic bitch” is nothing new, a black woman using her comedic platform to reassert ownership of it is.
A term that’s come to be used to describe young, middle-class white girls, “basic bitch”—or, in its abbreviated form, just “basic”—is a pejorative used to make women feel bad for liking things that are mainstream or that someone, somewhere, deemed boring: rewatching all the episodes of "Sex and the City," buying everything Trader Joe’s makes that’s seasonally flavored, creating mood boards and using Pinterest to plan out a future home, meeting friends for brunch and posting a bunch of pictures about it on Instagram, etc.
But like so much else in mainstream (white) popular culture, the term has its roots in black culture. Though the appropriation of the term isn’t as demeaning or damaging as, say, “twerk,” it’s yet another example of white culture “discovering” something that already existed in black culture, then trying to make it their own.
The term’s earliest known usage can be found on YouTube, by comedians Lil Duval and Spoken Reasons. It then found its way into hip-hop songs, the most famous being Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.” College Humor’s video “How to Tell If You’re a Basic Bitch” then brought the term mainstream (read: to middle-class white people), launching something of a “basic bitch” craze.
The "Characters" video, then, represents something of a full-circle reclamation. And in doing so, it raises questions anew about a term that, in addition to its roots in cultural appropriation, is deeply sexist.
The racial appropriation component of this term is only one facet of its problematic nature; “basic bitch” has also long been used to demean, belittle and mock women.
A group of women and girls screaming boy-band lyrics at the top of their lungs are hysterical, and their “fan-girling” is ridiculed. But a similarly sized group of men with painted faces and $125 “authentic replica” jerseys who yell, scream and cry if their team loses (or wins) are considered completely normal.
The men aren’t roundly mocked because it’s automatically assumed that what they like has value. Because they have value. But women who like something that everyone else likes? They’re just boring.
For Dr. Angelique Harris, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Gender and Sexualities Studiesâ€‹ at Marquette University in Milwaukee, using the term “basic” is bad enough. But the misogyny is multiplied when it’s combined with the demeaning “bitch.” “The misogyny inherent in [basic bitch] is so much more clear than in what you’d find in another form of bullying,” Harris says. “A lot of it is self-hatred. It’s women quite often degrading other women.”
“Basic” women take pleasure in simple things that other women like too, and that enthusiasm is apparently something we should all look down upon. After years spent being told it’s shameful to be too different from other women, the term tells us that—sorry—it’s also shameful to be the same as other women.
“No matter what women do, they’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t,” says Dr. Harris. “If they own their bodies, if they own their clothes, if they own their identity, then they’re different or they’re weird, and they get picked on. If they conform, they’re also weird, so they get picked on.”
Stopbullying.gov estimates that around 30 percent of young people are bullied. And a similar number of people admit to having done the bullying. But where boys tend to use their physical nature to threaten and bully each other in a very overt way, girls tend to take part in what’s known as “relational aggression”—that is, bullying meant to harm a person’s relationships or social standing.
“If girls are going to hurt each other, that’s how they’re going to do it,” says Dr. Nancy Athanasiou, professor of education at Alverno College, a historically women’s college in Milwaukee. “They’re going to use language. They know exactly what to say and what it’s going to do. And boys don’t usually go about it that way.”
As an insult mostly reserved for use between women, “basic bitch” has become just one more tool for relational aggression—a way for women to bully each other and tear each other down. Moreover, it’s a badge of honor—“Oh, I’m not like those other girls”—that implies that there are inherently inferior states of womanhood.
Since the term is often applied to what a woman looks like—be it because of her Uggs, star tattoo, or white Converse, to name but a few of the supposedly common “basic” signifiers—the term is additionally rooted in our societal tendency to tie a woman’s worth to her appearance, further linking social standing, desirability and self-confidence to superficial features.
Among men, there are no such loaded words connected to a “boring” appearance. Put the freshman class at any university in a room, and you’ll likely find that young men have a “basic” uniform: khakis or jeans, plaid shirts, baseball caps. Walk into any professional setting, and you’ll find men dressed essentially the same—with maybe a slight variance in suit color. Men, young and old, dress alike—but since their worth isn’t tied to their appearance, not only do we not make fun of them for it, but we barely even notice. And we certainly haven’t adopted a term to describe this superficial uniformity.
“I mean ... what would you say to offend a man who looks like another man?” asks Dr. Harris, illustrating how this very notion, when applied to men instead of women, seems absurd.
But what perhaps makes “basic” most insidious of all is that it seems almost harmless. So much of what it mocks exists at a surface level, where girls are used to the kind of bullying and language that strikes at their core. And so, women may brush off the concept of “basic,” or even accept that they are and say “so what” instead of retaliating.
All of which, of course, is precisely what the patriarchy cultivates and needs to thrive.
In the end, it is the marginalized who suffer from “basic bitch,” a term stolen and appropriated from black culture, and rooted in insidious misogynistic undertones.
Dr. Harris hopes—and assumes—that the term will eventually just fade away from consciousness. But it clearly hasn’t yet. And in any case, the damage has already been done.