TIME society

How Conformity Became a Crime

The phrase "Basic Bitch" is the newest name for trend-followers, but why do we have so much contempt for fitting in?

Note: If you don’t like to read the “b-word,” you will not like this post.

Ten years ago today, somebody in the movie Mean Girls said “I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip flops, so I bought army pants and flip flops,” and the “Basic Bitch” concept was born.

Nowadays a Basic Bitch would never be caught dead in army pants or flip flops, because alas, trends have changed, and a Basic is always on trend. The phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in Tina Fey’s 2004 cult classic and didn’t even show up on Urban Dictionary until 5 years after the film was released, but Mean Girls is the closest thing we have to a Basic Bitch origin story.

A Basic Bitch is a conventional girl who conforms to what all the other girls are doing, but doesn’t know she’s doing it. To be called “Basic” implies that you have made a gross miscalculation of your own specialness, that in fact you are not a twinkly snowflake, and your boringness is obvious to everyone. And in a social media climate that is all about self-branding and distinction, there’s a particular humiliation in being indistinguishable. Conventional girls have always existed, but they used to be called Cling-Ons or Wannabes. The naked contempt for trying so hard – the Basic Bitch – is something new.

Twitter’s on it:

How can you spot a “Basic Bitch?” She Instagrams her pumpkin-spice-latte with #caffeine. She bought a neon croptop from NastyGal to wear to Coachella. She takes quizzes to find out which guy from Sex and the City would be her perfect match. She’s “obsessed” with Taylor Swift and scented candles. She and her brethren are probably planning a Mean Girls-themed party to celebrate the anniversary tonight. In other words, a “basic bitch” is just your normal, conventional high school girl, except now she’s all grown up.

We’ve always had “Wannabes” who try to get into the “popular crowd” by wearing the same clothes, saying the same catchphrases, and liking the same music as all their friends. Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote Queen Bees and Wannabes (which inspired Mean Girls) says that most of this kind of conformity comes from teens being afraid to stand out. “When we’re being conventional, we’re doing it because we’re afraid of the consequences for being original,” she says.

But why have we gone from tolerating trend-followers to publicly shaming them?

Because the trend-following that was almost necessary in high school has become deeply uncool, even embarrassing, in adulthood. Most teenage Wannabes grow out of their desire to fit in. Basics don’t. They continue to resist originality in the pursuit of cool, which means they missed the memo that originality is cool.

The phrase first started appearing in hip-hop and rap lyrics in 2010 and 2011 to describe a particular kind of “fake” girl who loves imitation designer handbags. But in the last few years it’s expanded to become an umbrella put-down for a conformist girl who wears Uggs, ends her emails with inspirational quotes, and sends texts with lots of extra letterssssssss.

Of course, this whole “basic bitch” phenomenon is all about aesthetics. Basics wear conventionally popular clothes (PINK-brand sweatpants, NorthFace fleeces,) drink conventional drinks (lattes, Diet Coke, SkinnyGirl cocktails) listen to conventional music (Taylor, Miley) and do predictable things like Instagram their all-girls brunch.

But what’s so bad about having a tattoo of your astrological sign and then Instagramming it? All your friends are doing it after all.

And that’s exactly the problem. This CollegeHumor video gets it right; there’s nothing more pathetic than a grown woman who still wants to do only what all her friends are doing (ie eating scooped-out bagels and watching Teen Mom.) Or, as Kreayshawn put it in her 2011 hit “Gucci, Gucci, “basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.”

Wiseman says that the contempt for Basic Bitches makes it even harder for girls to walk that fine line between fitting in and standing out. “The irony of the ‘Basic Bitch’ thing is that it says ‘you’re trying too hard because you’re buying certain brands,’ but we’re all being told constantly to buy those brands,” she says. “There’s a fine line between being cutting-edge ‘cool’ and cutting-edge ‘you’re a freak.’”

And even out of high school, calling someone “Basic” comes with its own social power. “It’s like saying, ‘you think you’re so special but you’re not, you’re nothing,'” as Wiseman puts it. “‘And I get to determine and name that.’”

But even though Basic Bitch is a sneer at trend-followers, some people are actually trying to re-claim the term in a positive way, and start a whole new trend. The Guardian and VICE have published essays defending the Basic Bitch, poet Nicole Steinberg has written a poem about being one, and even Spiderman star Emma Stone has begun to jokingly refer to herself as “The Bland Basic Bitch,” because someone called her that online.

Of course, actual Basics would never be self-aware enough to joke about the term, because one of the qualities of Basic-ness is a complete lack of irony. So will Basics ever reclaim the term and become the new Plastics? Probably not. But they can keep trying.

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