Breaking Down Basic

An employee, right, hands a customer personalised cardboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop in London, U.K.,
An employee, right, hands a customer personalised cardboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop in London, U.K., on Monday, June 9, 2014. U.K. services companies' confidence rose to a record this quarter, indicating continued expansion in the largest part of the economy, the Confederation of British Industry said. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This article was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

By Gracie Sands, Glenbrook South and Bronson Roseboro, Morgan Park High

Not long ago, the term “basic” meant fundamental or essential. But lately the word has taken on an entirely different meaning for today’s younger generation. “Basic” now refers to a person who blindly follows current trends without thinking for themselves. And as the term gains traction with teens, whether in conversation or on social media, it has become a label that everyone wants to avoid.

“Someone who is basic has no type of unique qualities or features,” said Wells Community Academy junior Debbin Flores. “They blend with the crowd and go with the trends. Basically, they’re very mainstream people.”

When asked about the meaning of the word, adults are sometimes unaware of the evolution of “basic.” Susan D. Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, hadn’t heard of the phenomenon prior to an explanation from her 24-year-old daughter. Blum said the meaning may be new but the concept is not—a word’s connotation changing over time is how we develop modernized language.

“Like a lot of other slang, this is a new usage of an old term—self-consciously different from mainstream meanings—kind of the way a term like ‘cool’ or ‘hot’ became used to describe something other than temperature,” Blum said.

Recently, “basic” found its way onto different social media platforms such as Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Facebook as an easy way to poke fun at someone. Loyola Academy junior Christina Reed said she often sees the word on Twitter and categorizes it as a gender stereotype.

“There are a lot of parody accounts that are constantly making fun of ‘basic b*****s,’ or basic girls who follow the norm,” Reed said. “It seems like a gender stereotype meant to insult teenage girls.”

Others agree with the assessment that the word is being used to target women in particular. Niles North sophomore Geoffrey Schmelzer said he doesn’t like the role “basic” is taking on.

“I do often see the word in social media, as it is often used in sexist ways to describe females,” Schmelzer said.

The word has also taken on racial implications, such as “basic white girl.” In fact, the usage has become so common that it has evolved into a full-fledged stereotype. Characteristics of “basic white girls” include taking selfies, drinking Starbucks coffee and wearing Ugg boots or North Face jackets. This is an example of a more derogatory mutation of the word.

“(This) has to do with someone being somewhat privileged and mainstream—the kind of young woman who drinks pumpkin spice lattes,” Blum explained.

The trouble with “basic” is that it can double as a hurtful judgment. The “basic girl” may go to yoga often, watch all the trendy shows and listen to the newest singers, but is that bad? Is it worth an insult?

Like most slang, some teens have come full circle with “basic,” embracing the word as a compliment.

Dr. Rita Hawkins-Williams, a social emotional counselor at Morgan Park, said that students shouldn’t aspire to be “basic” because it implies that there’s nothing extraordinary about them.

“We do not want our up-and-coming generation to only set their goals at the very bottom,” Hawkins-Williams said. “We do not want to encourage accepting only the requirement and not going above and beyond. Basic does not make you different from the rest, therefore you are blending in and can easily be overlooked. It is imperative to go beyond basic, stand out in the crowd and achieve excellence.”

A lot of teens are acknowledging Hawkins-Williams’ point. Jones junior Lin Mei said that by definition, no one can really be basic.

“I believe everyone is different in their own weird way, and that difference keeps us from being basic,” Mei said. “A basic person would be a normal person who shows indifference to everyday life, but everyone cares about something.”

Though someone labeled “basic” may do certain things, act a certain way or embody a certain status quo, it shouldn’t limit their ambitions. The new meaning of “basic” may have been coined to insult others, but the term can be repurposed to encourage freely expressing who you are and openly denouncing what’s accepted as the norm.

Regardless of the negative connotations, it seems both adults and teens are ready to change the “basic” mindset.

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