︎︎︎episode 44

CH-CH-CH-CHEUGY! (pt 1): The basic origins of the latest aesthetics trend

June 1st, 2021

︎︎︎︎ Listen on Apple
︎︎︎︎ Listen of Spotify
︎︎︎︎ Listen on Stitcher

Today we are going to begin the dissection of the internet’s favorite new term that is inspiring a shit ton of buzzfeed quizzes and silly think pieces (even the New York Times is in on this):  Cheugy. 

To understand Cheugy, well...let’s travel back in time together.  Pack light, because we’re only going back to 2014...that hot time when I’m pretty sure Kim and I were immersed in that #girlboss life at Nasty Gal. 

In 2014, the internet became obsessed with the term “basic,” often accompanied by the noun bitch, as in “basic bitch.”

I went to Urban Dictionary to get a a solid definition of basic, because despite a sea of think pieces and quizzes about one’s potential “basic-ness,” there was no actual definition in any of these articles!   I found a few definitions of note here:
  • only interested in things mainstream, popular, and trending
    • “Omg BAE is so basic. all she wants to do is drink pumpkin spice lattes and play candy crush.”
  • “Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.”
  • “Someone who is Basic is a total follower; a person that cannot make their own decisions or think for themselves. There is nothing standout about this person, as they like whatever is “cool” and mainstream at the time be it fashion, music, TV shows, etc. This dull, shell of a person participates in “group think” even as an adult. A Basic Bitch most likely wears leggings as pants, loves Starbucks, and watches shows like “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” and “Real Housewives.” A Basic Bro (who is also a Bitch) can be seen sporting the bro-uniform blue button downs, “loves sports,” listens to Country (because it’s “cool” now), and reads Maxim.”

So almost immediately we see that this idea of being “basic” is solely defined by what one likes, because as we’ve discussed in the past, the millennials are so deeply defined by the brands, books, movies, and music that they like.  These “things” become shorthand for actual real personality characteristics.

The millennial--despite allegedly being all about experiences--sure do love to consume stuff.  And what they consume indicates who they are.

Let’s put a pin in this idea, okay?

I just want to take one moment to share my only contribution to the Urban Dictionary.

Now in 2014 the internet in general seemed to be of the opinion that basic was a somewhat new-ish term that had been in circulation around that time but was picking up steam.

I remember hearing it well before then….maybe around 2010 or so? How about you, Kim?

Well, Vox did come to the table with some receipts here.

Apparently google searches for the term “basic bitch” DID start surging in 2013. That seems late to me, but maybe my friends and peers are just early adopters and innovators of insulting slang.

However, Vox does point out that there were small peaks in 2009 and 2011. 
  • A tumblr called  Basic Bitch Today  began in 2011.  Interestingly, that account hasn’t had a new post since 2014.
  • In 2011, Kreayshawn also released a single called “Gucci Gucci” with the lyrics

“Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada

The basic bitches wear that shit, so I don't even bother”

2014 was the peak of the term ‘basic” and its life on the internet, but the term as a description for a woman had been around for decades and actually originated in Black and hip hop culture.

For example, we can look at the song “Meeting in the Ladies Room” by Black all-girl music group Klymaxx.  Which btw is a total banger and I definitely remember roller skating to this as a child! 

One of the members of the group, Bernadette does a sort of sexy whisper rap thing where she details how women are all over her man, rubbing his very fancy sweater.  She says

“"I'd hate to come down to their level and become a BW

A basic woman — but if they don't stop it's gonna get scandalous."

So the term “basic” as an adjective that has nothing to do with a tshirt or the pH of a liquid has been around for decades...but in 2014, white people took it and ran with it.  Because you have to admit, the concept of being “basic” is so implicitly about whiteness, and things that white women like.  It falls right in line with that horrible “Things White People Like” blog that we talked about a while back. It’s sort of like, “here are things that we white people are claiming as ours.”

And to be clear:  when you call(ed) someone basic, it wasn’t a compliment.  It was an insult for sure and specifically, an insult that targeted women and their tastes/interests. As Noreen Malone said in article for The Cut, a “basic” woman “likes being a woman, or at least she buys the products that are so inherently female-skewing that they don’t even NEED to be explicitly marketed to women ... she delights in all the things that men dismiss as unserious or that don’t even register for them as existing — celebrity gossip, patterned disposable cocktail napkins that mean something sentimental.”

So when labeling one’s taste as “basic” we are essentially dismissing things that are inherently marketed and sold to women!

The term “basic” is fundamentally misogynist.

Insulting someone’s interests doesn’t sound THAT terrible...until you remember that we live in a time where your personal taste and preferences is often mistaken as your actual character, intelligence, and overall quality as a human being.

At the core of “basic-ness” is this idea that I swear the hipsters started:  If it’s popular, it’s not good.  Because inherently all of these “basic” things are indeed popular.  Let’s review a list of some of them. https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseamarshall/how-basic-are-you?bfsource=bfocompareon
  • Bagels
  • Ugg Boots
  • Starbucks
  • Northface
  • Scented candles
  • Inspirational quotes
  • Pinterest
  • Astrology and “Mercury being in retrograde”
  • Brunch
  • Sex and the City
  • Margaritas
  • Diet Coke
  • Taylor Swift
  • Coachella
  • Juicing and cleanses
  • GOOP
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary
  • White wine
  • Sweaters
  • Pumpkin spice lattes (of course)...just going to go ahead and mention that in my research I stumbled across a Bustle “article” called “19 Reasons Fall Is The Most Basic Season” claiming that all things pumpkin are a part of this...but so are:
    • Thanksgiving dinner
    • Scarves
    • Being excited about Christmas
  • Oprah
  • Nail art
  • Leggings
  • Kardashians
  • Jean shorts
  • Chipotle
  • Kate Middleton

The idea of the “basic bitch,” the “basic” woman is a stereotype.  Just like say, the term “hipster.”

Around 2014 there was a ton of hand-wringing around the question “am I basic?” much in the same way hipsters in the aughts worried about being labeled “hipster.”

Furthermore--and this is a hot quote from a Buzzfeed article called “What We’re Really Afraid Of When We Call Someone Basic” by Anne Helen Peterson--”Stereotypes are deployed most fervently — and with the most hostility — when the group wielding them is most anxious to distance itself from another group that, in truth, isn’t so distant after all.”

Peterson cites “white trash” as an example….and it’s true, as a person who grew up in very stereotypical “white trash” circumstances, I would hear that term bandied about to describe people who were only slightly poorer than my family.  And I heard people with only slightly more money than my family referring to us as “white trash.” It’s an easy way to feel superior to someone not truly dissimilar to you.  And “basic” works the same way.  After all, being “basic” is all about liking popular things. And these things are so popular, that there is a chance that even you might like some of those things, too! Basic status is too disturbingly close!

At the end of the day, the term “basic” is used by middle class white people to disparage other middle class white people.  There is a certain level of classism inherent in the use of the term “basic” because middle class people don’t apply it to the poor...and I would say that they also use the term “basic” to imply that their specific taste is more “aspirational,” “higher class,” etc.  As I like to say a lot on Clotheshorse: TASTE IS A CLASSIST CONSTRUCT. 

As I’ve mentioned, Millennials define themselves by the stuff they like and buy.  TBH all generations do that in the 21st century.  We are in (I hope) the peak of consumerist culture.  And thanks to the combination of the internet, the decline of small business and the rise of only the biggest businesses...there isn’t a lot of diversity in terms of what we can buy as we exist in this feverish consumerist era.  So guess what? A lot of us are buying the same stuff.  Being unique isn’t...well, very unique. Think about the quirky clothes of Modcloth. Or the stripper rave festival aesthetic of Dolls Kill.  The quasi hipsterness of Urban Outfitters.  The boho wellness lifestyle of Free People.  Sure, there was a time when these particular aesthetics would be “unique…” but the reality is that all of these brands are selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stuff to many many many millions of people. So where’s the uniqueness there?

I think consumers who strive to be unique and special… I mean, don’t we all...need a shorthand for pointing out how unique and special they are in comparison to others.  Calling others “basic” is a shorthand for that.  To quote that Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Peterson again,   “To call someone “basic” is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.”

In the second half of our conversation about this...we’ll finally slay the dragon that is Cheugy...so come back next week!