My most dear Zanuda, ARTICHOKE,
The idea that basic isn’t exactly the kindest thing to call another person is not new– Buzzfeed had an article on why it shouldn’t be used way back in, like, 2013, and I’m not going to find it and link it, because who gives a fuck what Buzzfeed has to say anymore? (You heard me.)
Like Zanuda, Basic (hereby capitalized, to indicate that it is the subject of the sentence and not an adjective within the sentences, for my brain’s continued functioning) has a few, overlapping and somewhat subtly different meanings. First of all, it’s a gendered term (I ain’t never heard of a basic bro, though I suppose there’s potential there), but a weakly gendered term. Any motherfucker can make the argument that a man can be referred to as basic, but in the real world, we all know its exclusively used in regards to women. So, any slang term, intended to shame, and used on women, is always going to be (and I am loathe to use this word) problematic. But that has not even begun to stop me from whipping it out like it’s a snowball at a congressional session on global warming.
Basic refers to consumer choices in regards to heteronormative, present day late- capitalism. (By the way– can I just mention how pessimistic it is to refer to it as “late” capitalism?) Which is to say that basic refers to what you buy, and, importantly, what you buy into, the first in the overt and the second in the subtle.
The first is easier to wrangle with, and much less violent when used by yours truly, so we’re going to start there. We live in capitalism, obvi, wherein trends are a considerable part of the market. That means seasonal trends (I am in this moment obligatorily mentioning the PSL. I am done now. Let us continue) but also means fashions and fads and what not, unrelated to the time of year. I’m going to use the example of walking into H&M, and H&M prominently displaying and advertising a huge kiosk of satin bombers. “You like bombers now!” H&M declares, apropos of nothing, and responding to absolutely no cultural trend that any of us know of. “These bombers are what you want! Buy bombers! Made of satin!”
We all remember the 90s, with varying degrees of clarity, so we at least know when we’re conforming to capitalistic sensibilities and the whims of our capitalist overlords– but no longer with the 90s revulsion towards said conformity (it was all hypocritical then anyway). In this context, to be Basic is to buy into the fads and the trends. This is the definition that a person, such as myself, might apply to themselves. It’s pretty Basic for me to buy H&M’s satin bombers, and bubble tea, and pumpkins even though I don’t have a stoop to put them on, but I still do it. I’m still a good little consumer in that way, spending my hard-earned dollars rather wantonly. To jokingly call myself Basic is to acknowledge that I know what I’m up to, and I know it’s rather silly, but I’m still going to do it.
This first definition is the part where I have a problem when people use Basic as an insult. Who gives a flying fuck if someone else buys something they want with their own money? It also gets into this very age old idea, that nothing about women is private– any choice she makes, no matter how little it concerns anyone else, is available for public scrutiny. That perhaps we shouldn’t function this way, as a culture, is still a fairly new, and rather confusing idea. We’re so used to having an opinion on everything everyone else wears and eats and reads that the idea that it’s not our business is still uncomfortable– but it’s also beginning to take hold.
The way we seem to be culturally processing the idea that it’s not our business to criticize other people’s consumer choices is to self-deprecate; a kind of, “who among us is free to cast the first stone” response to cutting the difference between the smarmy congratulation of everyone’s consumer choices all the time (Buzzfeed.) and overt criticism. Now, anything I buy that’s trendy or part of a fad, I immediately use to refer to myself as basic, and then promptly forget about.
A quick note here, that I don’t think that Basic is ever going to be co-opted by companies. The thing about Basic is that it, in regards to a product, it refers to the trendiness of that product, meaning that it’s an implicit and inherent acknowledgement that PSLs or flower crowns or crop tops or coconut oil or whatever are a fad of the moment, and, like any fad, will go out of style eventually. No company is going to ever point out the inherently ephemeral nature of what they’re trying to sell you (possible exception for food companies) because why would you buy something with the reminder that it will be useless in six months?
Now, as for the second definition of basic; the heteronormative definition, the more contentious definition, and the definition I use when I have no intention of being kind. In this context, I use Basic, frankly, the way venomous creatures use bright colors– to tell people not to fuck with me.
The thing is, there is still a cultural weight of expectations put on women, regarding their behavior and their life choices. While the capitalist conformity of buying whatever they tell us is going to leave us all broke and in debt, this sort of conformity is more insidious and more damaging. It’s kind of a know-it-when-you-see-it expectation, falling a long way away from the conservative expectations of the good ol’ days, but a ways away from conscientious liberty too. That a woman will be a virgin when she marries is laughable, but she is absolutely expected to get married. That a woman speaks openly of being a feminist is a given, but she’s still supposed to tenderly care for the feelings of all her male acquaintances, coworkers, etc. And as much as they might not seem so at the onset, this definition of Basic is still very much tied to capitalism. The expectation that a person will marry is not a neutral part of culture in a country with a billion dollar wedding industry.
I do not mean that here Basic refers to people who are just less liberal, less woke, less radical, less open-minded than you, or people who are more traditional. Not at all. What Basic is, here, is a way of nosing out just who is going to shame you for not quite conforming enough– and then shaming them instead. A preemptive shame, if you will.
You use it like this:
I have a conversation with, let’s say, Martha, our mutual acquaintance. Martha and I either don’t get along terribly well, or do, but on a surface level. Somewhere in the course of this conversation, I get the whiff of just enough of Martha’s thought patterns and prejudices and beliefs to know that she’s going to make me feel like a weirdo and a loner for my less acceptable beliefs; to use an earlier example, Martha kinda thinks it’s weird that marriage is not a forgone conclusion in my understanding of my future.
Now, as a human being– truly, as homo sapien, the animal– my only real motivation is to survive, which is to say, to not get kicked out of my tribe, which is to further say, to not be ostracized my social group. Therefore, its in my best interests to influence the climate of my tribe into a climate best suited for me. With those intentions, I turn to you, and when we’re gossiping about mutual acquaintance Martha (which we all do, all of the time), I make sure to slip in that she’s a bit basic, isn’t she? and if I’m smart about it, I find a way to say it where I make you laugh, because a laugh is an agreement, and you can’t take that laugh back.
The funny thing, you might actually agree with Martha, in your heart of hearts. The other funny thing is, I might like Martha, quite a lot. But now I’ve fired these warning shots, and now you’re going to make at least a subconscious effort to not appear basic, at least around me– and, probably around our entire group of mutual friends, just in case. It is in your best interests, again as a homo sapien, to make sure that people talking about you behind your back discuss you as positively as possible, again to avoid ostracism, and I have established, with just this one word, that adhering to these old, heteronormative expectations will not go by without comment.
It’s fighting shame with shame. In my godless heathen liberal ways, I think it’s generally a step in the right direction. I also think it’s immoral as hell– from a goodness perspective, absolutely no one should be calling anyone basic. But, when we’re discussing survival and ostracism and tribalism, morality is the first thing that gets chucked out the cave window. Also, it’s all well and good to talk the talk about third wave feminism and shedding cultural expectations for women, but in the practical world, things are going to be messy. If calling someone a basic bitch is unethical, and it is, well, so are any number of my capitalist choices– eating meat, for example, wearing cheap clothing, failing to donate generously. Basic might be a tool of cultural shaming, but if I’m going to be shamed anyway, the least I can do is return the favor.
On a related note, this entire letter has made me crave Starbucks like you would not believe.
Yours in late capitalism,