Your most recent letter got me thinking about the way our mainstream/internet culture has been using the term Basic over the past year or two – the 2015/2016 era – and why being called Basic seems to sting so much. Meaning, I just remember coming across so many posts online (thanks, Tumblr) by people that had almost this sense of outraged betrayal at being called Basic – in a way that I never really encountered with people being called Prep or Emo or Hipster or what-have-you.
Maybe it’s because what got you slapped with the Basic label was stuff like enjoying pumpkin spice seasoning, and scented candles, and apple-picking, and comfortable clothing.
You know. Things that, for the longest time, had no strong identity signifiers – until suddenly they did.
It made me think about how we tend to shape our identity through our purchases, intentionally. Clothing in particular – but not just clothing. Some of us do it more noticeably than others, and I mean, the fact that Hot Topic even exists as a store says plenty on the subject – though it’s frankly obvious that Lacoste and Gap and Zara’s and Club Monaco are just as heavily invested in selling identity through their clothing and accessories. (Not, of course, that most shoppers ever buy into the store’s version of that identity with any particular enthusiasm. They’re too busy picking out things here and there in order to craft their own individual way of wearing their clothes: best suited to their budget vs. their taste vs. what they find most comfortable.)
But thus I think one reason that Basic felt like such a slap in the face was how it was, initially, unexpected. Some near-monocultural purchasing-habits and tastes, which were considered unconnected and innocuous for the longest time, suddenly got pulled together into this cultural Bingo board, and the result was “you got Basic!”
A bunch of people were told that they’d went and bought/shaped an identity without realizing it, and definitely without wanting it. An identity that was super unflattering and undesirable.
It felt like there was a sense, within the insult, of being a sucker – of being had – of being gullible enough to buy into that identity in the first place.
Small wonder that the initial typical response to getting slapped with the term tended towards outrage at the unfairness of it all – a sense of betrayal.
“Why does me liking ___ and ___ mean I’m suddenly Basic?! Can’t I just like pumpkin spice because it tastes really good?”
(Then, of course, some people started the work of trying to reclaim Basic, but that’s always how it goes. So far the success has been limited, for reasons I’ll get into later.)
Though: as I’m writing this, I do find myself thinking about how the way that people reacted to Basic was probably helped by it being a “white girl” term.
I mean, I think the sense of betrayed outrage was fanned in part by simple unfamiliarity with being on the receiving end of that sort of thing – of having certain arbitrary, innocuous tastes pulled into a cultural Bingo board that spits out a stereotyped identity, which others then force onto you, with neither your participation nor consent.
The backlash conversation around Basic relies on the language of feminism in its attempt to shut down the term. “If you’re a feminist, you will not use this sexist term.” Basic is, after all, a gendered term. And most of the people participating in the conversation around the term are white women.
There is almost no online conversation of this sort about Ratchet. (And certainly not by high-profile clickbait-y media sites, like there has been with Basic.) And this is the case despite how Ratchet is, emphatically, as gendered a term, and has been used in ways that are far more insulting and sexist.
Instead, there has been a much stronger (and far more unified, and relatively more successful) effort to reclaim Ratchet and give it a sense of compliment – to make it about empowerment and independence. Like what we’ve all tried to do with Bitch, I guess, with equally questionable levels of success.
I find myself wondering if there’s been more effort to reclaim the term Ratchet (rather than destroy or silence it permanently, as there has been with Basic) because black women know that the criteria for getting slapped with the term Ratchet are far lower, and unchangeable, than the criteria for Basic. It’s a harder term to slip. Even though, in many ways, the two terms are parallel to each other.
Perhaps there’s more pressure to reclaim Ratchet because it’s awfully difficult to escape the conditions which may get you slapped with the term – namely, being female and black.
Whereas, for Basic…
Reading the opinion piece above, you would assume it’s much easier to evade being slapped with the term Basic.
You just order a different type of latte.
But in the end, the thing that I find myself thinking about the most is how you wrote about the way you can use Basic pragmatically, like how venomous creatures use bright colors; as a term at our disposal which can shape how we act and interact. And, among other thoughts, I began wondering about the parallel ways someone might use Ratchet. What I realized was that I didn’t really have to wonder – friends and acquaintances have told me numerous stories, from their personal experiences, about how it’s done. (And I am not sharing the details of the stories because they are personal, and not my stories to share.)
This is how you use Ratchet as a bright venomous color, one black woman to another: I disavow you. I am not like you. I am more Acceptable than you.
Basic shames fellow women for being too conformist. Ratchet shames fellow women for being too black.