“Show don’t tell,” my creative writing teachers used to say. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson succeeds, perhaps inadvertently, in showing us exactly what basic means in an article entitled, “‘Basic’ is Just Another Word for Class Anxiety.”
My friends and I have been using the word to “basic” (see also “basic bitch”) since at least 2011 to throw shade at everyone from Rebecca Black to Jersey Shore’s Sammi Sweetheart. And three mother-fucking years later, the term has hit the mainstream with the force of Instagram. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word has been coopted by basics themselves, who have twisted the meaning into something involving Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Given the term’s newfound “relevance,” Buzzfeed obviously had to contribute some serious journalism attempting to define and problematize it. The result, with its profound misunderstanding of the term and vague grasps at neo-Marxism, inadvertently shows us exactly what basic means.
Peterson begins her article by describing a “basic” person – her friend’s grandma. Grandma is allegedly “basic” because listens to Harry Connick Jr. and calls Folgers Coffee ‘the good stuff.” Grandma is basic, says Peterson, because she represents “her generation’s version of predictable consumerism.” Peterson defines basicity primarily in terms of spending habits, which she in turn likens to social status, ultimately problematizing “basic” as a word “rooted in class distinction.”
It’s an ambitious premise – Peterson even cites Pierre Bourdieu! – but one that frankly gets it wrong. Sure, basicity is related to taste, and taste is inextricably related to class, but that is where the analogy ends. Some of the least basic people I know grew up in Suburban North Carolina, while some of the most basic grew up in the heart of Manhattan. The first person I remember calling basic was Lauren Conrad, who suffers no lack of access to wealth and culture. And Grandma doesn’t seem basic at all. She seems cool. She loves her Costco and her Harry Connick Jr. and she doesn’t apologize for it. And calling Folger’s “the good stuff” – that’s funny! Funny is never basic. I would argue that it’s difficult for a senior citizen to be basic at all. As people age, self-consciousness fades, people become more confident in what they like and care less about impressing others. I suppose there will always be that one Grandma crying into her Nicholas Sparks paperback because she can’t get her desired reservation at Ruth’s Chris, but that is neither here nor there.
More troubling than the notion that basicity is about classism, however, is the contention that the term is misogynistic.
To the contrary, basic is a word rooted in female empowerment. Let’s return to Lauren Conrad. While she lost to Gwyneth in Vice’s Ultimate Basic Bitch tournament, she is clearly the paragon of basicity. (Say what you want about Goop, but Margot Tennenbaum will never be basic.) LC epitomizes basicity in part because she is a slightly deader-seeming version of male-defined beauty. Thin, blond, and blue-eyed, Lauren is never without black mascara and pale pink lipstick, her hair is always fresh off either a curling or straightening iron, and her clothes cling to predictable curves. And, most significantly, she has literally nothing to say. I remember a Hills episode where Lauren goes on a date with a boy with whom she is smitten. Over dinner she does nothing aside from take miniature bites of food and shoot him flirty glances while he talks at her. And she leaves the date even more smitten than when she arrived. And, like most things bad for women, women idolize Lauren. Basic women, that is.
“To call someone ‘basic,’” Peterson explains, “is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and… transform it into casual misogyny.” She cites Noreen Malone’s smarter article in New York Magazine for the notion that “‘basic’ is a stereotype against a particular type of woman.” Malone says:
[The basic] expresses traditionally feminine desires, like wanting to get married or to have kids. She doesn’t have a poker face when it comes to those things, and doesn’t see the point in trying to develop one…. The word basic has become an increasingly expansive stand-in for “woman who fails to surprise us[.]”
Malone, like Peterson, ultimately concludes that “basic” is a misogynistic term – the basic is always a “she” and represents a type of femininity. The logic fails because the type of femininity they imply is inherent is one that is entirely male-constructed. Basic-bashing doesn’t target the woman who gets married because she wants to, it’s aimed at the woman who wants nothing more than to get married because it is what is expected of her – take one look at her Wedding Pinterest and you’ll see what I mean.
The basic does exactly what is expected of her in every context because she is insecure and unable to free herself of societal trappings. She is agreeable. She is always smiling. She never has an original opinion or says anything shocking. She cannot attend a social event without first texting her friends to see what they’re wearing. She always gives the boy a blow job and never expects him to return the favor. The “woman who fails to surprise us” is exactly it.
I understand the argument that basic-bashing is misdirected – it is patriarchy that created the basic and it is patriarchy that deserves to be punished. But basic-bashing is not about punishment. It’s about women rising up. It’s about women saying – We can be real people with real thoughts and opinions. We can wear our natural hair. We can be loud and curse and be offensive. We can say fuck heels because they hurt. Basicity is about giving power to the fringes, because basics – the walking embodiment of male subordination – ultimately have all the power.
In the recent film Dear White People, the protagonist is offended when the Dean calls her radio show, aimed at mocking white people, racist. “Black people can’t be racist,” Sam responds, “Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.” And likewise basic-bashers can’t be misogynistic because we don’t stand to benefit from patriarchy. As Sam White’s radio show empowers black people in a white space, basic-bashing empowers non-basics in a basic world.
Sadly and ironically, just as the white person thinks he has deserved his privilege, the basic thinks she is on the cutting edge of cool. And Anne Helen Peterson, in writing an article throwing around phrases like “capitalist dystopia” and citing the Frankfurt School, but in wrongly defining the article’s core word and poorly analyzing it’s implications, shows us exactly what basic means.