When the term basic bitch first hit social media, I admit, I kind of loved it. It seemed to exemplify that one archetypal girl I had known my whole life. In my mind she Instagrams pictures of her Starbucks lattes and posts more selfies than statuses. She had a Tiffany bracelet in high school and wore Ugg boots in college. She was probably in a sorority. She is simple and ordinary and the opposite of me. Because I am a complex and unique individual, and she is just a basic.
But as I was scrolling through my newsfeed, I noticed quickly that all the girls were using this word; Even the ones who, by my own definition, were as basic as they come! Suddenly I remembered a lesson I had learned five years ago, a lesson I will have to learn and relearn for the rest of my life: no one is basic.
When I was in college I took an autobiography course. It was a seminar, there were twelve of us and we were under obligation not only to create an honest reflection of ourselves but to share it with a bunch of strangers. I was afraid. You see, I’ve had an unusual past: I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 21 years old, because I lost my virginity at the age of 16 to my first love, a girl named Christina. How could I share my story with a room full of normal people? How could these basics hope to understand?
It won’t surprise you to learn that I was not the first brave writer to share her work. Instead, it was a woman who suffered from bipolar disorder, a disease that had ravaged her most cherished relationships, had caused her to drive away anyone who cared and harm the people she loved most. In this brilliant story, she was both the protagonist and the antagonist, bringing the story to a disturbing conclusion as she wrote “it’s your fault” in blood on the wall. She may have been the bravest person I have ever met, and I had written her off as just another ordinary girl with little more than a cursory glance.
And therein lays the problem with this basic concept. Because as the semester went on I learned that there wasn’t a “normal” person among us. That beautiful girl with the long blond hair was a cancer survivor; that broad shouldered kid in the football jersey was a survivor of domestic abuse; as each of these strangers’ stories unfolded I realized, perhaps for the first time, that no one is basic. I have never been so uncomfortably aware of my own blinding self-involvement.
People may have varying degrees of intelligence and varying capacities for self-expression; In matters of taste, belief, morality and lifestyle we find our places on a spectrum of such outrageous length that it comes full circle back to itself. People are very different, but none of us, not one, is simple. When I look into my seven year old niece’s eyes and watch the gears turning there, I could never deny her her complexity- how then have I been able to deny the complexity of some of the adults around me? And more importantly, why?
If we look at the term’s etymological cousin, T.H.O.T. (that ho over there), an expression that swept the Twittersphere at about the same time, the purpose of these neologisms is clear: we want to put distance between us and them. In a world where we all seem to be starring in our own one-man shows, the most scathing insult we can come up with is to say “you are over there, and because I am here, and I am the center of all things, you might as well not exist.” The basic bitch, that ho over there, she’s the blurry girl in the background of the selfie we took, and if we take a moment to let her face come into focus , we’ll see ourselves, in the heinous excess of our self-absorption, a little bit clearer too.
The basic and T.H.O.T. concepts obviously have the widespread appeal of Katy Perry, and like Katy Perry, I only ever really see women embracing it. Why are we so quick to distance ourselves from one another? So quick to deny people the complexity of human thought and emotion that logic tells us every one of us possesses? Have we gone so delusional that we truly characterize people as either a member of our adoring audience or…irrelevant?
To a point and for some, the sad answer is yes. But there’s more at play. In a world in which a societally engendered sense of competition constantly undermines female relationships, we have turned to comparing ourselves to others to bolster our own self-esteem. When our boyfriends and husbands cheat, we tend to blame the other woman more than the man who has broken our trust. And when our exes move on, nine times out of ten that new girl is just a basic bitch, right?
Denying the complexity of another person is tantamount to denying her humanity; it often serves as a defense mechanism, a shield to protect us from feelings of inadequacy and insignificance, to heighten our and senses of self-righteousness and self- importance. The archetype has been present in literature, theater and film since long before the basic existed- she’s the antagonist. But we cannot forget that she’s the protagonist in her own story, a story in which we may very well be the villain. When we called her basic we took one look at the cover, decided the entire thing was blank, and absolved ourselves of all culpability. Our temptation to compare and judge and type-cast ourselves in the alternating roles of either victim or hero is only more exacerbated by social media, which gives each of us the omnipotence and anonymity of a god and reduces everyone else to words and pictures on a screen, proverbial ants under our magnifying glasses.
I get it. I’m guilty of it. I’m a millennial, a member of the one click generation, the deafening crescendo of our society’s climb to absolute narcissism. My entire world can be summed up in a newsfeed that literally revolves around me: my family, my friends, my interests and tastes and political stance. I am the guinea pig of direct marketing, where an algorithm surrounds me with only the things I want to see. I am the center of a world created for me, a world of self-affirmation and instant gratification. If I don’t like the headline, if a person does not fit into my world, I don’t have to read any deeper. And I’ve definitely used comparison as a tool to stroke my ego more than once- whenever I’m feeling bad I like to place myself somewhere on the moral scale between Mother Theresa and Ted Bundy (works like a charm). But the fact remains that when we call someone basic, we’re lying to ourselves. We are choosing not to see the very real person in front of us.
There’s this old episode of The Twilight Zone about a dystopian (if you’re from Portland, Utopian if you’re from LA) society where, upon reaching adulthood, people are placed into a machine from which they exit perfect, beautiful and more or less the same as everyone else. One well-read girl protests to the procedure, preferring to remain her own, imperfect self. Before being forced into the machine against her will, she says something to the effect of “If everyone is beautiful, then no one is”. God bless you, Rod Serling, you handsome genius! It’s a legitimate philosophical question: are any of us special if we all are? But before we go drifting out into the Twilight Zone, let’s shift the concept to a more manageable scale and ask instead: can we respect our own complexity while respecting and acknowledging the complexity of others? Can we feel special without denying the specialness of others?
The thing about self-worth rooted in comparing ourselves with others is that it is essentially a house made of straw: perfectly comfortable in fair weather but no help at all should it rain. An inflated sense of self-importance based on a virtual (read: almost, as in not quite) reality and the delusional belief that we are all starring in our own hit reality series is a sad surrogate for true self-esteem. The high instance of Facebook Depression is demonstrative of where this comparing game leads. Our self-worth should find a sounder foundation in respect and empathy. Making an effort to live with compassion and acknowledge the complexity of others is something we can all take pride in. Respecting others is something we can all respect ourselves for. And unlike “likes” on our page, self-worth generated this way won’t vary day to day. The John Watson quote comes to mind, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”
I may be closer to Mother Theresa than Ted Bundy, but I’m not a saint. Everyone has their bad days. Everyone makes mistakes. There are some people I just can’t get along with. And some people are horrible serial killers. When the whole world seems to fit in the palms of our hands, it’s easy to forget we’re not the center of it; but though we may not like every person enough to read the book, it’s our responsibility to remember that none of them are blank. This is all the more crucial because the basic concept is imposed on women by women. It bears noting that both the term basic bitch and T.H.O.T. include words traditionally used to shame, objectify and oppress women. When you think about it, we’ve had our freedom for barely a hundred years. We can’t afford to cut each other down, to reduce each other to vapid stereotypes. We have men to do that for us! (haha just kidding…kind of? #notallmen)
Although we are the selfie generation, scorned for our excessive narcissism and feelings of entitlement, that’s not the only thing we’re known for. Katherine Kittredge, professor of English at Ithaca College noted thoughtfully that we, as a generation “…are no longer comfortable with villains (or heroes) who do not have a backstory. The backstory makes them human characters rather than weaker villains.” She cites such Disney films as Maleficent and Frozen as examples of films in which the complex histories of powerful, female would-be-antagonists are revealed, their wrong doings explained and their roles redefined as hero. The moral of these stories, which hovers somewhere between female empowerment and the virtue of empathy and human understanding, is not just inspirational but was also inspired by us, a global audience that demands increasingly strong and complex female characters and a deeper understanding of the villain, the ultimate other. That’s something for which we can all proudly take partial credit.
So in that spirit, let’s abandon this basic bullshit. We’re better than that. We know that just because she’s beautiful doesn’t mean she’s cruel. Just because she’s happy doesn’t mean she’s stupid. Just because she’s dating one of our exes doesn’t mean she’s the spawn of Satan. And even if she is, the girl is not simple. No one is. That basic is not over there, she’s right here, and whether she’s a sorority sister or a cancer survivor or neither or both- she is a survivor and she’s got her own story to tell.