Getting Back to the "Basics"

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of identity and self-fashioning. It’s actually a recurrent preoccupation in my work. In fact, the poets I study often display concerns not only about evading easy identification, but also about presenting multiple possible “selves.” I think of the infamous Whitmanian declaration, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and, in a similar vein, O’Hara’s line “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible” (which is, in fact, etched on his gravestone). What these poets reject is a kind of “naming,” a sort of essentialism that attempts to render their identity static and immobile, presupposed and, more often than not, imposed from the outside. Perhaps these poets’ impulses are born out of an attempt to assert control; Whitman, implicitly, and O’Hara, more concertedly, as a unabashedly gay man in a virulently homophobic 1950s milieu, seem to challenge hegemonic, heteronormative discourses through their continual self re-fashioning. They seek to narrate and reclaim their life experiences from within. They strive, in other words to (quite literally) authorize their own identity (or identities) in a world that continually seeks to deny it. These poets are not alone in this endeavor. Most recently, I’ve been working on an 18th century text called “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African,” the account of a slave who is kidnapped from Africa, survives the Middle Passage, learns English, becomes a freeman in England, converts to Christianity, and ultimately writes an autobiography that equally functions as an invective against the slave trade. It’s an absolutely fascinating account, and much of the critical debate, and my own project, is much concerned with examining Equiano’s complex identity as it is presented in the text. His foregrounded two names - an original African name and a later European moniker his master forces him to accept – begin to intimate as much. Any stable identity we may seek to ascribe to Equiano is already undermined. Issues of identity run even deeper throughout the text, and Equiano deconstructs and makes various (or, as my class would have it, transatlantic) his own identity. My point is not to elaborate them here. What is particularly interesting to me, though, is that the question of Equiano’s identity remains a crucial point of contention in critical debates today. A trenchant debate seeks to prove whether Equiano was actually born in Africa, as he claims in the text, or if he was in fact born in South Carolina (one scholar claims to have unearthed evidence to prove as much). Ascribing a concrete sense of origin to Equiano has some academic import; nonetheless, I remain skeptical of the contemporary impulse to “place” Equiano. It strikes me as exactly the impulse poets like Whitman and O’Hara refuse. Like theirs, Equiano’s self-fashioning in the text routinely undermines simple identification. Why should we then, as scholars, ignore the very subjectivity and authority he presents by attempting to objectively “define” him ourselves?

Presumably it’s clear by now that I hold the ability to define oneself for oneself in high regard. Indeed, the right of and to self-definition animates the core of much feminist and queer scholarship (and well as many forms of important scholarship concerned with ‘Others’) in which I’m deeply invested. More often than not (as this blog attests) my academic life has a disconcerting tendency to bleed into my everyday life and thoughts. So I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we’ve yet to outgrow (and likely never will) the societal impulse to “name” or define people in ways that undermine their own agency and self-fashioning. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about the term “basic bitch,” or “basic” – I won’t even begin to deal with the second part here – which, though not a new term, has  become a recent phenomenon (though it, like many other things, was actually appropriated from a certain subset of African-American culture – another issue I won’t grapple with now). I’ve had recent conversations with friends attempting to articulate why exactly I so forcefully bristle at the term “basic.” And thinking about my own academic work has been instructive in this regard.

Turning to the source of all things cultural, I looked up the word “basic” on Urban Dictionary, as I’ve heard the term deployed several ways. While the definitions differ slightly, they all share the sense that to be “basic” – and importantly, in its most utilized way, to be a “basic” girl – is to be boring, predictable, and unoriginal. It is to have your tastes and preferences somehow defined for you, and for you to not only passively accept but also to perpetuate them as an idealized standard. To be basic is to conform to a certain definition of what someone, some type of “girl” is or should be. As it’s often used, it has particular and important racial and socio-economic implications, for only certain people can afford (literally and figuratively) to be “basic”. Consider the two of the more recent definitions Urban Dictionary offers: 1. “basic.” A way to describe a basic white girl. Someone who drinks Starbucks everyday. Wears North Faces. Has a lot of white friends…” 2. The typical girl that thinks they are cool because they’re artsy, can make duck face, carry around coffee cups, and wear designer brands. You’ll know a basic when you see one” [Ed. note, I corrected the more egregious grammatical errors]. So when we call someone basic, we’re calling someone, some girl, unoriginal and, quite pointedly, easy to identify. But I think the issue still runs deeper. Because what we also seem, implicitly, to be saying, is that the “basic” girl, by definition, is young, white, and privileged. If we take the word “basic” by its literal meaning – the simplest and most important part of something – then the “simplest” and “most important” part of what it means to be female – the standard against which all females are subsequently to be measured – intractably becomes young, white, and privileged. This standard tacitly presumes to be the basis of what it means to be a female today. Put differently, this very narrow definition of female-ness becomes the center of and constitutes the most superficial aspect of the whole of female experience. Perhaps this is taking it to an extreme, but I think doing so is the only way to get at the heart of my objection to the term. It seems to me that calling someone “basic” is not just a stereotype (although it is, undoubtedly, a stereotype), but also a way of rendering essential what should be an otherwise individual understanding of identity. It is another way of subtly claiming, as society does more explicitly and insidiously, that young, white, and relatively wealthy (at least middle class) is the basic core of female experience. This is not only a presumptive, imposed, and limiting, but also an exclusionary and marginalizing “definition.”

More than that, it refuses the right of both those “basic” women and the women the term necessarily excludes to narrate their own experiences and authorize their own identities. It’s unsurprising that the Internet has generated a plethora of responses in which women either affirm or deny their “basicness,” in spite of their (self-affirmed) individual consumer preferences. After all, these responses seem to stem from these women’s fundamental impulse or need to assert their  right to reclaim their identity for themselves and on their own terms, to decide how and by what names they will allow themselves to be called. To be sure, the problem I’ve been attempting to outline is one that goes beyond just the term “basic.” In fact, we see it everywhere in our culture. Consider the popular HBO show “Girls;” Lena Dunham’s protagonist character announces in the very first episode that she may “be the voice of our generation, or at least a generation.” Though I don’t want to ascribe the character’s speech to Lena Dunham’s feminist politics, the idea that this “voice” could speak for a (female) “generation” is problematic. Because that (feminist) voice is, at base, young, white, and privileged. I’m not the first to make this critique. Think, too, of the way Emma Watson was heralded, after her speech at the UN, by the media as the “new face of feminism.” Though I certainly applaud Watson, an undoubtedly intelligent woman, for using her fame to call attention to the real problem of gender inequality and lending her voice to the feminist cause, she is (as others have objected) also, and in an appropriately predictable way, young, white, and privileged. [For a particularly shrewd analysis see: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/09/im-really-emma-watsons-feminism-speech-u-n/]. Neither Dunham nor Watson is, after all, realistically representative of the range of female experiences that feminism itself, taken as a whole discipline and especially intersectional feminism – which considers the intersection of different forms of oppression, domination, or discrimination, like race, gender, sexuality, and class – seeks to represent. My point, though, is not to disparage these figures; we need them and, problematically, they may be the only kinds of strong female voices society can readily accept right now. But we also should not simply take these facts or consume these pervasive and “basic” brands of feminism uncritically.

Perhaps my broadest point here is that so often in thinking about what femininity, the female experience, and even feminism “is,” we have a tendency to be essentialist and reductive, as I’ve written about before. We, as a society, too quickly attempt to narrate someone else’s identity and life experience in ways that deny pluralism and self-definition. We are then – to come full circle – no better than the scholars who attempt to “place” or identify Equiano or the hegemonic discursive regimes that deny O’Hara and Whitman authoritative voice. I understand that things won’t change overnight, but I hope we can at least think about what it means when we attempt to too easily define someone else or presume to know who they are by virtue of how they look, behave, or act. Or perhaps, at the very least, we can think twice about what it might mean to call someone, even offhandedly, or even jokingly, “basic," the next time we're so inclined.