Lately I’ve been taken with the Basic Bitch. I didn’t really notice her until last year. She’s catching on, this girl; she is everywhere.
Kara Brown, writing for Jezebel, explains that she really caught on after the hit song “Gucci Gucci” (Kreayshawn). It’s a great song, catchy and canny. Probably my favorite line in this song is Bitch You Ain’t No Barbie, I see you work at Arbie’s. In Kreayshawn’s Gucci Gucci, the Bad Bitch knows who she is and the Basic Bitch doesn’t, really. I kind of like this Basic Bitch more than what she morphs into, a couple of years later, sipping lattes in her skinny pants, nothing but a list of products.
Noreen Malone also wrote a thoughtful essay about the Basic Bitch for The Cut, pointing out the label’s dig at consumption and its obvious misogyny. In Jezebel, Kara Brown argued that we should stop overanalyzing the word. She discussed the appropriation of the word itself, and how it was warped into what it became on Comedy Central – a list of products, a specific kind of upper-middle class woman who brunches, pins messy buns, wears soft fuzzy sweaters, and celebrates fall with the ubiquitous Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte. She talks about its origins, how the word was Columbused (no argument there) – to Brown, the put-down is not essentially about race: “With that shift, many people (mostly white) have unnecessarily intellectualized the term; frankly, this is because they don’t really understand it. Being basic isn’t about race or class. It’s not about being jealous or hating women. It is, and always has been, about coolness.”
Both essays accomplish what half the fun in discussing the dis is – defining it. The other half is calling it out in others.
The word is out there, in its different variations, as Brown has said, getting Columbused. But this Columbused version of the Basic Bitch, I just can’t ignore her. I never have been able to ignore her. I wanted to be her for so long. I watch her being embraced and ridiculed. “I’m a Basic Bitch!” women say on their blogs, their Pinterest boards. Every time I sit down to ruminate on the basic bitch and work on this essay, I Google her and find more digs. I just discovered a Vice article pitting a bunch of white actresses against one another for the title of Queen Basic Bitch. It looks like Gwyneth Paltrow wins, in that one, hands down. But I don’t quite understand this, because I don’t think there is anything really normal about Gwyneth. She wears beige, sure, but most basic women could never even begin to aspire to her rarified life. I hardly think she is drinking Pumpkin Spice Lattes. She’s getting an organic pumpkin, and grinding the spices herself, and serving it up in a sunlit kitchen.
Unless Basic Bitch ultimately means a privileged, silly, clueless woman. God, I hate that woman. She is so fucking easy to hate.
So the Basic Bitch that’s been taken and warped from her original hip-hop origins — I’ve seen her before, in different iterations. Like the Valley Girl, she is vapid, she is spoiled, she is callow. In Katie Johnson’s “Fifty Signs You’re Dating a Basic Bitch,” she emerges as a kind of sweetly dreaming romantic too lazy or stupid to learn more than surface information. According to this list, she doesn’t like rape jokes (it’s not funny, guys) and she is obsessed with Paris although she’s never been. A dreamy girl who has never been to Paris and loves pictures of Audrey Hepburn? That’s kind of sweet. And not liking rape jokes? Well, I think that’s rather decent of her.
What emerges from this list, as Malone points out, is a kind of criticism of taste, a disdain for this latte-swilling girl who collects pretty inspirational quotes, revels in fall, and saves the tickets from her first concert with her boyfriend. She is precious and sheltered. She likes brunch. And another thing I notice, in these lists, and my own feeling about the words “Basic Bitch” – how woefully unaware I am these days about brand names, although when I was in my twenties I think I was more tuned in. North Face? Uggs. I know what Uggs are. One of these lists likens wearing them to wearing cat toys. Puddy from Seinfeld appears in a Comedy Central skit, diagnosing a poor ordinary suburban-looking white girl as a “Basic Bitch.” She wears a big scarf, and her hair is gently waved. She likes scented candles. She bought a pair of sweat pants from Victoria’s Secret once with the words “Sexy” on the butt. Last week, I clicked on a link in Facebook and read a listicle of tasteful tattoos – little hearts and birds, sparrows, dandelions – all passing the basic-girl litmus test. The tattoos appear in delicate erogenous zones – the collarbone, the ankle, the sweet spot behind the ear.
So, should we be afraid of this word, “basic”? Is it some sort of impending sign of a race war, is it a seemingly innocuous insult that carries with it a deeper threat? Are people imagining thousands of Basic Girls up against the wall of a quaint little tourist town mall, waiting to be executed? I thought a long time about this, and my answer is more in line with Kara Brown’s. No. It’s not that frightening, this word.
I tried summoning basic bitches from my past – some too close to my present to write about here – and I’m afraid to start telling you about her, about her callousness, her sense of entitlement, the things she has done to me without blinking an eye. I know she has power. She has more money than I do. But her power is partly because of her cluelessness. She doesn’t see herself as a threat. And you know what? At her worst, I don’t call her basic. As I think about her, in her different incarnations, and as she becomes more and more the person who would throw me away and separate me from her recycled trash, she becomes just, simply, bitch.
There’s that word, bitch, that word which is probably the most elastic of all. Feminists have reclaimed it. It’s on daytime television now. We have “bitch sessions” and we “bitch” about things. There are bad bitches. We have Bitch magazine. That kind of bitch, I’d love to be her. She’s like a pit bull, that bitch, not giving a damn what anyone thinks, taking control.
But I’ve never really used it that way, at least, not really all that often. Because I felt the power of the word, and I think it’s still there, on the mouths of men who slammed me against the wall. Or maybe it comes down to this – my father called me a little bitch. In his anger, he’d say, “I’m going to kill the little bitch.” I can’t imagine, not for a second, him ever shouting, “I’m going to kill that basic little bitch!”
The insults with heat, with power, come from hate – sometimes centuries of it. I don’t like the nastiness behind the words Basic Bitch, the bad taste it leaves in my mouth, like Stevia. Everyone has a soul. Nobody is ever a list of products. But the Basic Girl, when she is white and privileged and listicled – she is whimsical, almost. She isn’t aware of the power she wields, because she is too oblivious. She gets what she wants, usually, without a lot of fuss. She is awful. But is she the equivalent of other words we hear and see? I mean, when you feel the white-hot hate, a kill-her hate, would you use the words Basic Bitch? Hardly. And I wouldn’t want to hurt her. It would be like hurting a sweet, big cow – the kind you see in cartoons, with a pretty bell around her neck and too much mascara.
I looked up the word “basic” in the urban dictionary:
An adjective used to describe any person, place, activity involving obscenely obvious behavior, dress, action.
Pat was trying to fuck that drunk girl — so basic.
Shelby was showing off her tits for attention — fucking basic.
When I was growing up, my own mother wore makeup, but only on special occasions or when we went to church. I can remember watching Samantha on Bewitched, after school – how I adored Elizabeth Montgomery in her pretty outfits, her sticky blonde hair and shiny lips, her smart mouth and vivacious delivery. I can remember my father standing there, pointing out her lipstick, calling her stupid. Women who wore too much makeup were silly and superficial. He didn’t see why we should buy a separate conditioner for my hair. He would often put on a high falsetto to mimic the way I giggled or talked. When I asked for Noxema, I got called out as vain, and petty, and feminine. But at school I was not this at all. I was awkward, pushing big glasses up my oily nose. I didn’t want people looking at my lips. Well, I did. I did and I didn’t.
My father liked to take us on tours of model homes. He was disdainful of the people who ordered houses in these developments, yet would talk excitedly on the drive there about house construction. Our guide and agent would talk about property values, color schemes, and school districts. I liked the staged rooms, and my brother and I would often play house in them while the adults talked. I remember one model house had a playroom, complete with dolls and a Holly Hobby playhouse. Playing with the toys seemed to be playing at playing, and I wasn’t too interested in that. It was more fun to imagine going into the model homes after dark, when the office people were gone, and living there in secret. I had an elaborate daydream involving this. My father used to say things like, “People want colors for their appliances because if you get a Harvest Gold refrigerator or an Avocado stove, it means you are trendy.” Was this bad or good? I couldn’t really tell. Maybe what he meant was, if we could afford the Harvest Gold, we wouldn’t take it just because we could afford it. We would only take it because we liked the Harvest Gold. Or something like that. Often, when we drove away, my father would talk about how the people were trying to sell to us, and the tricks they used. They would bake cookies in the oven so you would imagine your kitchen always smelling of homemade cookies. Or, worse, they might spray it with air freshener that gave the illusion of freshly baked cookies.
Sometimes, when he would talk to the agents, he put on a fake drawl. He would say things like “It don’t make no never mind,” and play at being a hick. This embarrassed me. I was sure they knew what he was doing, but my parents acted as if they didn’t. Sometimes he was ordinary. Other times he was plain weird. Once, when an agent was being particularly pushy, he started to bark. He kept on barking and I walked outside and waited beside the little pond in front of the model house. The pond had koi and a sculpture of a Mexican boy fishing.
He kept a model he made of the house we might all live in someday in the garage. It was a round house, with a skylight in the center. He called the living area the atrium. Our bedrooms were shaped like cheese wedges, with lofts and skylights. I thought this would be the best house for us and imagined it in different settings. I cut out pictures of furniture and accessories and showed them to him. At some point, I realized that we would not live in this house, and this was his way of dreaming.
Long before Pinterest or the internet, I could spend hours in my room poring over magazines, looking at pictures. I was entranced with commercial femininity, and I wanted to be part of it. Kristie Brinkley in a poofy skirt, fireworks behind her, laughing on a beach, her bare feet in the sand. I don’t know if this photograph is real, but I remember being upstairs in my grandparents’ house, with a pile of books and magazines, staring at her picture. She had full ’80s brows and big poofy hair, and her toenails were red, peeking out of the sand in the dark.
There was a time, when I was a child, when I kept throwing up. I was losing too much weight, getting crippling migraines, and my mother sent me to stay with her parents for a while. My grandmother gave me a bell to ring if I needed anything and brought be tomato soup. I lay in bed with a dog named Poppy, who looked just like Benji, and read for hours. I didn’t vomit. I gained weight. I felt safe, and at home. I read the old Nancy Drew books found in the back of a closet. I read everything I could find, old book club books from the 1940s, old National Geographics. Magazines from the 1960s. I liked the pictures in the magazines, from every decade. Everything in that house, all those old magazines, the sweet dog, the Reader’s Digests, the clear plastic scarves my grandmother wore over her hair when it rained – all of it, is gone. But this reverie I fell into – this yearning for a certain kind of magazine pretty – it’s all over Pinterest now. The pictures and stories are with me. They are in countless Facebook memes that take Robert Frost out of context. They are in the life hacks that show me how, with a little thought, I can turn my Wal-mart particle-board bookcase into a cottage style cubby. And I love it.
When I was in my early twenties, I dated a man from River Oaks. If you know anything about Houston, you know about that neighborhood. I loved the home he grew up in – loved how it was like something from the set of Terms of Endearment. Loved how safe it felt, how accepted I was. I didn’t know where the furniture and the objects came from, but it looked like my idea of class. Ethan Allen, and silverware kept polished. There was a beautiful, giant oriental carpet, and there were family photos on the walls. My boyfriend’s parents seemed kind, like people with problems but who didn’t scream them out, who didn’t hit or throw. And they liked me.
But this guy, he was as angry as my father, as angry as anyone I’ve ever met. I was angry, but didn’t know it, so I let him be angry for me. He wouldn’t speak to me for a week when I cut my hair in bangs without letting him know first. As my boyfriend, he felt he had a right to know these things first. He called my family trash. And when he said it, I felt that word and all its implications. I was being elevated, and I should be, and was, grateful. The things my father did, the things my uncle did — that was why they did it. Because of that word, trash. It was a word that meant garbage, waste, people who didn’t serve any real purpose other than to stink up the world. It was a simple answer to all my dilemmas, really, and I believed in what he said, even though I objected. I didn’t say I believed it, but deep down a part of me did. I wore my hair the way he told me to wear it. I grew it long again. I stayed thin. When he got drunk and called me a cunt, it wasn’t so different from what my own father had done and said to me. But I couldn’t reconcile the two, I didn’t see that both men had a rage that came from deep inside a past I didn’t understand completely, and still don’t.
You need to try to understand your father. I can’t begin to tell you how many times my mother said that to me.
I mostly dated men who were raised with more than I had. I didn’t see this as a pattern. Romance was as infinite as the stars splashed across the night sky, bigger than I could contain or understand. All I had to do was call it love. Like the basic girl, I loved the word love. If I said it, wrote it out on manila papers with tiny hearts – if I fed it, told stories about it, if I believed in it enough, I could make it real. Even when my first marriage was disintegrated, and I was living with a man who wouldn’t look at me or speak to me, I told myself we were a family. I thought I was doing this for my son, and maybe I was. But I was also doing it because I was in love with the idea of family that I’d been sold in pictures in the Pottery Barn catalog. I wanted a safe life, I wanted a family and an SUV, I wanted a future with countless soccer games and peanut butter sandwiches made not with Jiffy peanut butter, but the kind you can grind yourself at Whole Foods. What I couldn’t see was these men didn’t want that at all. They liked me because I wasn’t that girl, didn’t come from where she came from. And I didn’t always want to be her, either. I thought I could wear her sometimes, the way my father wore different versions of himself, and I took her off when it was too hard to be her. It’s exhausting, believing in those pictures. I don’t believe them anymore.
Before I moved away, right after a difficult divorce, I sorted through years of belongings. That was my job, as the one who stayed home. I carted bags and bags of junk to the Goodwill. What I most remember doing, when I was clearing out all that past to move into family housing in another state and start over again, was going through all the Christmas decorations I had collected over thirteen years of marriage. Paper angels made out of magazine cut-outs during a first Christmas in Vermont, when we had a tall, beautiful tree and no money for decorations. And all the little bits and pieces, the handmade decorations, the whimsical Baby’s First Christmas balls. It would be foolish to hold onto them, I realized. I couldn’t afford to bring them with us. I could attach a story to each one. If you were to ask me now, to tell you about the decorations, to list them, I couldn’t. But back then, they were catalogued, scrapbooked in my mind, all in sepia tone and blurred nostalgia. Nothing real or authentic in absolutes, but oh, how beautiful they can be.
I bought a plastic tree after that, because I couldn’t untie and cart a real one into the house on my own, not with a preschooler to look after. And after that, every Christmas, I would make decorations with my son out of paper or popcorn. If they lasted, great. If we lost them, that was okay as well. And as soon as I said goodbye to all that, I fell in love.
I got married again. I had another baby, a girl. I stopped trying so hard, and I give my husband my best. I think he does his best for me. We’re okay without the storybook attempt.
My first husband never hit me. He hurt me, as people who get stuck in bad marriages hurt one another. I hurt him too. He was so wrong about so many things, I think, but he was right to leave, and when I am angry with him if I am honest it is not about the marriage. Not anymore. When we met we were both so afraid of being basic, of being ordinary. I think that was part of what happened to us.
That’s what my father would never be accused of, being ordinary. He was an artist, and we were all special and different. His anger was a part of what made us so. My mother told me he had a split personality. In one of my earliest memories, I am in the bathtub with my mother. And my father walks in, silent. The bathroom is all white, and I am sitting in front of my mother, and she is holding me from behind. He looks down at us, and raises his fist. He slams my mother’s face against the faucet. She is bleeding, and crying. And then he walks out.
I don’t know if I cried, but I think I sat there, just sat there. And after a long time, my mother said to me, gently, “That wasn’t your father.”
I don’t remember what she did after that. Did we sit in the bathtub until the water was cold and our fingers wrinkled, waiting for him to leave? I just don’t remember.
And I believed her. My father was someone else. He wasn’t the man who did those things to me, or to her. And she, she was anything but basic. She would stay with him, carry him, hold him when he cried.
The Basic Girl reads Facebook inspirational quotes, doesn’t she? She posts them too. Well, so do I. A few weeks ago I read a quote that says, “You are no more and no less important than any other living creature in this universe.”
I like that. It means Mother Teresa isn’t more important than Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Aniston is no more important than a dandelion. In a way, isn’t that the ultimate Fuck You to entitlement? It doesn’t mean we can’t be different, that we aren’t different. It means we are all part of this existence, right? That we are all part of, perhaps, a puzzle we will never fathom. That’s what one of the listicles said the Basic Bitch believes. She believes that everything happens for a reason.
When I was in my twenties, I was embracing an identity similar to what would later be labeled the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I was interesting, or so I thought. In the Comedy Central skit, Puddy gives the basic bitch a withering look as says that she needs to stop using hashtags that say #whathappensinvegastaysinvegas. “We all know what you did in Vegas,” he says, “You got drunk with your girlfriends, and you danced with them.”
So our sexual history, like our shoe preferences, is another indicator of who we are as women. That’s nothing new. We’re sluts if we do – we’re vanilla and basic if we don’t. Unless we reinvent ourselves, or show just enough to be exciting without looking like a hot mess. It’s not easy, but I pulled it off mostly. I wasn’t that basic, spoiled bougie girl. I had suffered. I had been sexually abused, and if I got drunk I’d remind you of that. The details of what happened to me were veiled and vague, as were the stories I had heard about my father’s abuse growing up. Whatever it was, it made me romantic to men, worth saving. I was the Little Match Girl, and I’d stay up all night talking to you for a hot meal. But I wouldn’t embarrass you at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner either. I was presentable, and pretty enough. The boy from River Oaks once said to me, what you lack in other areas, you make up for in entertainment value.
Judd Nelson calls Molly Ringwald out as a basic girl in the teen movie all my friends saw when I was teen myself. He calls her a spoiled rich girl. He mocks her parents’ BMW, her princess status. He tells her she isn’t special. He wants her, and he gets her in the end, but first he has to tell her that she has a fat girl’s name.
Claire Standish: What’s your name?
John Bender: What’s yours?
Claire Standish: Claire.
John Bender: Claire?
Claire Standish: Claire. It’s a family name.
John Bender: Oh, it’s a fat girl’s name.
Claire Standish: Oh, thank you.
John Bender: You’re welcome.
Claire Standish: I’m not fat.
John Bender: Well not at present, but I can see you really pushing maximum density. See I’m not sure if you know this, but there are two kinds of fat people: there’s fat people that were born to be fat, and there’s fat people that were once thin but became fat…so when you look at ’em you can sorta see that thin person inside. You see, you’re gonna get married, you’re gonna squeeze out a few puppies and then, uh…
Years ago, I married that man who loved to make fun of the Basic Girl (not the guy from River Oaks). He didn’t have a name for her, only his disdain. We were right out of college, so he still talked about her in terms of that. She could be a sorority girl. She drove an SUV that her father bought for her. She hung framed prints of Monet’s lilies on the wall. I think even back then, she came with a list of products and brands, although I can’t remember what they were.
As I look back, I believe the basic girl my ex loved to hate was someone his mother would like. I was so very far from basic, from ever having the choice to be. My interesting coat? I had it because it was free, from my grandmother’s closet. So this brings me to what Brown says that interests me most – this basic bitch? She has the money to choose her coat, and she only spends it to conform. In my ex’s eyes, the basic bitch’s suffering was the equivalent of a hangnail. She had no real right to feel anything, because she was too pampered, too vacuous.
I was raised around a certain kind of disdain for women who spent money on clothes and trinkets. It was always a vague disapproval coming from my mother, who would smile close-lipped when my father praised her frugality. There was the attitude that we didn’t have enough, but if we did, we would spend our money differently. And, without giving it enough thought, I dated men who weren’t so different from my father in attitude.
Like my parents, I was often just staying afloat. Oh I could hang out with the upper-middle class — even hold onto it myself for a couple of years. Now, at 45, with two kids, my husband and I pretty much run two households in two different states. With my salary, I can pay daycare, the bills, make the Rooms To Go payment an old friend co-signed for me so I could get some credit. But I’m a far cry from being able to get Ugg boots for Christmas, or buying my son a Wii, or giving my daughter a fancy fondant cake for her birthday. As I write this, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve probably earned less in my life than I have invested in my education, and I’m middle-aged. For a few years, my family lived on my husband’s medical resident’s salary and whatever I could bring in adjuncting. We were okay, but we were on WIC. If I had bought lattes every day, or leggings from any place other than Wal-mart, I’d have felt like an ass and worse, a bad mother. Now I have a good lecturer’s position, and with it comes health insurance. He is almost done with the residency. So, I might get the Ugg boots – but if I do, I have to really want those Uggs.
I can think to myself how, if I had $175 to spare, I wouldn’t spend it on shoes. I’d spend it on art. But that’s the thing, you know. When I do this I am still dreaming about having those choices – being a consumer. For years, I wore my grandmother’s camel coat, the lining torn to shreds inside, knowing I was elegant. See, if I ever had the money, instead of buying a coat off the rack, I was going to get it lined with a beautiful scarlet satin. I have Pinterest boards. It’s a kind of dreaming.
I try to imagine how my husband’s parents would do things, now that I am their daughter-in-law. They don’t throw things away unnecessarily. They keep things organized, simple. It’s a way of life I admire but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely duplicate. Even if I could, it would be tempting to transform it – into a blog about living simply and mindfully, a blog with carefully edited photographs of our individual white bowls and cups, which we each wash separately, my daughter, my son, and I. I would not photograph the nights we get home late, and I’m tired from work, and I have to carry the garbage out to the dumpster in back so I bundle her up and push boots over my pajama bottoms to carry her and the big plastic bag full of grease and diapers and empty cartons, hoping it doesn’t break and she doesn’t wake. I would prettify it. I don’t do that in my writing, but I do with my children. I guard them and their memories. It is difficult to write about my past, especially when I write about the hurts my parents exposed me to, but that isn’t as hard as the fears I have for my children. I can’t write those down.
I won’t do it, because I know it would be wasteful, but a part of me would love to give my daughter a big birthday-packaged party, complete with fondant cake and stimulating activities, maybe at the Children’s Museum. Well, that would be throwing our money at something we don’t really need and get us more in debt. She is just as happy with a few balloons and a cake made in the oven with a mug and vanilla cake mix.
So when my daughter grows out of diapers, I do what her grandparents would do – I save them for cleaning, instead of throwing them away. But with one of my first paychecks, I bought a television and a Chrome stick so the kids could watch videos. In hindsight, I don’t think my mother-in-law would make that choice. I got my son the bunk beds he wanted so badly. And when Christmas came around, I watched him instructing his sister to make a list for Santa. The list, like my own has always been, is kind of a joke but kind of not a joke. It’s full of desires for things — a castle, a moat, a week at Disneyland. Things we might attain and things we can never “have.” It’s a list of things, things, things.
So this Basic Bitch, she’s a little monster in skinny pants whispering her Narcissism in our collective ear. Who else is she?
She is the woman I saw discussed on television, who screamed that she was going to “shoot all the protesters” if they made her daughter late to a football game. That’s one basic bitch. As I watched that story about her, I imagined her, in her Prius, possessed with road rage because she might be late to her yoga class.
After talking to my husband about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, that gentle, funny, tender movie with the great John Candy, I started telling him about the movies I grew up watching. I started talking about Molly Ringwald, and I got to Sixteen Candles. I don’t like that one as much, I told him. In order to fully appreciate this story you must know that my husband is Chinese. He asked me why, and it took me a few minutes to remember. And then, all of a sudden, I remembered that Asian foreign exchange student. I don’t even remember what country he was supposed to be from, but I felt kind of sick to my stomach, just thinking about it. I vaguely remember him falling out of a tree maybe, just clueless, talking like a baby. Did it bother me then? I can’t even remember. But I do think that character was almost as bad as the Mickey Rooney character with the buck teeth and crazy accent I had blocked from my memory, from another movie I adored in my childhood, Breakfast At Tiffany’s. My husband doesn’t talk like that, like a baby. He doesn’t fucking talk like that. I felt, well – basic. Basic for not even thinking much of those men in the films before.
You know what else is basic? People ask me sometimes if my daughter is adopted. My husband thinks this might be because I am usually out with both my children, and my son is white. My daughter is not. But, you know, I can’t help but think sometimes it’s because they just can’t see, or they aren’t looking. Once, a racist old woman spit on me and had a lot of ugly things to say in front of my children. But she recognized my daughter in me, she could see that my child looked like me. Some women don’t. So, racist, hateful old woman that she was – I don’t think she was basic.
And I’ve had so many people say she doesn’t look like me that now I tell them what is my standard line, “No, I gave birth to her. I think she looks like me.” I say that to shut them down, so they don’t say, “Well, she looks nothing like you.” My daughter is about two and a half now, and she doesn’t really know what the word adopted means – only that somehow it is associated with her not being like me, and that makes her want to claim me. She will say, “That’s my mama!” Or, “No, I don’t like that. I’m not.” But the woman who kept on, after I had given my standard response, to ask, “Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Does what bother me?”
“That she doesn’t look like you when your son looks just like you.”
“No. It doesn’t, because she does look like me,” I said.
But that woman who said that? She also went on to say she hoped she didn’t offend me, and that she was just saying what everyone else was thinking, or something of that sort. That woman – I can’t even remember her features that well, she was pretty nondescript, maybe my age, maybe a little younger. We were in a grocery store. She was my idea of a basic bitch. I’ve heard worse, I guess, but she sticks out in my mind because she stands for that kind of seemingly innocuous, casual bigotry I’m supposed to shrug off. It bothers my kids, to hear this kind of thing, and the Basic Bitch, she is smug. She doesn’t give a shit about how my daughter feels, hearing a stranger say that she looks nothing like me. I was asking for it, and I should have thought about that before I had the audacity to have a child like her.
I read about that bitch again in an article not that long ago — she called child protective services on the woman working her shift in McDonald’s who told her daughter she could go play in the park. She told her daughter she could go and play, so that she wouldn’t have to sit still in McDonald’s while her mother worked a long shift. But the Basic Bitch called CPS because “that’s no excuse.” The Basic Bitch, she has different standards.
She told me so. When I was a low-income, single mom, still in graduate school – she gave me that withering smile, when I showed up once for a school event and said, when I confessed I had forgotten crazy socks day (okay, something like crazy socks day. I can’t remember what special day it was) that she never forgot such days. “It’s not a criticism of you. I guess I just have higher standards for my children.” It stung because yes, I wish I had remembered crazy socks day. She had no idea how hard I was trying to be the kind of mom who didn’t forget about crazy socks day.
It might be pretty basic of me, but I have trouble saying some slurs out loud. I mean, what did one of those lists say? That the basic bitch has trouble saying racial slurs? What the hell? Yeah, I do. I can type them but I don’t say them. I say, asshole. I say bitch. I don’t say Cunt. Kike. Wetback.
I’ve been called trash, and bitch, and cunt. And maybe – it was trash, a word that we might not think of as being so bad – maybe that was the one that made me feel most worthless.
Lenny Bruce pointed out that in not saying words, we give them power. Maybe so. But maybe in saying them, we feed that power too. Maybe words, after centuries of use and abuse, can’t be separated entirely from history. They can’t be erased, and yet they must be acknowledged. In the face of some of those words, the Basic Bitch is really very basic.
I’ll end with this, since I am reading into my personal experience with slurs here.
I’m about thirteen, and my father has driven us to see his family. I don’t want to go. I’ve been raised hearing about how awful they are, and yet we keep going back to them. Ostensibly, this time, are going on a camping trip. We aren’t going to see them, although we are going to a place near where they live.
I haven’t told my mother everything, but I’ve told her my uncle makes me uncomfortable.
We stay in a motel, and after breakfast, my father says we are going. I don’t have to go, I can stay in the motel. But I don’t want to stay there by myself. There isn’t even a television, I have nothing to read, and I feel sick. I feel like I’m going to vomit. And then I do.
I vomit all morning, but they take me, because I decide I will go. I go to a room, away, hoping we will leave soon. But we don’t. And my poor, disturbed uncle – I have my eyes closed and I feel a soft butterfly kiss on my forehead. It’s the kind of kiss my mother gives me when I’m feverish, so I probably smile a little, but when I open my eyes, it’s him. He passes his hand lightly over my body, grazing it all from top to bottom and he says, “Let me look at your figure.”
He looks down at me for a moment. “It’s nice. But you better watch out. You have a nigger body.” Wet lips. There is nobody else in the room.
Those words, and his eyes gone flat – they looked at me like I was nothing. They brought me down low. Once he said that to me, I was nothing to him. I was thirteen, I didn’t know much, but the word, and the way it came out of his mouth when he looked down at my breasts – I felt its power. And I’m a white girl, I can’t claim to know what it feels like to have that word aimed at me again and again.
Years and years ago, when I was young and sitting in one of my first writing workshops, and my past kept surfacing in my fiction, I wrote about getting hurt, but the girls in my stories who were hurt – they didn’t fight back. They were too kind. Unlike me, they didn’t smash dishes, or scream, or call their fathers Fat Fuck. I thought this made them gentle, I thought it made them pure. They didn’t understand what was happening to them.
A boy in my workshop said to me, “You keep writing about the victims, but I think you should explore the far more difficult task of seeing things from the perpetrator’s point of view. What makes him do what he does?”
Is it easier? Who wants to be a victim? I can write about him, the rapist, the abuser. But is it harder to write about him? More challenging?
So I try to write about her. All I have to do is imagine her, a little golden necklace with her name around her neck, casually doing all the things she has done, without a care in the world. That bitch. It isn’t hard to summon hate for her. Of course she doesn’t exist, no more than the stupid hapless sweet victims I used to write about, drawn from my idea of the fairytale heroine I loved in the old Grimm’s books I read at my grandparents’ house as a child.
What is hard is writing for the one who has been called bitch, trash, the woman who loved the man who wrapped his hands around her skinny neck and looked right through her. The man who said the next day over cornflakes that he was sorry, and that he wouldn’t do it again. What is hard is knowing she grew up to lie, to cheat, to be, sometimes, the things he said she was. What is hard is writing about her, and trying to understand why, after years of growing and reading Facebook memes about empowerment and dreaming over pictures of what it is she hopes or hoped she might have had, she still can look at herself in the mirror and see how she can pass for that woman, that spoiled bitch. All it would take would be to put on a veneer, go on a cleanse, lose twenty pounds, gain fifty thousand a year, and I’d be there.
What is hard is looking at my beautiful daughter and knowing there are things I can’t change. Because even with a father who loves her, who would never hit her, even if I can teach her that no woman is a racial slur or a cunt, someone someday might call her names far worse than Basic. And I don’t want that for her.
No put-downs like Basic Bitch. They can’t compare.
Claudia Smith is the author of the short story collection Quarry Light (Magic Helicopter Press) and the flash fiction collections The Sky is a Well (Rose Metal Press) and Put Your Head in My Lap (Future Tense Books). She lives in Houston, Texas, where she works as a lecturer for the English department at the University of Houston-Downtown.