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When roles have you: “living in their parents’ basement”

June 30, 2012

Text: Do you have ideas, or do ideas have you?

Image courtesy of CrimetInc., Do You Have Ideas, or Do Ideas Have You?. See also Against Ideology?.

I ran across an interesting post earlier, at The Speed of Dreams: Gregory Lucero’s Living in His Parents Basement Part 2: The Ideological Image. It’s well worth a read.

The ideological trope of a man “living in their parents basement” implies an immense immaturity and social failure in life. The failure of the individual is implied in several key fashions. First, it’s implied in an economic manner. The individual in question never reached a level of economic independence from not having a job, working on low paying jobs, or from spending money on frivolous things which frequently imply toys, video games, comics, or movies. Thus, we can see the individual remains immature and never moved along to living on their own while still economically depending on their parents. Secondly, it implies a social failure. It implies a failure because it’s assumed that such an individual either remains under parental control in a substantive way or they ironically exist as an “ungrateful child” who rebels against the rightful and reasonable demands of the parent. In addition, its implied that the contours of such individuals world includes nothing but the basement with the possible exception of the Internet, video games, or similar “nerd” activities. In addition, the ideological position reasons that if said individual had friends they could move out with roommates instead of maintaining the humiliating position of living in their parents basement. Finally, it has a sexual component. Society assumes the basement dweller cannot have any meaningful romantic relationships because either the parental authority will not allow it or the individual will prove too social inept to create such a relationship. If they could form meaningful romantic relationships then they could move out with their romantic partner. The ideological image of someone living in their parents basement remains pretty bleak. It paints a picture of a economically, socially, and romantically immature, impotent, and ineffectual person.

(I did not link to the first part initially, because my own analysis is coming from a rather different angle; you can read his Marxist take on some of the ideology involved in Living in His Parents Basement: An Exercise in Settler Ideology. I keep meaning to do a post about political labels and how a lot of them seem to fit as well as commons strains of atheism, but that will have to wait; but, we seem to be playing rather different games here, too. We are definitely in agreement, in that these perceptions do come from an unfortunate bundle of settler ideology.)

This popular image–or, to be more precise, prescribed role–has bothered me for some time. It fits very poorly over reality in general, even within mainstream Euro-American culture which created it. Trying to apply the same social roles to people from other cultures is miserable FAIL.

This one also bugs me on a personal level, since I have run up against a modified version of it myself, with conflicting social expectations and no real way to win.

Where I’m from, it’s totally normal to live “at home” until or unless you want to move out, usually when you get a career and a longterm relationship established. (People used to live more in extended family settings, and I have gone on about the pressed shift to more nuclear family setups before. More people are doing so again, out of economic necessity–and are getting all these messages that they’re failures because of it.) It only makes sense, on a practical level, to make sure you have a decent income established before you try to live on your own. I mean, you can leave “home” to go to college, have increasing trouble finding a reasonable (or any) job after you graduate with lots of debt, and barely squeak by living “independently”–or, you can live “at home” and have a lot less overhead and an overall higher standard of living. Win-win, right? That is until people who don’t have your practical best interest in mind, nor even understand your reasoning, start suggesting that you’re really failing at life by not adhering to their ideas about becoming an “independent adult”.

A related point from a recent post:

For this approach…to work, everybody has to learn a firm idea of boundaries. (“They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do.”) The individuation process may look very different across cultures (as is a decent bit of the point of the quoted paper), but yeah. Without that, you can have a mess pretty quickly.

If you start out with the idea that ‘such an individual either remains under parental control in a substantive way or they ironically exist as an “ungrateful child” who rebels against the rightful and reasonable demands of the parent’, as Lucero put it, that may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people try to live up/down to the prescribed roles. (See also one I linked to before: Family socialization predictors of autonomy among Appalachian adolescents: “may have different consequences…as compared to mainstream U.S. society”. Expectations of how things should be working make a huge difference.)

I would also suggest that the very urge to shove people into this kind of universalist prescribed role–and behave nastily if they do not cooperate, or the role just does not fit–shows a piss-poor sense of boundaries. They are not you, and you know very little about what is actually going on in their lives. Policing things that are none of your business in the first place is not a reasonable way to behave, to my mind. But, the extent to which this is considered OK is also (obviously) socially determined, rooted in a certain culture’s philosophical/ideological approaches to Life, the Universe and Everything.

To reiterate a quote from Robert K. Thomas, used previously in :

Commonly, one hears talk about the role of the wife or the father. I remember when I first became aware of this feature of American culture, about 1948. I would read articles in magazines about how to be a wife. And my response was, “Whose”? Well, it doesn’t make any difference. One can be a wife without reference to a particular husband, except for confirming purposes. That’s a role. One is “into” such a role, and you “do” it. This type of interaction is characteristic of modern society.


New Englanders in the 1700′s must have had an ideology about which people had grave doubts because they seem compelled to smash everybody who didn’t conform to that ideology. The same way seems true of Catholic officialdom in Spain in the 1500′s. Tribal groups are not ideological, they are not called into question by deviant behavior. Therefore, you can allow deviant behavior as long as it isn’t socially destructive.

In the American suburbs everybody “goes up the wall” if you don’t wear just the right kind of clothes, one of the motors of western civilization, as you know, is self-doubt. That’s the reason we go out and build careers and rocket ships and fortunes and empires. But tribal groups don’t have that kind of self-doubt. For one thing, no tribal is creating their own self. You just are; you are finished and complete and whole and there you are. This is especially true of relatively unacculturated, “old times” tribal groups.

(An aside: this is one of the things that drives me up the wall about the way “tribalism” gets used to project nastiness away from “civilized” people/societies–by, erm, drawing more Us vs. Them ideological distinctions. *scratches head* I have my own ideas about what “controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason”, and it doesn’t have much to do with (Western conceptions of) the “primitive” which must be overcome.)

Another role? Successful young adult, who is living in the right way. Doesn’t matter who it is, or whether your idea of a right way and theirs have much in common.

In short, I think you’ve got some serious problems going when it is OK to treat people like shit, and come up with such unflattering tropes as “40 year old loser who lives in his parents’ basement”, when people’s actual selves and lives are more complicated than the endless constructed roles your society is trying to cram real human beings into. When the prescribed roles and ideal forms are seen as more important than the actual people who are supposed to be filling/trying to resemble them, and their “deviancy” is seen as more disruptive than treating them badly? Wow, that’s a really fucked-up way to run things, if you actually want to have happy and healthy humans to make up happy and healthy societies. And we know what kind of history that approach has: “Utopian ideals — Christianity early, materialistic notions of progress late — have justified uniformly dystopian results, particularly from the point of view of those on the receiving end.”

Yeah, I feel like I’m talking in circles a lot here, covering the same philosophical ground–but, the differences are that major, and an awful lot of people don’t know that there can be any other way of looking at the world.

Especially once the philosophical/ideological packages involve universalism:

Here’s what I mean: if I have a universalist orientation, that fact alone can make me insensitive to cultural difference. If I’m universalist, I will tend to believe there’s one set of principles to live by — everywhere in the world. That is a stance that undermines what intercultural sensitivity is all about.

This shows up all over the world when universalists are present. Think of imperialism and colonialism: it’s no accident that the main perpetrators have been nations with largely universalist orientations.

Universalists can be slow to see a need for intercultural consulting, coaching and training. What value could these services possibly add, if things are the same the world over? Or, in a weaker version: if everyone in the world wants the same things?

We can see that last part clearly in the idea that everyone must follow exactly the same kind of acceptable life trajectory, adhering as closely to a single ideal form as possible, if they want to have a “Good” life. Anyone who is not perceived as conforming closely to this expectation must have a “Bad” (quality of) life, no matter their own thoughts on the matter. That just does not make any sense, unless you are working off a very specific set of expectations and assumptions.

Also, from a short take on Universalism/Particularism:

In a more universalistic culture, most people will presume that rules and values are more important than their own needs or those of their friends and family. In universalistic cultures, the rules apply equally to everyone. If there are any exceptions, then the rules will become useless.

You can maybe see some of the loops that can get set up here, and how it justifies harming people who bring said assumptions and values into question. And how widely this applies, to so many circumstances. Not following the current capitalism-driven plan of young adult “independence”–through inability, or just not wanting to–throws an awful lot of ideas about How The World Works into question, for some people. So they get nasty.

Gregory Lucero writes some about race and how this ties into “living in their parents basement” tropes:

In 2011, 31 percent of young black men lived in their parents’ homes, compared with 11 percent of young black women—a startling 20-percentage-point gap. Among Latinos, 21 percent of young men and 11 percent of young women lived with their parents, while the gap between white men (15 percent) and women (9 percent) was smaller than those of other groups. African American and Latino men have been disproportionately affected by the recession, which may have exacerbated these gender differences.9 Since 2007, Latino men have experienced the largest jump in young men living at home—an 8-percentage-point increase in just four years…

The image of the basement dweller should overwhelmingly paint a black and brown picture. Yet, the ideological image remains decidedly white.

I think the problem of economic inequality is only one factor. (If a strong one.) I would also like to throw in another interaction of racism and “Just World Hypothesis”/bootstraps blaming, when people from other racial/ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged not to be fitting well into the “young adult independence” mold. They’re just Not Trying Hard Enough, or must be inferior in some other way, right? *sigh* Same applies to women, with some twists.

And I am also reminded of one bit from an interview with Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons:

He (Dawes) says, I just came back from the Cherokee Nation … in Oklahoma. Well, he said, they were very, very well established. He said they had schools, there was no war, they had their statehouse, they were living communally. They were very happy, he said, if not blissful there. They were all working like an Indian community. And he says, and that’s the problem. And that’s the problem.

What’s the problem? He says, well, as you know, if somebody is living in those terms, they’re not going to progress. They’re just going to be happy just the way they are. There’ll be no progress. And he says, as you know, the bottom line of our civilization is greed.

That is an interesting quote.

That’s a statement. And I don’t think he said greed, I think he said. … the bottom line of our civilization was selfishness. We have to teach them to be selfish, so they can progress. Not happy. Not about happy. It’s about progress.

It’s always about progress today. What do they talk about, any president that comes up … what do they say? Economic development. Economic development. And it goes on.

More ideological layers which seem to be largely invisible to a lot of people who grew up immersed in certain universalist assumptions. And people whose cultures don’t have the same ideas about progress and how individuation must inevitably work, obviously have something seriously wrong with them. (From what I have seen, it is also more socially acceptable to do the practical thing and not live on your own while broke or going there, among various African-American and Latin@ cultures. Based partly, no doubt, on longterm experience of economic inequality…) I think this also ties into why the usual picture of the guy who lives in his parents’ basement looks a lot like the photo Lucero uses to illustrate.

‘Illustration 1: The ideological picture of the typical “basement dweller.”’

These expectations apply to White men differently. This image is pretty antithetical to the ideological ideal form of a successful Euro-American man. Who ought to be able to do better, thanks to having the Right Ideology and a general lack of inferiority going on. (It makes internal sense, if not in any other way. This shit seriously gives me a brainhurt headache after a while.)

And we get around to sex and gender. Again, from Lucero’s post:

Statistically, we can see that marriage for women helps them avoid living at home. However, we can make a brief detour to point out the ideological blindness in regards to women. Historically and concretely we can see that women have a higher chance of earlier marriage. Part of this remains that women have an expectation to produce children and support a house hold…

[W]omen have been expected to marry in order to satisfy societies demand for unpaid labor. Spinsterism has been the dominate ideological picture of unmarried women. Rather than seeing daughters living at home as incompetent, impotent, and immature, the ideological frame for women living at home (where one exists) simply reduces down to the fact that they’re “unmarriable.” This ideological image has rapidly disappeared as marriage has become less frequent and women have gained more economic independence, but we can see that the “blindspot” of the basement dweller ideology in regards to women rests on the basis of sexism. So women frequently do not appear in this ideological image both because they have a statistically lower part of being the group and the prevailing ideological sexism in regards to women.

I won’t even go into how ideas about how marriage, gender roles, and their interactions are supposed to work differ, but yeah, those are more universalist things that aren’t anything like universal. My own experience of nasty assumptions differs a bit from what he outlines here. You can get both the message that you must be a pathetic loser because you’re single and not leaving your own home to go and live with some man (yep, hetero-/ciscentric as hell, too, not to mention the patrilocal assumptions) and the assumption that you’re lazy and unwilling to work hard enough to “better” yourself and progress economically. Also, that you may be unmotivated to be “independent”, and be expecting some man to take care of you financially in the future, like some kind of lazy unenlightened slob. (This is not an unusual message from certain mainstream strains of feminism, placing a lot of focus on economic equality/personal economic “independence” as a major key to Doing It Right. Lot of the same poisonous assumptions left in unexamined, you betcha, and they combine very badly with disability.) The combination is enough to make a person want to scream. There is enough cognitive dissonance in there, even before you throw in possible cultural differences in expectations around most of this stuff.

Then there is disability, which was a major factor in my own crashing out of college and then living at home up into my late 20s. (When, whether I wanted to follow the expected narrative or not, I moved out of my own home to go and live with a man. And had to marry him for immigration purposes, which is a whole other burrito chock full of nasty ideological ingredients, if less so because I am not noticeably brown.) I was planning to write more about this, but the post has mushroomed as it is. An excellent post from s.e. smith: THE ‘SICK ROLE’ AND PERCEPTIONS OF DISABILITY (more roles, indeed):

The underlying idea behind the sick role is the concept that society, as an entity, craves order. Society likes structure, clear limits, and obviously delineated roles for all members, because otherwise it starts to break down. People who are sick break the rules of society because they are viewed as nonproductive members. Yet, unlike other “deviants,” people who are sick or disabled are not setting out to be deviant. They are forced into that role.

The term I see used is “sanctioned deviance,” based on the idea that society tolerates this divergence from social norms and expectations because of the understanding that there are extenuating circumstances which must be weighed when evaluating the situation. Whether or not this is actually true is a matter for legitimate debate, I think, and it’s an area where the concept of the sick role really falls short. In fact, society does notsanction deviance on the part of people who are sick or disabled, as evidenced by the fact that people feel pressured to work or “contribute” even when they are not able to. It only sanctions it among people with particular types of sickness and disability, and it only sanctions people who behave in a particular way.

See also: ‘JUST TRY HARDER’: THE HEALTH BOOTSTRAPS. Especially because I was diagnosed with a mental illness after crashing out of college, I preferred that people working on certain cultural assumptions (e.g., most other students and former students coming from mainstream Euro-American backgrounds) just see me as a stupid hillbilly slacker who was too much of an unattractive loser to find a man to live with, rather than pile on the extra layers of perceived deviancy from the One True Life Trajectory from the “invisible” disability. Maybe it would have been different if I’d, say, been mangled in a car wreck, but I don’t know in what ways. I just avoided the subject with people who were likely to judge me–and still do, now that I know it’s actually mostly (*gasp*) autism I’m dealing with. Because it is none of their business, even now that I have worked past some of the instilled shame. It still comes up more than is comfortable, with the contrast between what I keep hearing I “should” be doing with myself (i.e., well-paid work which uses the talents and skills other people assume I must have, and raising kids), and what I am really doing (living a lot more happily than I used to be able to).

On a related note, I will throw in another plug for John C Durham’s excellent takedown of some of Simon Baron-Cohen’s tripe, A Market Model of Human Personality (in multiple parts). From 3: Classism:

This leading autism specialist, a Cambridge psychology professor, offers a normative approach to personality based on contemporary professional middle class conformism. It is something that anybody who is concerned for the path our society is taking should be looking at, given the influence that people like the professor wield.

There are two sorts of problems with the Baron-Cohen approach. Firstly, there is the unquestioned assumption that traditional [in American terms, upper – U.] middle class conformism in its twenty-first century incarnation is the normal human behaviour that everybody either already experiences or should aspire to. Secondly, there is matter of the point at which departure from this norm becomes shall we say clinical.

This is a wider problem–as discussed at length in this post–but it definitely goes into some of the perceptions of what constitutes a Hideous Disability which makes one Unproductive (and must be changed at all cost, and no matter the risks involved). And, alarmingly, along with SB-C’s rehashing of gender stereotypes as Great New Science! (which Durham also goes into), a lot of people want to lap it right up because it matches their preconceptions so well.

But, yeah, there are so many reasons a person’s actual life may not be matching up well with a prescribed social role, including that of “Independent Young Man/Woman” (with the added fun for nonbinary people…). And it’s supremely unhelpful–not just to the individual, but to the wider society made up, ultimately, of these individuals–for these prescribed roles to have you.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Alicia permalink
    June 30, 2012 7:38 pm

    In my country is considered better to live with your parents or family until you want to live alone or want to live with a partner, it’s not considered a good idea to leave your parents house until you have some financial estability and it’s common to leave the house only when you find a partner to live with, normally because of marriage.

    Why waste money with two places to live when you can save money and have a better house later?

    I only know of this North American habit because of movies and television, it looks very absurd and I always found the way it’s showed to be offensive. Honestly it makes no sense for us in Brazil, we move only when we want and can with few exceptions of family problems. The only difference is when children are adults is that we share paying for things in the house.

    • July 1, 2012 4:43 am

      Yeah, my mom has actually told me she fully expects me to continue to live here (at home, with her) if/when I get a job, if I’m not living with a partner at the time.

      She framed it in pretty much the same terms you did, about wasting money.

      (I’m a white, middle-class American, I just come from a frugal family!)

  2. June 30, 2012 8:12 pm

    Reblogged this on disdatandeveryfink and commented:
    I actually really do love this.

  3. July 1, 2012 4:50 am

    This is great. I’ve long been conscious that I’m kind of living out this stereotype, and have known for a long time that the modern US ideal of independent living/nuclear-family starting is just not going to work for me. For a while I was part of a polyamorous triad that had as one of its goals setting up a supportive community for me, because I’d voiced doubts about my ability to take care of myself if I were to live on my own indefinitely, but that’s on hold now because, ironically, I was not able to uproot myself and move halfway across the country when they did.

    Also, I had never pondered the class implications of Baron-Cohen’s theories before! (I’ve critiqued the hell out of their genderedness, but not really the class, race and cultural limitations). That’s fascinating, I will have to read that post. And the posts about the basement archetype … you link the most intriguing stuff.

  4. October 20, 2012 11:28 am

    I thought I’d commented on this when you posted it, as it is an excellent analysis. I’ve written about these issues today and drawn heavily from your post. Thanks you.

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