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The Becky Trope, Explained

Who is Becky? From the moment Beyoncé called her out on her 2016 album Lemonade, Becky instantly became the subject of memes, think-pieces, and Twitter mobs, all of them trying to discern the identity of “Becky with the good hair.” But as it turns out, Becky is all around us. For centuries, the Becky has been a convenient archetype of a kind of white femininity, someone who may or may not have good hair, but who is largely identified by her obliviousness. The Becky is someone our culture both reveres and looks down upon for her appearance, her privileges, and her willfully naive behavior. Here’s our Take on the Becky as privilege personified, the damage she causes—both willfully and unintentionally—and whether there could be more to Becky if we’d just give her a chance.

TRANSCRIPT

Beyoncé: “He better call Becky with the good hair.” - “Sorry”

Who is Becky? From the moment Beyoncé called her out on her 2016 album Lemonade, Becky instantly became the subject of memes, think-pieces, and Twitter mobs, all of them trying to discern the identity of this girl with the good hair.

But as it turns out, Becky is all around us: For centuries, the Becky has been a convenient archetype of a kind of white femininity, someone who may or may not have good hair, but who is largely identified by her obliviousness. The Becky is someone our culture both reveres and looks down upon for her appearance, her privileges, and her willfully naive behavior. And by exploring the qualities we see in Beckys depicted on screen, we can get a better idea of the part she plays in our world.

She’s a young white woman who’s defined by being desirable. Unlike the Karen, Becky is in her prime — she can easily use her sexuality to get what she wants.

Becky is also notoriously basic. Her interests are mainstream and ordinary, which helps her “fit in” — but also makes her seem shallow.

She can also be entitled. People go out of their way to accommodate her, allowing her to avoid any brushes with disappointment or rejection.

Cerie: “Did he just talk to me like I’m ugly?” - 30 Rock, 2x5

This makes her unaware of other people’s needs or suffering. A Becky’s form of ignorance may be less malicious than a Karen’s — but she can be just as frustrating and harmful.

But unlike Karen, Becky still has the potential to improve. We often see fictional Beckys undergoing genuine growth — becoming less naive and more considerate toward others after they become aware of their own privilege. But do we allow the Becky in real life the same opportunity for redemption? Here’s our take on the Becky as privilege personified, the damage she causes both willfully and unintentionally, and whether there could be more to Becky if we’d just give her a chance.

Where Did Becky Get the Good Hair?

Becky might be basic — but being the “default” just makes her more desirable. There’s a reason it’s called conventional beauty: the Becky represents the patriarchal, Eurocentric ideal of attractiveness.

The Becky is inseparable from her race. Over the years, she has come to be defined as a ditzy, ignorant white girl.

Karen: “So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?”

Gretchen: “Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.” - Mean Girls

Pop culture has long venerated the Becky’s most common features — blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin — while diminishing all others, which has long made the Becky the standard by which all others must be judged. This unfortunate racial bias means we know instinctively who Beyoncé is talking about, even if a literal Becky doesn’t exist. She’s the kind of woman your husband would want because of her “good hair” — which we can infer to be straighter, with a sleeker texture, not the tight curls our culture has stigmatized. As Lauren Levinson wrote for Popsugar, Beyoncé’s lyric “sheds light on an overall picture when it comes to how black coarse hair is perceived, since the former is ‘good’ and the latter is assumed to be the opposite.”

We can see an illustration of this unfair standard in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You: Bianca and Chastity are both pretty and outgoing if a little superficial. But nobody seems to pay Chastity much attention. She’s just Bianca’s friend, and not considered to be a serious romantic interest — at least, not until it’s clear that Bianca is unavailable.

The Becky always gets more than her fair share of attention, which leaves everyone around her feeling insecure about measuring up. This is true of one of the very first Beckys. As Cara Kelly pointed out in USA Today, the title character of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca lays her claim to the trope as “the woman who will always be in a man’s head.” After Rebecca dies, her husband’s new wife is haunted by stories of how great she was. This second Mrs. de Winter doesn’t even get her own first name in the story — she’s forever stuck in Rebecca’s shadow, doing her best to live up to those impossible standards, and being made to feel unworthy of even trying.

But we also discover that Rebecca wasn’t as great as she seemed. She turns out to have been a master manipulator with little regard for her husband except his status. Rebecca was able to seduce her way into getting whatever she wanted, a facet we can see in another original Becky: Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair manages to work her way up the social ladder by flirting with wealthy men, which earns her the scorn of other women.

Mrs. Sedley: “I thought her a mere social climber, but I see now she’s a mountaineer.” - Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair’s Becky is intelligent and witty, amoral and calculating — a far cry from the oblivious stereotype she’s since become. But she similarly shows us how easily the Becky’s veil of beauty and innocence can mask the damage she causes to others.

The Becky’s overwhelming “pretty privilege” may actually warp her sense of reality. Their advantages can give them a simplistic, blinkered outlook on life. In Bring It On, Kirsten Dunst’s Torrance awakens to her Becky-ness when she discovers that her cheerleading team has been stealing its routines from black students — and that she’d never even thought to question it. A Becky’s life is easy because she’s so used to being appreciated that she never stops to examine how it comes at the expense of others being under-appreciated.

Being unaware of this privilege doesn’t absolve Becky, even if she doesn’t come off as malevolent on purpose. It’s possible that the Becky plays up her naiveté, using her obliviousness to excuse behavior that she knows to be wrong, simply because she knows she’s unlikely to be called on it. And even if her ignorance isn’t a ploy, there’s hardly any excuse to be made for not being aware of your own privilege and how it manifests in the world.

Starr: “You can’t even see that you’re acting racist, huh?”

Hailey: “‘Cause I’m not.” - The Hate U Give

Becky vs. Karen

In the realm of memes, Becky is often mentioned right alongside a Karen. But despite what some on the internet have suggested, the Becky isn’t simply a young Karen, or an even younger Susan. On a fundamental level, Becky and Karen do have some important things in common. The Becky and Karen both know what it’s like to have their feelings prioritized, which explains why they’re so used to getting their way.

Chanel: “I’m sorry, did I enter a wormhole to a universe where this coffeehouse does not possess the technology to heat my favorite autumnal tradition to 210 degrees?” - Scream Queens, 1x1

Being white women allows them to take their privileges for granted, and having a fundamentally easier time of it means neither has developed the coping tools to deal with their frustrations when they meet any resistance. Still, we never really find ourselves sympathizing with a Karen, and for good reason. She’s not just entitled and demanding, but nosy and assertive — inserting herself into situations due to her own inflated sense of authority.

Karen is also more unapologetically racist, eager to defend any challenge she sees to her limited power and her place in the social hierarchy.

Angela: “I once reported Oscar to the INS. Turns out he’s clean, but I’m glad I did it.” - The Office, 5x3

We’ve seen Beckys whose complicity in those racist structures can be just as blatant, self-centered, or even evil. But Becky can often be far more subtle about it, protecting the lifestyle she believes she deserves from behind a more guileless front.

Although a Becky isn’t just a younger Karen, their main differences actually do come down to age. Growing out of being a young, desirable woman means losing the attention and the enabling that comes with it. If a woman’s attitude is shaped by what she can get away with, her whole worldview comes crashing down as soon as those privileges start to disappear. The women who become Karens are often bitter that their license to walk all over everyone has expired — and that resentment turns into an outwardly projected hostility that makes it easier to notice just how insufferable they really are.

Jenna: “Listen up, fives, a ten is speaking.” - 30 Rock, 5x19

The Becky does the opposite: her youth and her charm help mask her more unacceptable tendencies.

Her youth gives the Becky another advantage over the Karen: She still has the potential to change. Our stories are rife with spoiled, naive women characters who learn the hard way that their actions have consequences — and that life is not a game for them to play. The ease with which she moves through the world creates a blind spot for the Becky, and we often see her confronted by a harsh reality that forces her to recognize it. That’s when she’s faced with a choice: retreat back into her bubble, or mature into a more mindful person. And traditionally, her arc shows that Becky is more than capable of improving.

Clueless’s Cher starts the story as your stereotypical Beverly Hills Becky: a well-meaning but self-absorbed teen who’s used to everyone loving her and always getting her way. She only changes after it finally sinks in that her attempts to do good things for others are inherently manipulative and self-serving. She makes the choice to use her own powers to help others. And this is what takes Cher off the trajectory to becoming a Karen that’s trapped so many of her classmates.

For a Becky, becoming a Karen is the path of least resistance. Examining the privileges and the pitfalls of her inherent Becky-ness is her only chance to break the cycle.

The Basic Backlash

Aside from being privileged, the Becky is most commonly defined as basic. Urban Dictionary defines a Becky as “a stereotypical, basic white girl; obsessed with Starbucks, Ugg boots, and trying to have a bigger butt.” The site also reveals what’s so bad about being basic: It’s “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make [them] interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” Compared to her capacity for manipulation and oblivious racism, it seems odd for most of the criticism of the Becky to come down on her tendency to be a little bland. But the focus on her basicness exposes some of the unfair fallacies of the Becky trope.

All those jokes about Ugg boots, Starbucks, and other avatars of so-called basic bitch tastes have become increasingly mainstream. The “basic bitch” is a way of ridiculing young women for having the wrong interests, and failing to have a personality that someone else — usually a man — deems worthy. It’s an inherently misogynistic way of pitting women against each other for a man’s approval.

Clueless mines a lot of humor out of Josh making fun of Cher for her preoccupations with fashion and social status, which means he can’t take her seriously. Meanwhile, Josh is his own version of basic with his goatee, his Nietzsche paperback, and his love of maudlin alternative rock. Although the film shows Cher maturing by becoming more aware of her privilege, ultimately Josh matures just as much by letting go of his prejudice, and realizing that Cher’s basicness doesn’t negate her value.

This notion — that basic is bad — often plays out in the false dichotomy of the Becky and the Weird Girl, whose quirkiness and individuality we’re meant to see as a noble contrast to the Becky’s blandness. But this isn’t really an indictment of being basic, either: It’s more about the fear imposed by the construct of a social hierarchy, which only exists if the Weird Girl and Becky both agree to give it power. Look at One Tree Hill’s basic Brooke Davis and resident weird girl Peyton Sawyer, who reject this notion and remain best friends: Peyton is a self-styled outsider, who believes deeply that she’s different. But she also knows Brooke is a loyal, warm, fierce kind of person, and her appreciation for these qualities tends to overrule any distaste Peyton might have for Brooke’s Becky-ness.

Both Cher and Brooke show us how the Becky — for all her privilege, her predictable tastes, and her ability to rile others with her untroubled life — also has the capacity to be kind and giving, so long as she is sufficiently grounded. Her being oblivious to the harm she can cause is often the only thing that prevents the Becky from doing better. It’s her responsibility to make those changes for herself, but it’s our responsibility to not just resort to mocking or insulting her, but to offer her the guidance and the constructive criticism she needs.

Although she’s defined by her desirability, the Becky is often dismissed as boring, too — as though she’s not even worth considering, other than as a sexual object, or as a symbol for everything that’s wrong with white people. But this is a limited and sexist way of thinking, one that dismisses the potential for Beckys to surprise, to overcome their own entitlement, and to awaken to new ways of using their femininity to empower not just themselves, but others. Of course, that’s only if they choose to: It’s incredibly easy for a Becky to just continue coasting, just as it is for us to remain ensconced in our own assumptions, making pumpkin spice jokes and assuming people are incapable of change. But Beckys don’t have to end up as Karens. All it takes is us looking beyond their good hair, and trying to locate a good heart.

Allison: “Why are you being so nice to me?”

Claire: “Because you’re letting me.” - The Breakfast Club

SOURCES

Bhattacharya, Stuti. “Is It Easier To Succeed In B-Town With Pale Skin, Light Eyes & A Skinny Nose?” iDiva, 15 Dec. 2019. https://www.idiva.com/beauty/celebrities/is-having-eurocentric-features-the-key-to-surefire-success-in-bollywood/18005154.

Jennings, Rebecca. “Pumpkin Spice Lattes — and the Backlash, and the Backlash to the Backlash — Explained.” Vox, 25 Aug. 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/8/29/17791082/pumpkin-spice-latte-starbucks-backlash-explained.

Johnson, Maisha Z. “10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White.” Everyday Feminism, 3 Jan. 2016. https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/when-beauty-equals-white/.

Kelly, Cara. “What Does Becky Mean? Here’s the History behind Beyoncé‘s ‘Lemonade’ Lyric That Sparked a Firestorm.” USA Today, 27 Apr. 2016. www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2016/04/27/what-does-becky-mean-heres-history-behind-beyoncs-lemonade-lyric-sparked-firestorm/83555996/.

Levinson, Lauren. “Why ‘Becky With the Good Hair’ Has a More Powerful Meaning Than Infidelity.” POPSUGAR Beauty, 7 July 2017. www.popsugar.com/beauty/What-Does-Becky-Good-Hair-Mean-41062522.

@nortouQ. “Pretty helpful guide.” Twitter, 6 May 2020, 1:23 a.m., https://twitter.com/nortouQ/status/1257903723730223104?s=20.

“Rachel Roy Denies She’s Beyonce’s ‘Becky With the Good Hair’.” YouTube, uploaded by Entertainment Tonight, 26 Apr. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9JBhpycLmE.

Urban Dictionary. www.urbandictionary.com/.

Wright, Jennifer. “What’s So Wrong With Being Basic?” Cosmopolitan, 21 Sep. 2014. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/news/a30846/whats-wrong-with-being-basic/.