Two years ago, a high school yearbook photo of Taylor Swift wearing a tiara went viral after it appeared in a bizarre anti-drug meme on Tumblr. “This is a picture of my friend Becky. She used to be a happy, popular girl until one night she snorted marijuana at a party. She died instantly,” read the caption. A commenter issued a correction: “Pretty sure that’s Taylor Swift.” The Tumblr user shot back with certainty: “No it’s Becky.” The exchange was reblogged so many times that even Swift got in on the joke by wearing a “No it’s Becky” t-shirt.
The question of who is and isn’t Becky fueled an internet witch hunt last week when Beyoncé unleashed Lemonade, a visual album and HBO special that was widely interpreted as, among other things, an indictment against husband Jay Z’s alleged infidelity with a so-called “Becky with the good hair.” Some of us recognized it as the ultimate dig, a critique that is ambiguous yet sharply acute. Becky is white. Becky is basic. Becky is bitchy. Nobody likes her. We don’t need to know exactly who Becky is to understand the weight of the insult. Maybe she’s Rachel Roy or Rita Ora, as the tabloids have suggested, or maybe she’s a combination of women, or pure artistic fiction. But thanks to a proliferation of unlikeable Beckys in movies, music, and television dating back at least to the early 1990s, her name alone tells us everything we need to know.
“I totally believe that as a savvy artist, Beyoncé picked a particular name, and she picked a name that is never, ever associated with women of color,” says Rebecca Kinney, an assistant professor in the department of popular culture and the school of cultural and critical studies at Bowling Green State University. “That’s what I also find fascinating about the speculation that she is Rachel Roy, who is South Asian.” Even if she’s referring to another woman of color, “to critique her as a Becky is more than just like, ‘You’re a cheater.’” The insult cuts far deeper, she says: “It re-encodes her as a white Becky.”
The quintessential Becky character we know and loathe today was thrust into the mainstream cultural lexicon in 1992 when she appeared in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-shaking anthem, “Baby Got Back.” In the song’s intro, a white woman gossips to her friend about a black woman’s behind. “Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guy’s girlfriends,” she spews in a syrupy Valley Girl inflection that would put Cher Horowitz to shame. “They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute,” she says, before the bass line kicks in and Sir Mix-a-Lot takes over.
Simone Drake, an associate professor of African American and African studies at Ohio State University, sees the Becky created by Sir Mix-a-Lot as directly related to Beyonce’s. “Becky is not only positioned outside of black culture, as in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s intro where the two white girls are clearly not the focus of his attention or part of black culture,” she says, but “Becky is also the epitome of a beauty aesthetic that excludes black women.” Central to that unattainably white aesthetic, she believes, is the notion of good hair. Cue Lemonade.
Names have always been signifiers of race in America. A number of studies have shown that Americans with white-sounding names are more likely to get hired for a job, have an email returned by local government, and even secure a place to stay on Airbnb. In one experiment conducted in 2003, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that for every 10 resumes submitted by a job-seeker named Emily or Greg, it took equally-qualified applicants named Jamal and Lakisha 15 resumes just to get the same call back from employers.
Even if names don’t trigger racial bias, our preconceived notions about them are strong, and no one would know this better than Kinney, a Korean adoptee. Having been raised by a white family, she went by “Becky” in high school, and she says the moniker always triggered confusion. “My whole life I had a white girl name, but I’m not a white girl,” Kinney says. Even though some Asian-American parents choose to culturally assimilate by naming their children traditionally white first names, Kinney says “a name like Rebecca or Becky is not one that an Asian-American or Asian immigrant family would likely pick, because you don’t see a lot of three syllable first names.”
The name Becky, not unlike Emily, is so white-sounding that it became a punch line in the season finale of Empire last year when the rapper Hakeem, played by Bryshere Y. Gray, questioned Gabourey Sidibe’s character, “What type of black girl named Becky?” Her answer was simple: “My mom’s white.”
The idea of using coded language to describe a person’s race, gender, and class isn’t new, either. Drake traces it back to 18th century America, when slave women used the name Miss Ann to denote the white female heads of households, and subsequently, the black mistresses of white slave owners. “I think that there’s always been some coded ways in which black people have referenced white people in a pejorative or denigrating way,” says Drake. “And it’s usually in response to the ways in which black people have been disempowered and it’s one means of recouping what was lost.”
More than just a snide insult, the name Miss Ann functioned in two key ways: It was a language trick that allowed women to covertly gossip about individuals without having to explicitly name them, thus risking the repercussions of getting caught, Drake says. But perhaps even more significantly, the language was a tool for resistance. “Black women in particular have had different names imposed upon them, different generic names either based on their work as laborers or around their sexuality,” Drake says, “And so you have this opportunity where black people get to name white people.”
If “Baby Got Back” was the first rap song to immortalize Becky in popular consciousness as an ignorant snob, then “Becky” is the rap song that catapulted her into a promiscuous booty call. Released by the rapper Plies in 2009, “Becky” co-opts the name and transforms it into a euphemism for oral sex—and a nickname for the women who are down to give it. “You Miss Becky? Let me know,” Plies raps. The track ends with the refrain, “Give me that Becky, Give me that Becky.”
Plies didn’t invent the promiscuous Becky stereotype. The 19th-century author William Makepeace Thackeray beat him to it in the novel Vanity Fair, whose conniving protagonist uses her seduction to gain social status.
Throughout movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, Becky is often characterized not only as promiscuous, but also as image-obsessed. She appears in frequently as a pageant queen, a vapid shopaholic, or an irresponsible teenager. In an ensemble cast, Becky is typically unlikeable. When she’s the protagonist, as in the early 2000s Shopaholic literary series and 2009 film adaptation Confessions of a Shopaholic, she is polarizing. When she’s a bitch, it makes her inevitable demise in movies like Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which gun-toting, Jesus-loving pageant contestant Becky (Denise Richards) dies violently in a freak accident, all the more satisfying.
Over the last decade, some of the most detested characters on television have all had one thing in common: they are in high school, and their names are Becky. Becky Conner (Lecy Goranson), Roseanne’s daughter on her eponymous TV show from the 1980s and 1990s, started out pretty, popular, and generally amiable—not unlike the bland Swift character from the anti-drug meme. But toward the end of the series, she takes a turn for the unlikeable, eloping with her boyfriend against her parents’ will and getting pregnant not long after. The plot device was used to swap in another actress (Sarah Chalke) for the role, but it alienated audiences in the process. On online message boards, viewers ranted about Becky’s bratty tendencies and debated which actress played the “Beckiest Becky.” (It appears that Becky can only be played in two modes: basic or bitchy. Goranson played the former, and Chalke played the latter.)
On Friday Night Lights, Dora Madison plays Becky Sproles, an irritating teenage pageant queen who had an abortion and took a job at a strip club to pay for college. The character was so disliked that in a 2012 blog post, Bravo TV producer John Hill described her mere nickname “Becks” as onomatopoeia for vomiting. Only Becky from Glee (Lauren Potter), a cheerleader with Down Syndrome, seems to provoke the same level of contempt from viewers. The reason some fans of the show railed against her online might best be summed up by her voiceover during one 2012 episode: “I, Becky Faye Jackson, am the hottest bitch at McKinley High School. I’m not only co-captain of the Cheerios!, I’m president of the Perfect Attendance Club and I’ve won a participation award in rhythmic gymnastics.”
Tumblr pages run by Glee fans (also known as Gleeks) are flooded with complaints that the creators of the show ruined it by deciding to make Becky so extremely unlikeable, almost to the point of hyberbole. “I don’t like Becky anymore they turned her into such a bitch,” reads one confession on the Tumblr Gleeks and Their Confessions. On the Tumblr page We Love Glee Confessions, one fan seemed genuinely confused about how Becky, “a really lovely—even though lonely—girl suddenly turned into such a bitch.” It is the rare TV show in which one character simultaneously embodies both modes of Becky: formerly basic, she has undergone the transformation into a raging bitch.
When the “No it’s Becky” meme went viral two years ago, part of what made it so funny was not only absurd death-by-marijuana-snort, but also the notion that Swift herself is, on some level, a Becky. In an article posted last week on VerySmartBrothas.com, editor-in-chief Damon Young, in an attempt to explain what kind of white woman qualifies as a Becky, wrote: “Taylor Swift? The Beckiest.” If Swift is the Beckiest, then the very thought of Jay-Z cheating on Beyoncé, “the baddest woman in the game,” represents the highest form of betrayal, rendering Jay-Z not only a cheater but also an imbecile.
The caption on the “No It’s Becky” meme ends with a grave warning: “Don’t end up like Becky.” The edict may have been intended to steer teens on Tumblr away from marijuana, but it also functions today as a broader piece of advice to young women everywhere: Don’t end up like Becky, the blond-haired, blue-eyed pageant girl whose blissful ignorance becomes her tragic downfall.
Jennifer Swann is a culture writer and frequent contributor to Vice, LA Weekly, and The Daily Dot. She lives in Los Angeles and likes strip malls and Pad Thai.