Karen, Sharon, Becky, and Chad: How it feels when your name becomes a meme

Over the last few years, certain names have become the butt of online jokes.

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Karen wants to speak to your manager. Not a Karen, you understand, but all Karens. Every woman named Karen wants to speak to your manager, right now – and she’ll probably boast about her three kids whilst doing it.

You know Sharon, right? Yes, that one (in fact, all ones). Well, she’s here, in your office, ready to annoy you. Along with Susan and Sandra she’s the most annoying colleague a person could have, but it’s Felicia you really wish would go away. Jan is a liar. Chad is an alpha male. Harold is too old to understand anything, and there’s only one word to describe Janet. “Whatever”.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular to end online jokes with a name. The set-up usually goes like this: a person jokes about an annoying behaviour as though they were directly talking to the person annoying them, then they end the joke-angry outburst with a name. That name then slowly becomes cultural shorthand for a type of behaviour. Other names become internet jokes because they were part of movies that were clipped into gifs – such as “Sure, Jan” to denote disbelief, “My name is Jeff” for anyone whose name is, yes, Jeff, or “Bye, Felicia” for anyone irritating.

But how do the Jans, Chads, Janets, and Sharons of the world feel about the memeification of their names? While their experiences are obviously in no way comparable to people who face real-world, racially-motivated name discrimination, it is potentially frustrating to have a name that is part of pop culture. Just ask Harry Potter.

“None of these memes sat well with teenage me who was trying desperately to fit in amongst classmates,” says Sharon McConnachie, a 25-year-old from Scotland. McConnachie first became aware of “Sharon” memes when she joined social media a decade ago and discovered her name was a stereotype for a “soccer mom with a minivan that liked to complain in supermarkets.”

As she grew older and met more people, McConnachie found they would often remark that she “didn’t look” like a Sharon. “I never really knew what they were meaning by that but part of me wonders if memes like these have kind of given people a stereotype of certain names.”

Jumper via shopfatmermaids.com

But when it comes down to it, just why is “Sharon” funnier than “Lisa”? What makes “Karen” the butt of the joke, but not “Betty”?  What’s in a name? A meme by any other name would be as dank.

“Names give social information,” explains Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist and professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University. Cameron explains that because popular girls’ names change more rapidly than boys’, female names are often a reliable indicator of age and generation, as well as sometimes class and race.

“I’m guessing these particular names have been chosen to say ‘middle aged (and possibly lower middle-class, neither TOWIE nor Made in Chelsea) white woman’,” theorises Cameron. Although in the Eighties “Sharon” and “Tracey” were marked as “chav” names (beginning in 1986, Keith Waterhouse wrote a column in the Daily Mail that made fun of checkout girls named Sharon and Tracey), Cameron speculates most of these meme names are seen as generic, as opposed to associated with a certain class.  

“Perhaps this type of [middle-aged, white] woman is considered an acceptable butt for jokes about annoying women because she’s ‘generic’, there’s no race or class angle,” she says. As for why middle-aged white men feature less often in these jokes (Barry is perhaps the only middle-aged male name consistently memed), Cameron says male names carry less social information because parents’ choices tend to be more stable over time. She also notes sexism could be a factor.

Mocking Barrys, Sharons, Karens and Chads isn’t inherently wrong, particularly when the type of behaviour being mocked is often harmful and problematic. One Susan tells me she enjoys her name being part of popular culture and doesn’t find it mean. Karen Pinon, a 25-year-old from California, doesn’t mind “Karen” memes at all. “I started seeing it a while ago and thought it was really funny,” she says. “I have nieces in high school and they always send me Karen memes. A lot of the time I feel like it’s referred to white woman so as a Latina I don’t really feel associated with it.”

Karen Serhan, a 16-year-old from Lebanon, feels slightly differently. “Having the name of a meme ‘old mum’ is kind of a fun killer, but I haven’t noticed such a fact until I started using social media,” Serhan says. Offline, she says her name is considered “normal”, but she notices its stereotyping in social media and films. “It doesn’t quite annoy me, but it does get boring at a certain extent.”

Young Karens and Susans may be able to dissociate themselves with memes because these names are used in jokes to denote someone old. Young Beckys and Chads, conversely, may find this harder – as jokes about these two names often mock college-aged young people.

“I feel like I have to make sure my Twitter doesn’t live up to the ‘basic Becky’ stereotype,” says Rebekah Lowe, a 23-year-old from Bristol. “Becky” is a slang term for a stereotypical white girl who over the years has been variously characterised as “snobbish” (from the earliest Urban Dictionary definition) to good at oral sex (from the song Becky by Plies). After a reference to “Becky” appeared in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the name received press coverage and has become associated with a stereotypical white girl who loves Starbucks and Uggs and is clueless about racial and social issues. In essence, Becky is best summarised by another slang term – a “basic bitch”.  

“From what I can gather, being a ‘basic Becky’ is when someone is trying hard to be different but is doing things everyone else is doing,” says Lowe, who actively tries to avoid coming across as a “Becky” in her social media posts. “So I don’t go to Starbucks and take pictures of my Frappuccino… And I try to keep myself well informed so I can avoid any ‘stupid’ tweets, show that I’m more dimensional than a meme that says I’m not.

“I think I sometimes worry about how I come across too much, meaning I won’t engage in some Twitter conversations I would like to.”

 

A post shared by Karen Waller (@karenwaller1) on

Similarly to “Becky”, “Chad” is young, white, and privileged – but is additionally associated with “douchebag” tendencies like drinking too much and aggressively hitting on women. Chad Treichler, 19-year-old from Oregon, says the association makes him like his name a little less.

“I feel like Chad is a ‘douchebag’ name and it does kind of have a stigma,” says Treichler. Still, it doesn’t bother him too much. “It doesn’t really make me feel out of place – I just have to embrace it”, he says. On social media, Treichler’s handle is “Rad Chad”.

As Buzzfeed writer Rachael Krishna pointed out when I first tweeted about this phenomenon, it’s difficult to have too much sympathy for problematic behaviours being mocked with these names “after years of people with even slightly non-white names being constantly joked about”. Sharon, Karen, Becky, and Chad aren’t discriminated against in any way, but it’s interesting to see how their lives have been affected by name-based memes. 

“The fact that my name has been used as a meme so many times is actually laughable,” says Karen Serhan, the 16-year-old. Overall, it seems it isn't too unpleasant for your name to be memed into a joke – provided you can laugh about it too. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh