Why Is It So Cringey When Drew Barrymore Says ‘Dope’?

A speech pathologist and anti-racism educator helped me understand what's so unbearable about a beloved celebrity saying a tiny little word.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
December 14, 2020, 12:00pm
Drew Barrymore Dope
Credit: The Drew Barrymore Show YouTube/CBS

On what feels like Day 5,000 of sitting alone on my couch browsing Hulu as the world continues to burn, I saw my local TV listing for The Drew Barrymore Show. It was currently on live, and my interest was piqued since daytime talk shows are often a spectacle of cringe. One helmed by a notoriously bubbly and unabashedly dweeby celebrity? Why not.


I tuned in, and Drew was wearing a top that looked like it was made out of the Jackson 5's former plaid bell bottoms, paired with a thick-knit tie and brown vest. It was a look, one I can only describe as "explosion in The Brady Bunch prop department." The megastar actor/producer/lifestyle brand-haver was interviewing Paris McKenzie, a 16-year-old entrepreneur who opened a beauty supply store while still in high school, making her the youngest Black beauty store owner in America. Drew was beside herself over Paris, who is, indeed, a remarkable young woman, explaining past experiences of discrimination at beauty stores and how she balances school and running her business with poise. Even so, Barrymore laid it on thick in her trademark Valley Girl drawl, and it was hard not to feel tinges of second-hand embarrassment at the tone she was taking with Paris.

Drew was sweet, for sure, and it was clear that her intention was to tell McKenzie's story and celebrate her—even if she did so by avoiding calling by name the racism McKenzie had endured, and even if her voice dipped at times into condescending adult-talking-to-child territory. And then, she said it—the word that forced me to shut off the episode immediately. After remarking that she could only marvel at Paris and her mother's "grace," Drew dropped this: "And it's so dope and awesome and cool and inspiring."

Dope. But in Drew's mouth, it came out somewhere between dewwp and doughpe. And she delivered it in the most not-a-regular-mom-but-a-cool-mom way, with a little shake of the head and face twist; the sort of expression that a character in a 90s teen movie might make when they refer to someone admiringly as a "rock chick." Here's the clip (you can jump to 4:45 for the dope-ening): 

Drew, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, has a history of dropping the word doughpe on the show and in interviews. She called Gordon Ramsay "dope and rad" in one episode, which is hilariously on-brand, and excitedly told People back in May about how she might get "a dope rainbow drawing" from her kids on Mother's Day.

As a born and raised Southern Californian, I am very familiar with and used to Drew Barrymore's exact SoCal chill mom accent. It forms part of her charm. People have compared my own voice to hers since I, too, have a slight lisp and the occasional tendency to sound like Jeff Spicoli, the iconic surfer dude played by Sean Penn in the 1982 teen flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  During her acceptance speech at the 2010 Golden Globes after she won for her performance in Gray Gardens, Drew actually made the same comparison. (As much as I love Drew Barrymore, I also couldn't help cringing when she took a few seconds during her speech to acknowledge Mo'Nique, another winner that night, and remarked that the Black comedian and actress was "eloquent." The intentions again seemed good, but the delivery felt like a needle poke to my ribs.) But I wanted to know why this particular actress, using this particular word, in this particular accent, made me have such a strong reaction, so I spoke to Nima Novak, an Indigenous speech language pathologist and anti-racism educator who is also a friend of mine, to get her insights. I played the clip from The Drew Barrymore Show and asked Novak why it gave me the auditory icks. In particular, her use of the word "dope."

"Context is important in language," she explained, noting the word's historical evolution over the past century—first as a an adjective for describing someone stupid, and then later as a slang term for certain drugs, until Black youth flipped the term on its head and gave it the meaning we know it for today: cool or, to use a SoCal saying, "sick as hell."

"Her using this word could be seen as cultural appropriation," said Novak. "Because it's not her vernacular. She's not African American." Novak also noted that the word can't be divorced from the historical reality that Black and Latinx people have faced higher rates of imprisonment from drug-related offenses, harassment from law enforcement, and racist stereotyping with regard to drug use and dealing—not to mention discrimination related to Black vernacular itself. 

"Black boys are statistically placed in special education at a significantly higher rate in part because of their use of African American English vernacular," said Novaks. "It still impacts a lot of people today in a negative way. There's racism and stereotypes against people who use African American English vernacular, so that's why [Drew using the term] is icky for me."

This may be overthinking it a bit since it's a common slang term and not everything has to be that deep, and Novak admits that if Drew Barrymore stopped using the word dope it wouldn't really change the systemic oppression of Black people. However, my conversation with Novak gave me a bit more clarity as to why in the specific instance with Paris McKenzie it set off a brain alarm. Novak also explained that the tone of Barrymore's voice has the telltale signs of glottal fry, otherwise known as vocal fry, and that may have set off my cringe alarm as well. While the hatred for vocal fry, also known as "upspeak," is often considered an attack on women and an attempt to police how they speak, in this scenario it inevitably becomes connected to Barrymore's whiteness and white privilege. Like the Kardashian-Jenner women, but in a subtler way, the juxtaposition of that speaking pattern with the use of Black slang evokes a state of affairs in which powerful white people benefit from the ability to dip in and out of Blackness when it suits them.

Drew may or may not be doing harm by using such a common word, and I mostly found it to be kind of cringe from someone I grew up seeing as the epitome of the cool, fun girl. But this is still good food for thought in exploring and understanding how even the smallest words can mean a lot.