From a Meme to a Social Critique: Who Is “Karen”?

“Speak to the Manager” Hai

Prefaced by the “can I speak to the manager” meme which first emerged in 2014, the “Karen” trope has since stepped in and taken social media by storm as evidenced by the crowds of online pages dedicated to it, such as the r/F—YouKaren subreddit which has garnered more than 881,000 members since its conception in 2017. The name has been caricatured in pop culture, as seen for instance in a 2005 Dane Cook comedy special in which he uses it to refer to “the friend that nobody likes”It is also famously represented in Mean Girls as a pretty high-school girl who is popular but dull-witted.

Mean Girls (2004)

Nowadays, the general stereotype built around the name is loosely that of an entitled middle-aged white soccer mom who bears a tannie haircut and holds anti-scientific views. She is classist, hypocritical, and aggressively rude. Being a “Karen” is, before anything else, an attitude: the popularization of the meme may be explained by how unfortunately relatable it is. Truth be told, most of us have encountered individuals with “Karen”-esque behaviors and would rather laugh about it if/when possible. A few male spinoffs of “Karen” also exist, like “Kyle” and “Ken”although they are also often simply referred to as “male Karens”.

It is largely a coincidence that “Karen” is currently the frontrunner for the notorious archetype. After all, other first names had previously been used to depict similar personas, such as “Becky”. Furthermore, using first names as pejoratives has long been a part of human history. For instance, Black slaves in America used the name “Miss Ann” to refer to white women who wanted to assert control over them, but didn’t actually have the authority to do soNevertheless, some explanation regarding the propagation of “Karen” may be provided by a few statistics: the name peaked in popularity in 1965 in the United States and stayed in the top 10 throughout the 1960s. Around 84% of Americans during that time were non-Hispanic whites, which implies that most people named Karen in the country today are middle-aged white women.

In the last few months, the satirical figure has taken up further dimensions. Especially in the United States, “Karen” has become a distinct trademark of current prevalent social inequalities and discriminations. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement has accentuated the consequential menace a “Karen” has the prospect of posing.

Coronavirus “Karen”

The spread of COVID-19 has globally highlighted social divides in the way it disproportionally affects certain demographics more than others. In the United States, the pandemic has widened the racial wealth gapBy the same token, the APM Research lab has found that COVID-19 mortality is largely correlated to racial disparities across the country with Black Americans being the most affected, and with Indigenous and Latino Americans experiencing the greatest rise in deaths. In these dire times which require collective responsibility regarding sanitary precautions, some have unfortunately rejected this accountability and seen it as an inconvenience that impedes their first-world comforts.

And this is where “Karens” step in, for they often do not see the virus as a major threat (at least not in their proximity). They are far more concerned with the inconvenience of wearing masks and postponing hair appointments. The meme, having recontextualized itself under these alarming circumstances, has morphed into a graver illustration of the sorts of threats abuse of class and white privilege present. Heaps of accounts and videos surfaced onlinecalling out “Karens” who are (often aggressively) defying preventive measures and, in many cases, putting others at risk in doing so. There have also been instances where “Karens” unknowingly outed themselves; take this video, which was originally posted on Facebook Live before going viral on Twitterin which a woman is seen deploring having to wear face masks and deems them unnecessary.

These videos have had the impact of evidencing and spotlighting subsisting social and class imbalances. The discomforts that this woman claims make her want to cry — like being unable to see people’s faces, hug people, and hold their babies — are tribulations many do not even have the immunity to consider.

White Supremacist “Karen”

The interpretation of “Karen” as a personification of racism has also become conventional. As anti-Asian sentiments grew when COVID-19 first reached the Western world, more testimonies of discriminatory altercations emerged. Take the case of Lena Hernandez, who has been linked with three different incidents where she verbally harassed people with racial slurs and physically assaulted someone in one occurrence.

The amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder has simultaneously helped foreground the importance of holding racists accountable. A simple #Karen lookup will direct one to countless filmed disturbances which sometimes have brought real-life repercussions onto the inciters. A recent notorious example of this happened from an incident in Central Park this past May. A white woman named Amy Cooper called the cops on a Black birdwatcher named Christian Cooper (unrelated to her) after he asked her to leash her dog in accordance with the park’s regulations. She proceeded to call 911, claiming that an “African American man [was] threatening [her] life”. She has since been fired and will face legal charges. While it is very fortunate that Christian Cooper ended up safe on that day, there is a grimmer suggestion to be made between his story and George Floyd’s, whose murder by police took place just twelve hours later. It is no secret that racial equity has yet to be attained in American law enforcement; in the United States, Black men are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts and overall face the highest risk of dying that wayAmy Cooper’s actions could undeniably have had fatal consequences on Christian Cooper’s life.

While the discourse of white people baselessly calling the police on Black people isn’t newthe way in which it has been underlined is. “Karens” have not only helped substantiate the systemic racism that persists in our society but also assisted in foregrounding practices that should no longer be tolerated.

“Karen” has quickly become a threatening symbol of someone who exploits their privilege at the detriment of others. The first name is even suggested in a new city ordinance proposed by San Francisco lawmaker Shamann Waltonwhich has been abbreviated as the CAREN Act (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies). The CAREN Act would “make it unlawful for an individual to contact law enforcement solely to discriminate on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

Documenting unfortunate interactions like the ones shown above have proven to make an offline difference. Similarly to the CAREN Act, a legislation that gives people the opportunity to sue if they have the police called on them for discriminatory reasons passed last year in Oregon after multiple stories of racially motivated 911 calls came to light.

Controverting “Karen”

As the nickname gets widely established as a common ground for us to critique social inequalities, there are also ongoing debates about its potential downfalls. First of all, using the term “Karen” to foreground problematic behaviors may encourage a sexist bias. Using a female name to label a certain type of behavior implies that it principally involves women when, in this case, gender is not a defining factor. Although as previously mentioned, male versions of the “Karen” trope have been conceived, they are not nearly as universal and widespread. Consequently, accounts involving men acting arrogantly and/or prejudiced are less easy to be found despite the fact that they do happen as well.

The label’s long-term efficacy as an agency to deplore harmful behaviors is also questionable. “Karen” has become an allusion to important discourses that may not be thoroughly examined as a result of the term itself. Conversely to the characterization’s original intent, it gives room for individuals to hide behind a lighthearted and vague nametag instead of being called out for what they precisely are partaking in. As best put by Seth Cohen in Forbes“While it is easy to use a colloquial reference for the behavior, why not unequivocally label it what it is – white entitlement and privilege? Or racism and white arrogance? Without naming the behaviors and biases explicitly, meme-like labels mask the inherent offensiveness and hurtful attitudes of these individuals’ actions. Only when behavior is explicitly called out can it be seen for what it is, and for what it represents.” Thus, it is perhaps time we begin to clearly demarcate laughable egotism from menacing intolerance.

Irene Schrader

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