Recent weeks, the internet has been abuzz with viral videos featuring women known as Karens. According to Know Your Meme, Karen is defined as an entitled white woman who uses their privilege in public places as an advantage.
As an example, she may cough on service industry workers or refuse to wear a mask during a coronavirus pandemic – actions often seen as selfish and rude by society.
What is a Karen?
Karen is a suburban woman with an overinflated sense of entitlement who likes to complain about everything, believing her way is the only right one and easily snapping at anyone who disagrees with her. She often requests speaking with the manager, can be rude and pushy towards anyone, including black people barbecuing in parks; engaged in road rage incidents due to Lyft drivers not responding to her requests for movement; reported children hosting lemonade stands and even called police on her neighbor for parking in their spot!
Many find Karen disturbing because of her attitude and haircut, but she represents more than that: she represents larger social problems such as racism and gender biases; in short, Karen represents white privilege that many view as problematic.
Some believe the term Karen originated as an inside joke between ex-spouses; however, its real roots could lie somewhere more esoteric. Over time it gained widespread use across social media channels and became associated with certain types of women and behaviors; Linguists experts have searched widely in an attempt to locate its roots but have come up short in finding any definitive explanations.
As a result, Karen has become its own meme, with many people using it to describe any middle-aged white woman who acts rudely or condescendingly in online comments. “Karen” has become an insult that people use often based on stereotypes such as calling the police on black people grilling public spaces for grilling or “Kidz Bop Kate,” who can be described as an angry white woman screaming at children when they do not dance correctly at an event.
How did she get her name?
Internet memes make it easy for an everyday word or name to take on new significance, often without its original intention. Karen, for instance, has become synonymous with certain white women who exhibit certain racist or bigoted behaviors related to her privilege – like calling the police on minor offenses committed against Black people, anti-vaxxer activities and other forms of racial microaggressions.
Its origin is unclear; some believe it has its roots in Amanda Seyfried’s character in Mean Girls (2004), though more specifically 2017 on Reddit subforum r/f***youkaren which mocked women who displayed offensive behavior such as calling the police on Black people or trying to reserve parking spots.
Over time, the “Karen” meme has gained tremendous traction with the general public and real people named Karen have found themselves caught up in online harassment.
Although its exact origin remains elusive, a senior editor at Know Your Meme believes it to be a pejorative against middle-aged white women to illustrate their entitlement. Furthermore, this stereotype seems linked to Baby Boomers being out-of-touch with millennials and Gen Z regarding topics like social media use, gender equality, and racial identity.
Meme has long been used to shame middle-aged white women. Alongside targeting them for being “boring”, this meme also seems rooted in racism and sexism. Karen is often depicted as an average middle-aged, white suburban mom with multiple children who drives a minivan and wears the so-called “Speak-To-the-Manager Haircut,” an annoying feature on social media accounts that makes Karen unwelcome presences.
Karen may reflect certain traits found in real people, but critics contend it’s a form of racism to generalize all white women into one group. Some have even likened the Karen meme to Dane Cook comedy routine that mocked white women as “The Friend No One Likes.” Additionally, when combined with an asymmetrical bob style hairdo it further reinforces sexism and racism.
What is her role in society?
Karens have long used their privilege to harass and harm people of color, going back as far as chattel slavery, Jim Crow era and beyond. COVID-19 related Karens present a particular threat as they can use their status as “normal” citizens to legitimize racist actions that put Black people in imminent risk of reprisal or violence.
Karen may have its roots online — Know Your Meme credits Mean Girls as one of its first appearances with its depiction of Karen as an entitled high school mean girl — but over time has come to denote any white woman deemed entitled in society, often perceived as self-absorbed or potentially even racist (though they would likely deny such accusations).
As a result of their privilege and relative powerlessness, Karens often feel compelled to establish their own form of “white justice” by police-ing the behavior of other white people or calling on nonwhites for seemingly minor offenses. Unfortunately, this practice can become an outlet for their pent-up anger while simultaneously placing Black and other marginalized communities at great risk.
Note that Karen is just a name and not intended to be misogynist or ageist; moreover, most users who call themselves Karen are women themselves. But this does not excuse any potential sexist undercurrents when discussing online and off-line communication platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat.
Karens are often middle-aged or older women. This fact illustrates a wider trend: that of an aging and whitened America and its negative consequences on minority communities.
Karens can often be seen grilling in the park, calling the cops on birders for taking up too much space, or clashing with Red Lobster employees when they refuse to let her in without wearing a mask – all situations in which racism and misogyny remain present – which makes their presence distressingly alarming and frustrating in an otherwise inclusive society.
What is her relationship to racism?
Karen as a code name has generated much debate, with some individuals suggesting it constitutes a racial slur and others noting that it reflects on how white women may oftentimes feel entitled and are eager to control people who differ from them.
Karen has become particularly prominent during the coronavirus pandemic, as many white women have used her name as an excuse for reporting Black people and spreading misinformation about the virus to the general public. Amy Cooper became known as Central Park Karen after calling the police on a Black man she claimed threatened both herself and her dog in Central Park. Her actions caused an uproar that quickly gained public support; hence the nickname. “Karens in Chief” include those who share coronavirus conspiracy theories via social media and those who refuse vaccination against it (known as “No Vaccine Karens”).
Deconstructing Karen is a new documentary which addresses these issues and includes interviews with multiple individuals deemed Karens, including the filmmaker herself. According to this film, labeling these white women “Karens” as racist or using their privilege to hurt and control others is seen as evidence against them.
White women who use police to enforce their own views of the world or act like entitled jerks put themselves and others at risk of violence and death. Their privileged upbringing allows them to easily weaponize anger; oftentimes unknowingly carrying on racism that dates back centuries through slavery and Jim Crow; thus it is crucial that racism is recognized and addressed directly; using code names for them makes this easier to discuss their behaviors.