Karens have become a meme online, depicting white women who act entitled and display a “Can I speak to the manager?” haircut as being known by this name.
Since the pandemic, Karen-speak has gained increasing traction; however, its roots date back much further than that. Karen reached its zenith of popularity during 1965.
What is the Karen Meme?
The Karen meme first gained widespread traction within the last couple of years, when people began labeling others online as Karens whenever they observed rude or entitled behavior from others. Its growth appears to have been further fuelled by 2016’s antisocial Nintendo Karen meme that depicts her character as preferring game console interaction over socialization; but white women who act poorly have long been subject to mockery — from Mean Girls to Dane Cook’s “Friend Nobody Likes” routines.
“Karen” has become a common pejorative term to describe middle-aged white women who believe they can do as they please in public situations, usually regarding public behavior. She can often be perceived as self-entitled and annoying; when not getting their way they become hostile or even rude. Over time the meme gained momentum, adding additional characteristics such as being soccer mom-related, divorcee status, having an A-line bob haircut style haircut as well as sometimes being anti-vax or racist in her behavior.
Recently, the Karen meme has become increasingly targeted against women who use their privilege to harass others – this includes calling police on Black people who draw Black Lives Matter messages in their neighborhoods or opposing Trader Joe’s decision to restrict face mask usage during coronavirus pandemic. Critics of the Karen meme have noted its potential use as codeword for racism; an issue which they find concerning.
As the Karen meme gained more and more traction, its usage earned a bad rep as being both sexist and ageist. This is likely due to most Karens being female individuals in their 40s or older; although some have argued that anyone acting rude or entitled can be labeled a Karen.
The Karen meme should not be seen as being harmful; rather it serves to highlight behaviors that merit further attention and change social dynamics. By being more considerate toward one another and showing our carefulness towards all members of society, it can serve its purpose for good.
Why Are People Calling Me a Karen?
If you are white person named Karen–or any other similar name such as Becky, Susan or Chad–then the term has taken on a derogatory tone in recent months. People are using it as an insult against anyone they find annoying or unacceptable behavior from “basic white person behavior”, thus turning into an open forum to criticize any group with similar traits.
Karen-ism first surfaced during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and protests for racial justice, when viral videos featuring white women engaging in selfish or racist behaviors garnered much attention. Central Park Karen became an iconic example of Karen-ism when she called 911 on Black birder Christian Cooper when asked by him to leash her dog in an area which wasn’t leash only; their response went viral quickly making Karen an emblematic example of white supremacy.
Karens were often targeted before and during the pandemic for their perceived entitlement and petty behavior. A popular meme in 2016 linked their name with images of Mean Girls characters such as ditzy Vanessa from Mean Girls; there are plenty of cultural associations between it and rude entitlement.
According to nomenclature scholar I.M. Nick, Karen has also been given short and slangy nicknames like “Barbecue Becky” or “Cornerstore Caroline.” While these may not be considered derogatory or insulting terms for any individual or group, these kinds of titles do not bode well when applied to someone who has come to be associated with acts that carry significant social costs for marginalized groups such as Karen does.
Even though actual Karens may not take offense at being called “Karen,” hearing other people use the term as an insult is still hurtful to them. Sun explains that although most of the “Karen” meme isn’t directed directly at her, hearing people use it in derogatory or belittling ways can still hurt. To deal with criticism better and use it to be kind towards others she says she has learned to accept criticism while using it as an opportunity for personal growth and kindness towards all those she encounters.
Is the Karen Meme Racist?
The Karen meme’s central premise is that white women become outraged over perceived injustices against black people, using their privilege to call the police on them – from not allowing them ahead in line or holding their dog too closely – and resort to calling the cops on them when necessary. When this occurs, these angry individuals often use their privilege to call on workers or show disrespect towards those helping them; such actions are both dangerous and dehumanising, thus it is crucial that when it does happen it be exposed; unfortunately the Karen meme just trivializes this important issue by showing middle-aged white women with asymmetrical bobs shouting at waitresses when asked for her manager before moving along.
Apryl Williams of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society analyzed this meme in depth during an NPR Code Switch podcast episode in 2020. Her analysis demonstrated how “Karen” fails to address racism and power structures that foster such behavior effectively – instead portraying this behavior as simply annoying behavior that must be “put up with”.
Williams noted how using stereotypical names like Karen gives this form of discrimination an air of legitimacy. If any other demographic were mentioned instead of white women, such actions would elicit outrage and accusations of racism; yet when applied to white women it becomes accepted behavior.
Furthermore, this form of stereotyping middle-aged white women has had a direct impact on how they view themselves – some real-life Karens have even claimed they’ve been unfairly targeted by this meme.
Sun Yao wrote an essay for CNN to voice her displeasure about Karen meme. While she recognizes its purpose, she found it detrimental in terms of its negative ramifications for white women like herself and others. According to Yao, Karen meme reduces complexity of problems faced daily while providing an easy scapegoat for racism.
Critics have also noted how this term has become misogynistic; not simply due to its use but by inferring that middle-aged white women who shout at employees are misogynist.
Is the Karen Meme Misogynistic?
The Karen meme has long been linked with both sexism and ageism, since it specifically targets older women perceived to behave rudely or with entitlement. Furthermore, it has also been used as an insult towards white women often considered “OK Boomers.”
TikTok user 14-year-old Samantha may claim that her grandmother is called Karen while 30-year-old man shouting it at every over-60 woman on Twitter is engaging in ageist and sexist bullying – yet these memes don’t constitute themselves as discriminatory and ageist content themselves, but are instead responses to other’s behavior that’s negative toward others.
Names have long been used as stand-ins for negative stereotypes. “Mammy,” for instance, is a common reference that refers to wealthy and greedy characters; thus using Karen as a descriptor for an entitled middle-aged white woman wouldn’t differ much from using other racist or anti-gay slurs.
As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, Karens have become more prominent in the media. Their actions are linked with racist behaviors by some white women who call the police on Black people for minor infractions or make false allegations of misconduct against them. Karens also serve as examples of entitlement when refusing to wear masks in stores and restaurants and propagating conspiracy theories about coronavirus on social media platforms like Twitter.
As it has become more mainstream, some have tried to claim that calling someone a Karen is equivalent to making racist slurs about them – this argument fails to take into account all of the ways racism exists in our culture and affects us personally.
At its heart, the “Karen” meme is more about misogyny than racism. There’s nothing inherently offensive with using the term as a derogatory term against middle-aged, white women – however using it to characterize people who act haughty or entitled is inappropriate and shouldn’t be used to call out racism; people of color should feel free to express themselves however they see fit while white people shouldn’t shy away from calling out when memes contain offensive content that contributes to misogyny or racism.