Karen is a pejorative term for a white woman seeming to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal. The term also refers to memes depicting white women who use their privilege to demand their own way. Depictions also may include demanding to "speak to the manager", being racist or sporting a particular bob cut hairstyle. A notable example was the 2020 Central Park birdwatching incident.
The term has been criticized for being sexist, ageist, misogynistic and seeking to control women's behavior. As of 2020, the term was increasingly being used in media and social media as a general-purpose term for middle class white women, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. The term has also been applied to certain male behavior. The Guardian called 2020 "the year of Karen".
In African-American culture, there is a long history of calling a meddlesome white woman by a certain name. In the antebellum era (1815–1861), she was referred to as "Miss Ann". In the early 1990s, "Becky" was used. As late as 2018, before the use of "Karen" caught on, alliterative names matching particular incidents were used, such as "Barbecue Becky", "Cornerstore Caroline", and "Permit Patty".
For the term "Karen", several possible origins have been proposed. Early uses of Karen as a joke punchline include the airheaded character Karen (played by Amanda Seyfried) from the 2004 film Mean Girls, Dane Cook's 2005 sketch "The Friend Nobody Likes" on his album Retaliation, and a 2016 Internet meme regarding a woman in an ad for the Nintendo Switch console who exhibits antisocial behavior and is given the nickname "antisocial Karen". In December 2017, Karen memes regarding entitled women went viral on Reddit, the earliest being from user karmacop9, who ranted about his ex-wife Karen. The posts led to the creation of the subreddit r/FuckYouKaren, containing memes about the posts, and inspiring spinoffs including r/karen and r/EntitledKarens dedicated to criticizing Karens.
A more pointed explanation, which involves race, is the expression originates among Black people to refer to unreasonable white women. The term was popularized on Black Twitter as a meme used to describe white women who "tattle on Black kids' lemonade stands" or who unleash the "violent history of white womanhood". Bitch magazine described Karen as a term that originated with Black women but was co-opted by white men.
Meaning and use
Kansas State University professor Heather Suzanne Woods, whose research interests include memes, said a Karen's defining characteristics are a sense of entitlement, a willingness and desire to complain, and a self-centered approach to interacting with others. According to Woods, a Karen "demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends." Rachel Charlene Lewis, writing for Bitch, agrees, saying a Karen doesn't view others as individuals and instead moves "through the world prepared to fight faceless conglomerate of lesser-than people who won't give her what she wants and feels she deserves."
The meme carries several stereotypes, the most notable being that a Karen will demand to "speak with the manager" of a hypothetical service provider. Other stereotypes include anti-vaccination beliefs, racism, excessive use of Facebook, and a particular bob haircut with blond highlights. Pictures of Kate Gosselin and Jenny McCarthy's bob cut are often used to depict Karen, and their bobs are sometimes called the "can-I-speak-to-your-manager?" haircut.
The term is generally used to refer to women, but The Atlantic noted that "a man can easily be called a Karen", with staff writer David A. Graham calling then-president Donald Trump the "Karen in chief". Similarly, in November 2020, a tweet calling Elon Musk "Space Karen" over comments he made regarding the effectiveness of COVID-19 testing became viral. Numerous names for a male equivalent of Karen have been floated, with little agreement on a single name, although 'Ken' and 'Kevin' are among the most common names used. The Jim Crow era male equivalent to Miss Ann was Mister Charlie.
The term has been called sexist and anti-woman. Hadley Freeman, columnist and features writer for The Guardian, argues that use of the meme has become less about describing behavior than controlling it and "telling women to shut up". Jennifer Weiner, writing in The New York Times during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the meme had succeeded in silencing her, saying she had had to balance her desire to complain about a nearby man coughing into the open air, hawking and spitting on the sidewalk, with her fear of being called a Karen. In August 2020, Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic, "Karen has become synonymous with woman among those who consider woman an insult. There is now a market, measured in attention and approbation, for anyone who can sniff out a Karen." Lewis also noted what she called the "finger trap" of the term, saying "What is more Karen than complaining about being called 'Karen'? There is a strong incentive to be cool about other women being Karened, lest you be Karened yourself."
British journalist and feminist Julie Bindel asked, "Does anyone else think the 'Karen' slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?" Freeman replied, saying it was "sexist, ageist, and classist, in that order". Kaitlyn Tiffany, writing in The Atlantic, asked, "Is a Karen just a woman who does anything at all that annoys people? If so, what is the male equivalent?", saying the meme was being called misogynistic. Nina Burleigh wrote that the memes "are merely excuses to heap scorn on random middle-aged white women". Matt Schimkowitz, a senior editor at Know Your Meme, stated to Business Insider in 2019 that the term "just kind of took over all forms of criticism towards white women online", and that it had risen to popularity due to that demographic being seen as entitled.
Multiple writers have discussed whether the term is a sexist and racist slur for referring to white women. Time called the meme "Internet shorthand ... for a particular kind of racial violence white women have instigated for centuries—following a long and troubling legacy of white women in the country weaponizing their victimhood." The Guardian notes that "the image of a white woman calling police on Black people put the lie to the myth of racial innocence". Apryl Williams of the University of Michigan called it a Black activist meme, saying it was ultimately beneficial in helping people recognize problematic behaviors, but warning that jokes downplayed the threat posed to Black people. On the other hand, Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor for The Washington Post, argues that it lacks the historical context to be a slur and that calling it one trivializes actual discrimination.
Scholars agree that Karen historically refers to racism. University of Virginia media researcher Meredith Clark has said that the idea of a white woman in the vicinity of whom Black people feel a need to be careful because she won't hesitate to use her "privilege" at the expense of others "has always been there; it just hasn't always been so specific to one person's name". Karen Grigsby Bates agrees that Karen is part of a succession of characters like Miss Ann and Becky, adding that the concept of Karen, as Black people had been using the term, became clear to white people when Saturday Night Live played a Jeopardy sketch with Chadwick Boseman playing as his Black Panther character T'Challa. Contemporary Karens have been compared to Carolyn Bryant (a white woman who accused Emmett Till of offending her, resulting in his lynching) and Mayella Ewell (a fictional character in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird).
The meme became most popular in 2020. Andre Brock, a Georgia Tech professor of Black digital culture, connected the virality of the meme in the summer of 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the Central Park birdwatching incident, noting that both incidents had occurred the same weekend during a period when much of the world had been forced to stay home and had plenty of free time to watch the videos. He said the virality of the two videos was the result of an "interest convergence" in which the pandemic "intersected with collective outrage over police brutality" and "highlighted the extreme violence—and potentially fatal consequences—of a white woman selfishly calling the cops out of spite and professed fear."
In December 2019, Australian media reported that in the town of Mildura, a woman named Karen had been filmed trying to pull down an Aboriginal flag being displayed by her neighbors. She was unable to pull it down, leading to a Twitter hashtag #TooStrongForYouKaren and other social media responses.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was used to describe women abusing Asian-American health workers due to the virus's origins in China, those hoarding essential supplies such as toilet paper, and both those who policed others' behavior to enforce quarantine and those who protested the continuance of the restrictions because they prevented them visiting hair salons, as well as over being forced to wear face masks inside of stores, prompting one critic to ask whether the term had devolved into an all-purpose term of disapproval or criticism for middle-aged white women. Use of the term increased from 100,000 mentions on social media in January 2020 to 2.7 million in May 2020.
In May 2020, Christian Cooper, writing about the Central Park birdwatching incident, said Amy Cooper's "inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn" when he started recording the encounter. He recorded her calling the police and telling them that an "African-American man" was threatening her and her dog.
On December 16, 2020, Miya Ponsetto was dubbed "Soho Karen" after tackling 14-year-old Keyon Harrold Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold, in the lobby of the Arlo Hotel in New York City and accusing him of stealing her phone. Ponsetto alleged that she was assaulted during the altercation, though she could not provide evidence to her claim. An Uber driver returned her phone after the incident. In early January 2021, Ponsetto was arrested in Ventura County, California and extradited to New York, where she was charged with grand larceny, attempted robbery, child endangerment, and two counts of assault, as she also attacked Harrold Sr. during the altercation. It was also revealed that Ponsetto was arrested twice in 2020 for public intoxication and drunk driving. During the initial court hearing in March 2021, Ponsetto interrupted the judge by requesting to avoid jail time.
The mid-2019 formation of Tropical Storm Karen in the Atlantic hurricane basin led to memes likening the storm to the stereotype; several users made jokes about the storm wanting to "speak with the manager", with images photoshopped to include the "Karen haircut" on either the hurricane or its forecast path.
In July 2020, an Internet meme in the form of a parody advertisement for a fictional Girl of the Year character depicted as a personification of the "Karen" stereotype, wearing a track suit, bob haircut and openly carrying a semi-automatic pistol while defiantly violating face mask guidelines mandated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, provoked criticism from American Girl, who took umbrage to the use of their name and trade dress, stating that they were "disgusted" by a post from brand strategist Adam Padilla under the online persona "Adam the Creator", and "are working with the appropriate teams at American Girl to ensure this copyright violation is handled appropriately." Boing Boing, however, expressed doubts over the merits of American Girl's proposed legal action against the "Karen" parodies citing the Streisand effect, though it has also noted the debate on whether the satirical intent of the parody advertisement is protected by law.
The BBC called the Wall of Moms "a good example of mainly middle-class, middle-aged white women explicitly not being Karens. Instead, the Wall of Moms is seen by activists as using their privilege to protest against the very same systemic racism and classism that Karens actively seek to exploit."
In July 2020, Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies (CAREN) Act. It would change the San Francisco Police Code to prohibit the fabrication of racially biased emergency reports. The Act passed unanimously in October of that year. Noting this, Williams said "these memes are actually doing logical and political work of helping us get to legal changes".
- Nagesh, Ashitha (July 30, 2020). "What exactly is a 'Karen' and where did the meme come from?". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
- Greenspan, Rachel (October 26, 2020). "How the name 'Karen' became a stand-in for problematic White women and a hugely popular meme". Insider. Insider. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
- Lewis, Helen (August 19, 2020). "The Mythology of Karen". The Atlantic. ISSN 1072-7825. Retrieved August 22, 2020.
- Graham, David A. (May 28, 2020). "The Karen in Chief". The Atlantic. Retrieved October 12, 2020.
- Wong, Julia Carrie (December 27, 2020). "The year of Karen: how a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism". The Guardian. Retrieved December 27, 2020.
- "What's In A 'Karen'? : Code Switch". NPR. July 14, 2020. Retrieved February 1, 2021.
- Tiffany, Kaitlyn (May 6, 2020). "How 'Karen' Became a Coronavirus Villain". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 20, 2020.
- Narizhnaya, Khristina; Lapin, Tamar; Brown, Ruth (October 12, 2018). "'Cornerstore Caroline' says she's not racist, apologizes to kids". New York Post. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
- Greenspan, Rachel (May 27, 2020). "How the name Karen became a stand-in for problematic white women and a hugely popular meme". Business Insider. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
While there are many origin stories for the Karen meme, it's not completely clear where it came from — as is the case with many popular memes. 'The origins of Karen are kind of really hard to pin down,' Schimkowitz said.
- Greenspan, Rachel (May 27, 2020). "How the name Karen became a stand-in for problematic white women and a hugely popular meme". Business Insider. Retrieved May 29, 2020.
- Romano, Aja (February 5, 2020). "Karen: The anti-vaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair, explained". Vox. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Frank, Allegra (October 25, 2016). "Nintendo Switch's best, most revealing meme is antisocial 'Karen'". Polygon. Retrieved June 13, 2020.
- "A Brief History of 'Karen'". New York Times. Retrieved February 6, 2021.
- Lang, Cady (June 25, 2020). "How the 'Karen Meme' Confronts the Violent History of White Womanhood". Time. Archived from the original on January 11, 2021. Retrieved April 13, 2021.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
- Lewis, Rachel Charlene (April 10, 2020). "'Karen' Isn't a Slur – It's A Critique of Entitled White Womanhood". Bitch. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- "10+ Memes of Karen, the Infamous 'Speak to the Manager' Haircut". Know Your Meme. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
- "Is calling someone 'Karen' a slur? An investigation". The Philadelphia Inquirer. May 27, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
- Asmelash, Leah (May 30, 2020). "How Karen became a meme, and what real-life Karens think about it". CNN. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
- Abcarian, Robin (May 23, 2020). "Column: Is the 'Karen' meme sexist? Maybe, but it's also apt". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 13, 2020.
- Dozier, Rob (August 21, 2018). "Why Memes Making Fun of White People Demanding to 'Speak to the Manager!' Are So Popular Right Now". Slate. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Queen, Robin (June 16, 2020). "How 'Karen' went from a popular baby name to a stand-in for White entitlement". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved October 12, 2020.
- Rahman, Khaleda (November 16, 2020). "Scientist's "Space Karen" response to Elon Musk goes viral". Newsweek. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
- Geske, Dawn (November 16, 2020). "Why Elon Musk Is Being Called 'Space Karen' After Latest Launch". International Business Times. IBT Media. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
- "The Internet Attempts to Name the Male 'Karen'". MSN/Radio.com. June 23, 2020. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Berical, Matt (December 11, 2020). "What Is the Male Version of a Karen?". Fatherly. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Bryan Ke (July 15, 2020). "'Karen' and 'Ken' Call Police on Asian American Doctor Visiting Parents in Davis". Nextshark.
- Seth Cohen (June 8, 2020). "Who Is Karen? Stop Using The Nickname And Call It What It Really Is". Forbes.
- Nicole Gallucci (June 29, 2020). "8 Karens and Kens who threw huge tantrums instead of putting on masks". Mashable.
- Rae Alexandra (July 1, 2020). "We All Know a 'Karen' When We See One—Now We Need to Talk About 'Kevin'". KQED.
- Margot Harris and Palmer Haasch (July 3, 2020). "Videos of people labeled 'Karens' have flooded the internet, drawing curiosity, condemnation, and criticism. Here's how they took over our feeds during quarantine". Insider.
- Jaynes, Gerald David (2005). Encyclopedia of African American society, Volume 2. Sage Publications. p. 551. ISBN 9780761927648.
- "Hadley Freeman". The Guardian. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
- Freeman, Hadley (April 13, 2020). "The 'Karen' meme is everywhere – and it has become mired in sexism". The Guardian. London. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Weiner, Jennifer (April 14, 2020). "Opinion: The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 13, 2020.
- Parsons, Vic (April 6, 2020). "In these trying times, lesbian radical feminist Julie Bindel is debating whether 'Karen' is a slur. Yes, really". PinkNews. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Burleigh, Nina (May 28, 2020). "How the Karen Meme Benefits the Right". Medium. Retrieved June 13, 2020.
- "Opinion: Karen is not the equivalent of the N-word for white women. If you're offended, you might be one". The Independent. April 8, 2020. Retrieved April 30, 2021.
- Attiah, Karen. "Opinion | The 'Karen' memes and jokes aren't sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain". Washington Post. Retrieved April 30, 2021.
- Lang, Cady (July 6, 2020). "How the Karen Meme Confronts History of White Womanhood". Time. Retrieved February 1, 2021.
- "After racial violence in the U.S., writer Karen Attiah re-examines the 'Karen' meme". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. May 27, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
- "What's in a Karen? (Transcript)". NPR. July 15, 2020. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- "Mildura woman attempts to tear down Aboriginal flag in viral video". SBS World News. Sydney. December 15, 2019. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Testa, Christopher (December 22, 2019). "#toostrongforyoukaren viral video prompts anti-racism rally in Mildura". Mildura, Victoria, Australia: ABC Mildura Swan Hill. Retrieved June 26, 2020.
- Elliott, Josh K. (April 20, 2020). "'Go to China!': 'Nurses' hailed for blocking anti-quarantine 'Karen' at coronavirus protest". Global News. Retrieved May 1, 2020.
- Nir, Sarah Maslin (May 26, 2020). "White Woman Is Fired After Calling Police on Black Man in Central Park". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2020.
- Perper, Rosie (May 25, 2020). "A woman in a video appears to call the police claiming there's an 'African American man threatening my life' – he apparently had asked her to put her dog on a leash". Insider. Retrieved May 26, 2020.
- Hall, Louise (January 1, 2021). "NYPD releases new video of woman who falsely accused Black teenager of stealing her phone". The Independent. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Marcus, Josh (January 7, 2021). "'Soho Karen' who attacked Black teenager identified". The Independent. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Gonzalez, Christina (January 7, 2021). "'SoHo Karen' arrested after viral video showed her tackling 14-year-old boy at a NYC hotel". KTTV. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Moynihan, Ellen; Tracy, Thomas (January 9, 2021). "Supervised release for 'SoHo Karen' Miya Ponsetto on attempted robbery, assault charges for attacking Black teen over missing iPhone". New York Daily News. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Frazier, Charise (March 30, 2021). "'SoHo Karen' Strikes Again: Miya Ponsetto Interrupts Judge To Say She Wants To Dodge Jail". NewsOne. Urban One. Retrieved April 18, 2021.
- Mansoor, Sanya (September 22, 2019). "Tropical Storm Karen Has the Internet Saying the Storm 'Wants to Speak to a Manager'". Time. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- "Domino's Pizza drops 'free pizza for Karen' offer". BBC. July 31, 2020. Retrieved October 12, 2020.
- McCarter, Reid. "American Girl calls manager over "Karen" doll parody". News. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
- Beschizza, Rob (July 6, 2020). "I found out about this amusing Karen parody of American Girl dolls because they want it taken down". Boing Boing.
- Bauman, Anna (July 7, 2020). "SF supervisor's CAREN Act would make 'false racially biased' calls to police illegal". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 19, 2021.
- Har, Janie (October 21, 2020). "'CAREN Act': San Francisco officials let people sue over racist 911 calls". The Mercury News. Associated Press. Retrieved April 19, 2021.
|Scholia has a profile for Karen (Q95530210).|