Karen is a pejorative term for a 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. The term has been criticized for being sexist, ageist, misogynistic, or seeking to control female behavior. As of 2020, the term was increasingly being used in media and on 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 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 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(s) 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. 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 and brown 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 whites 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."
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 November 2019, an anonymous woman was recorded from inside a vehicle on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, New York City, after she pulled over in a traffic accident and confronted a Lyft driver in the vehicle for "almost running over [her] children", and the passenger for "acting like a bitch". She justified her language by exclaiming, "My kids can't hear me because they're listening to Kidz Bop." The woman was mocked all throughout social media for the strange body language, facial expressions, attitude, and claims she made in the video, being dubbed the "Kidz Bop Karen". She eventually tried to explain the situation and told TMZ that she "deserved the online mockery for [her] bad behavior on tape."
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 June 16, 2020, Rachel Dawn Ruit was filmed shouting racial slurs at a family and a group of protestors in Asheville, North Carolina. On July 4, she was arrested and charged with simple assault, disorderly conduct, and second degree trespassing after attacking a woman in a hijab and a Black teenager. Ruit died on July 14 after stepping out in front of traffic and getting hit by a fire truck.
In July 2020, a video of "Permit Karen", a New Jersey woman calling the police to report her Black neighbors were putting in a stone patio without a permit, went viral. A San Diego woman who posted a photo of the barista who refused her service because she wasn't wearing a mask was labelled a Karen; she later announced she was planning to sue the barista for half of donations raised on his behalf after her post went viral.
In July 2020, "Whitefish Karen" was arrested after a video of her, unmasked, showed her coughing intentionally in people's faces after being asked to put on a mask. "Kroger Karen" stood in front of a Black woman's car to block her from leaving a Detroit grocery store parking lot while she called police to report that the woman's child had stood on a shelf to take down an item too high for the child to reach. "San Francisco Karen" called the police to report a Filipino man stenciling "Black Lives Matter" on a retaining wall on his property. "Bunnings Karen" threatened to sue the Melbourne, Australia, hardware store Bunnings for requiring her to wear a mask.
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.
In August 2020, Corina Monica, a Romanian-born American singer, was filmed yelling racial slurs at an Asian-American nail salon worker in Pompano Beach, Florida. At one point in the video, she used Bhad Bhabie's catchphrase, "Cash me outside, how about that?" towards the employee. In addition, Monica identified herself as a recording artist and told the staff they would regret not doing her nails. The video resulted in her being dubbed "Nail Salon Karen". Monica has since posted an apology on her Instagram account.
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."
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.
In February 2021, Juliana Carlos, a social media influencer, along with her husband Chris Carlos, were kicked out of a Los Angeles Lakers game after an altercation with LeBron James. This followed an exchange of words between the athlete and the couple, where Mrs. Carlos pulled down her mask and exchanged more words. Aside from the disruption, this violated NBA rules, where all spectators must wear a face covering at all times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Carlos later submitted an apology video via social media. She has been dubbed as "Courtside Karen", where James tweeted this that same night after the incident.
In July 2020, San Francisco 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".
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