Karen is a pejorative term used in the US and other English-speaking countries for a woman perceived to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is considered appropriate or necessary. A common stereotype is that of a racist white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others. Depictions also include demanding to "speak to the manager", being an anti-vaxxer, or having a particular bob cut hairstyle. As of 2020, the term was increasingly being used as a general-purpose term of disapproval for middle-aged white women.
The term may have originated as a meme on Black Twitter "used to describe white women who tattle on Black kids' lemonade stands". It has also been described as originating with black women but having been co-opted by white men. University of Virginia media researcher Meredith Clark said the idea of a white woman blacks needed to be careful around because she wouldn'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 has gone by different names. Back in the '90s, when 'Baby Got Back' came out, it was Becky."
Another use of the term Karen as an internet meme dates to an anonymous Reddit user, Fuck_You_Karen, who posted rants denigrating his ex-wife Karen, whom he alleged had taken both his children and, later, his house during divorce proceedings. The posts led to the creation of a subreddit in 2017, r/FuckYouKaren, to both compile a narrative and share memes about the posts. Since Fuck_You_Karen deleted their account, the subreddit refocused to memes about the stereotype in general rather than one specific woman.
The name Karen had negative connotations predating the Internet meme, the notable uses being Lorraine Bracco's depiction of Karen Friedman Hill in the 1990 film Goodfellas, and Amanda Seyfried's ditzy schoolgirl character in the 2004 film Mean Girls. Other noted uses of Karen as a joke punchline include Dane Cook's 2005 sketch "The Friend Nobody Likes" from his album Retaliation, and a 2016 Internet meme regarding a woman in an advert for the Nintendo Switch console who exhibits antisocial behavior and is given the nickname "antisocial Karen."
Meaning and use
Kansas State University professor Heather Suzanne Woods, whose research interests include memes, said a Karen's defining characteristics are "entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain" and that 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 media, agrees, saying a Karen "sees no one as an individual, instead moving through the world prepared to fight faceless conglomerate of lesser-than people who won’t give her what she wants and feels she deserves. She’ll wield the power that, yes, might be very different from that of a white man, as she makes her demands. And that feeling of entitlement is what makes her, undeniably, a Karen."
The Karen meme carries several stereotypes, the most notable being the stereotype that a Karen will demand to "speak with the manager" of a hypothetical service provider. Other stereotypes include anti-vaccination beliefs, racism against black people, use of Facebook and a particular bob haircut with blond highlights; pictures of Kate Gosselin are often used to depict Karen, and her bob is sometimes called the "can-I-speak-to-your-manager haircut".
There has been some debate as to whether "Karen" is a slur. While the term is used exclusively in a pejorative manner towards a person of a specific race and gender, some have argued that "Karen" lacks the historical context to be considered a slur, and that calling it one trivializes actual discrimination. Others argue that the targets of the term have immense privilege, and that "an epithet that lacks the power to discriminate is just an insult." Hadley Freeman argued 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 2020 coronavirus 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 April 2020, journalist and radical feminist Julie Bindel asked on her Twitter feed, "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". In May 2020, 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. Also in May 2020, Nina Burleigh wrote the memes "are merely excuses to heap scorn on random middle-aged white women." Matt Schimkowitz, a senior editor at Know Your Meme, said the term "just kind of took over all forms of criticism towards white women online."
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 December 2019, Australian media reported widely that in the town of Mildura, a woman named Karen had been filmed trying to pull down an Aboriginal Flag which was being displayed by her neighbors. Despite her efforts she was unable to pull down the flag, leading to a Twitter hashag #TooStrongForYouKaren and other social media responses.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, 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, prompting one critic to ask whether the term had devolved into a general purpose 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 mentions 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 videoing the encounter. He recorded her calling the police and telling them that an "African-American man" was threatening her life.
- Tiffany, Kaitlyn (May 6, 2020). "How 'Karen' Became a Coronavirus Villain". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 20, 2020.
- Lewis, Rachel Charlene (April 10, 2020). "'Karen' Isn't a Slur – It's A Critique of Entitled White Womanhood". Bitch Media. Retrieved April 21, 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 June 13, 2020.
- Romano, Aja (February 5, 2020). "Karen: The anti-vaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair, explained". Vox. Retrieved April 21, 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 May 29, 2020.
- Frank, Allegra (October 25, 2016). "Nintendo Switch's best, most revealing meme is antisocial 'Karen'". Polygon. Retrieved June 13, 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.
- Tourjee, Dianna (October 9, 2018). "Can I Speak to Your Manager?: The Beauty & Necessity of A Notorious Haircut". Vice News.
- "10+ Memes of Karen, the Infamous "Speak to the Manager" Haircut". Know Your Meme. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
- Asmelash, Leah (May 30, 2020). "How Karen became a meme, and what real-life Karens think about it". CNN. Retrieved May 30, 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.
- "Is calling someone 'Karen' a slur? An investigation". The Philadelphia Inquirer. May 27, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
- "After racial violence in the U.S., writer Karen Attiah re-examines the 'Karen' meme". CBC. May 27, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
- Freeman, Hadley (April 13, 2020). "The 'Karen' meme is everywhere – and it has become mired in sexism". The Guardian. 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.
- 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.
- "Mildura woman attempts to tear down Aboriginal flag in viral video". Sydney: SBS News. 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.
- Weiner, Jennifer (April 14, 2020). "Opinion | The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming". The New York Times. 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.