Is the “Karen” meme a masked form of sexism?
By Ioanna Kattou.
Translation by Ioanna Kontou.
What is a “Karen”?
“Karen” has, in recent years, become a widespread meme referring to a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, who is particularly self-centered, irritating, anxious and maybe even racist. She will call the police for a mild inconvenience, she will demand to “speak to the manager” and she will embarrass you for no reason in public spaces. A “Karen” does not exclusively use physical violence to show her rage, but will more commonly scream, yell and insult in such an irritating way that the – probably speechless – recipient of her behaviors will silently give in to her irrational requests. Nonetheless, this kind of behavior is yet another – completely different – form of violence that contains the use of alternative means according to the human community that is in the receiving end. A “Karen” is usually displayed as a white lady with a particular bob cut hairstyle, commonly referred to as the “Can I speak to the manager?” haircut.
Where did the “Karen” meme come from?
The creation of the “Karen” meme can be pinned down in the United States, where the majority of the incidents have taken and continue to be taking place, as well as in other European – mainly English speaking – countries. Nevertheless, it has become a globally widespread meme especially among the younger generations via social media platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and Tik Tok. The stereotype of middle-class white women who use their “privilege” at the expense of others has a long history, even though it has only become more widespread in recent months. Before the popularization of the “Karen” meme, the African-American community used to have its own term to refer to a European-American usually white woman, “Miss Ann”, and a male counterpart term, “Mister Charlie”. A “Miss Ann” and a “Mister Charlie” would try to get them in trouble, get them fired or even call the police on them and falsely accuse them of robberies, thefts and even rapes. Their word would be considered more reliable than that of the person accused, as we can still witness to this day.
The origin of the “Karen” meme
Although its exact origins are uncertain, the meme became popular a few years ago as a way of people of color to satirize the class-based and racially charged hostility they often face. Over the last decade, it has become easier to film such confrontations on our smartphones and upload them to social media, where the videos are easily accessible to the masses. Many of these videos that have gone viral depict women calling the police on children selling water or lemonade without a permit, women who act like they own public spaces and want to make sure that no one else makes use of them, and “Coronavirus Karens”, who refuse to comply with public health measures (wearing a face covering, social distancing) whether because they deny the existence of Covid-19 or because they believe that the measures should not apply to them.
Is it only about women?
The question whether the “Karen” meme is sexist, misogynistic and even racist, or on the other hand a funny and sincere – although rude – term, is yet to be answered. Is it simply an insult, or a disguised means to tell women to “shut up”? This is a highly controversial question. On one hand, people argue that the “Karen” meme is just a humorous caricature of entitled white women. They claim that there is no historical background that would justify that the “Karen” jokes are either racist or sexist.
On the other hand, however, it seems that we are heading in this direction. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman claims that the term is being used more and more often as a way to tell women to “shut up”, rather than to describe a particular pattern of behavior. New York Times’ Jennifer Weiner refers to the example of the pandemic and writes that the “Karen” memes and hashtags trending on social media have stopped her many times from making public complaints about non-compliers. She writes: “…people are calling the cops to report quarantine violations they saw, either in real life or online. (…) At times, I have wanted, badly, to do it myself. But with that impulse comes a different fear – the fear of being that white lady of a certain age who would like to speak to your manager. The fear of being Coronavirus Karen.”
But why is “Ken”or “Kevin” or “Terry”, the male version of “Karen”, not as popular on social media? Why aren’t there any videos of incidents with white middle-aged middle-class men online and it is only about angry women? Is the “Karen” meme actually sexist, or aren’t there indeed as many incidents with entitled white men?
An answer to this question has been given by another Karen – coincidentally – Karen Attiah, an Afro-American writer for The Washington Post. She argues that Freeman focuses on the phenomenon of gender discrimination but fails to discuss the phenomenon of racial discrimination. According to Attiah, the term originally developed inside the Afro-American community as a means to draw attention to incidents of racial discrimination and racism. Therefore, she claims that the term is not at all sexist. The fact that “Karen” is “a girl’s name” should not be considered as a form of discrimination against middle-class middle-aged white women, since there is also a male equivalent of Karen. “And to invent oppression when none is happening to you? Well, as a Karen, I just have to say – that is peak Karen behavior.”, she writes.