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The Karen Meme: Explained

Am I late to the Karen party? Probably, because I came across far too much material on the subject while I was doing my research, which means that the topic has been already swallowed and regurgitated by the Internet. Still, I’m so here for it. I was loving life so much when scrolling through Reddit threads, that I might make Internet analysis a regular feature in this blog.

If you don’t know what a Karen is, don’t fret. Because you do know what a Karen is. Karen is that middle-aged woman who asks to speak to the manager when she feels mildly inconvenienced by the lack of stock, lack of seating or because the worker couldn’t satisfy her demands. She is that woman who calls you out if she thinks you cut the line but is prompt to cut it herself at the earliest opportunity. One doesn’t need to be named Karen to be a Karen, but the entitlement and rudeness must be there to earn the title. I am sure you’ve encountered a fair share of them in your lifetime. If you haven’t, she’s probably already at your work asking to speak with your manager.

The Karen blueprints

A Karen is rude to service workers. If you work in customer service roles, you know what I’m talking about. I worked in retail for many years and I can attest that stores are Karens’ natural habitat: I had Karens demanding to speak to my manager only to have my manager tell them the exact thing I’ve told them before. I had Karens asking for a discount on a size S because the M they wanted was not in stock. My favourite was the Covid Karen that I found in a corner of the store, surrounded by a mountain of clothes on the floor and just wearing a bra and a pair of trousers. When asked what she was doing, she shouted at the sales assistant, claiming that “What else I am supposed to f*** do if the fitting rooms are closed?”

That A-line bob tho, what a look.

Karens have a sense of entitlement and they think rules don’t apply to them. THEY are in a rush and don’t have to wait. THEY can return the item without proof of purchase. This entitlement is tied with massive chunks of white privilege. The quintessential Karen meme depicts her demanding to talk to the manager, but she is much more than that. Karens also like calling the police/threatening to sue over trivial things such as a person writing on their own wall, having a barbeque or selling water. Coincidentally (not) they tend to target non-white people. Aha.

Lastly, Karens insist that they are always right. They are women of status and class. Like this woman. If she asks you for a dozen doughnuts and expects to receive fifty, that’s the cashier’s fault. After all, a dozen has always meant fifty. Pe-ri-od.

Karen: A chronology

You might be wondering how the Karen meme came to be. As internet trends are products of varying social patterns of behaviour and taste, the true origins of the Karen meme are difficult to pinpoint.

If we want to travel all the way back, using names to stereotype or insult this certain type of white women can be found as soon as 1815 in the US. This is known as the antebellum era when slavery had not been abolished yet. “Miss Ann” was slang to describe the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of slave owners. Some famous Miss Ann as represented in media are Mary Epps – played by Sarah Paulson – in the film 12 Years a Slave, and Scarlett O’Hara – Vivien Leigh – in Gone with the Wind.

The Karen meme, like most cool things on the internet, probably came from Black Twitter. Karen was a popular girl name for babies born in the 1950s and 1960s, hence, of the boomer generation. It is also associated with a white person name, that’s why Black Twitter started using it to denounce viral racist behaviours.

Other possible on-screen influences for the name Karen could be the character of Karen Hill, wife of the American mobster Henry Hill from Goodfellas. In the film, Karen does not hesitate in confronting people when things don’t go her way and she highly values the perks – money and status – that come with her husband’s job. Often mentioned, Mean Girls character Karen seems to be a contributing influence to the Karen trope. She is younger than your average Karen but her lack of racial awareness is obvious when she asks Cady why is she white if she’s from Africa.

In the late 2010s, the subreddit r/FuckYouKaren gave another dimension to the topic. It was created by an angry man while battling his ex-wife for custody and the separation of assets.

By 2018 Karen sightings are mostly racist confrontations. And sometimes, they become viral without even being called Karen, like 2018s Permit Patty. This woman called the police because an 8-year old girl was selling water “without a permit”. It doesn’t take much to realise that the problem was the race of the girl rather than the lack of permit. Internet does not easily forgive, and soon posting these encounters became the new way of denouncing racial profiling.

The same goes for BBQ Becky, who called the police to report a barbeque that was –surprise– held by black people. According to Becky, one could barbeque in that park, but shouldn’t use a charcoal grill because in her own words “it costs extra money from our city to do things when children get injured because of them properly disposed charcoal”. Ahá. I see her point. Here’s the link, in case you do understand what she means.

BBQ Becky is reporting you to the police for reading this

Another trait that makes Karens so distinct is the way they weaponise their privilege for arbitrary reasons. Karens are quite confident that the police will protect and believe them, feeling empowered to act like damsels in distress. This certainty (the protection of police officers) is a luxury that certain collectives don’t enjoy.

And so we finally arrived at 2020, no one’s favourite year. The same day of the assassination of George Floyd by a white police officer, a woman in Central Park was calling the police claiming that an Afro-American man was threatening her and her dog. In reality, the man simply requested that the woman put her dog on a leash. The video is enlightening: the man keeps his distance and encourages her to call the police. While she starts the call with some urgency, her voice escalates in the call and sounds much more distraught for no reason, as the man is still a few metres from her doing nothing. Amazing acting skills… couled use that as a screen test now that it’s all over the internet.

And lastly, the coronavirus Karens. The most prevalent ones refuse to wear a mask and spread Covid 19 conspiracy theories. Some spit on retail workers, some destroy the face masks display at her local store. But mostly, they are not willing to let the global pandemic inconvenience in any way their shopping habits. God forbid! Nah, they are just out and about and if the fitting rooms and toilets are closed at least they’ll have an excuse to shout at retail workers. Fun.

Because science

Is Karen Sexist or a Slur?

I am sure someone has been feeling uneasy while reading this. If that’s the case, don’t worry. This little corner of the internet wouldn’t be such if we didn’t bring the big guns, A.K.A. nuanced and transcendental questions.

Is Karen a slur? According to the Urban Dictionary, a slur is a word used against someone of a specific race, condition, sexuality, illness, etc. Karens are not defined by the characteristics they were born with, they are defined by a type of behaviour they choose in every interaction. This means that Karens can choose not to be Karens any time they talk to another human being. They say that you shouldn’t comment on anyone’s appearance unless they can fix that thing in 5 seconds or less. In 5 seconds Karen could stop behaving in a racist and rude manner. If they don’t you can always tell them they have a bit of Karen on their teeth.

Also, as the YouTuber Amandabb says:

“Karen is a name. The n-word is not a name given to people: the fact that we can only say one of those words on this platform (YouTube) should tell you which one is a slur and which one is not a slur”

(Note: YouTube demonetises any slurs, so creators need to avoid those if they want to profit from views.)

Is Karen sexist? All Karen are indeed women, but not all women are Karen. The thing about Karens is that it is, again, a choice. This behaviour not inherent to the human/womanly condition: It’s a performative trait (sometimes it’s also an unfortunate visit to your hairdresser).

And Karens are not the only group. There are similar categories applied to males, like the squeakers. Squeakers are preadolescent boys playing Call of Duty (or other online games) who swear every two seconds in a very annoying high-pitch voice or “squeak”. All squeakers are boys, but not all boys are squeakers.

The Sadness of Karens

That being said, the existence of Karens is not free from the cold grip of sexism. Not many things female are.

Under their smug facade, Karens are powerless and sometimes dissatisfied with their life. Society is more likely to frame the faults of a spoiled woman as endearing as long as she is young (The Take, 2020) If she is older, she becomes odious. In other words: In a world in which youth is a currency, middle-aged women are f***.

Karens are aware of this progressive disempowerment, and this is their way of lashing out. They are quick to use their status because is the only social capital they own. They can’t lash out at their superiors on the food chain – white men – but they can use their remaining status to belittle other collectives such as ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ people.

Their struggles are in no way, shape or form an excuse for their behaviour. It doesn’t matter what they are going through. Go to therapy, buy a dream journal, read a self-help book. Just don’t bask in the joy of hurting others.



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