By Elle Hunt │The Guardian │6 min
It is the eye-rolling retort that Karens everywhere have come to know all too well: “OK, KAREN.”
Yes, it is their given name – but on the internet, “Karen” has come to stand for so much more.
According to a popular meme, Karen is a middle-aged white woman with an asymmetrical bob asking to speak to the manager, who happens to be as entitled as she is ignorant.
But as the meme has become more prominent in online discourse, its meaning has become confused, and criticism has been voiced that it is sexist – with real-life Karens caught in the crosshairs.
“I spend a lot of time on Twitter, so I find it rather annoying,” says Karen Geier, a writer and podcaster from Toronto. “Anything you say, people can be like, ‘OK, well, whatever, KAREN’ – but that’s not even how the meme is supposed to be used. It’s supposed to be about people who want to speak to the manager.”
Know Your Meme, a Wiki-style site that defines internet culture, added “Karen” last year as an extension of the “‘Can I speak to the manager’ haircut” meme, born of Black Twitter back in 2014. “Whenever you want to signal that that character’s a Karen, you’ll just toss that haircut on,” says the editor-in-chief, Don Caldwell.
The choice of moniker has been linked to the 2004 film Mean Girls, where a character says, outraged: “Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white” – a meme in and of itself.
But more likely, the name was chosen for its association with whiteness. “Growing up as a kid in the 1990s, I remember people – particularly other black kids – being like, ‘You don’t look like a Karen,’” recalls Karen Attiah, an editor at the Washington Post. “It was an unspoken thing, but Karen was a white, older lady’s name.”
When Attiah was born in 1986, “Karen” was already in decline, having peaked in the US in 1965. In 2018 there were just 468 baby Karens born. “We’re kind of a rare breed,” she says.
Her mother, who had immigrated from Nigeria, chose the name so that Attiah could “easily move around in a white-dominated world”. “It has afforded me, I think, a certain privilege,” says Attiah.
It is that privilege that the meme sets out to skewer. In 2018, it was among a handful of female names to become attached to a spate of viral videos showing white women racially targeting people of colour. The antagonist of one such clip, of a woman calling the police over a group of African American men having a barbecue in a park in Oakland, California, came to be known as BBQ Becky (another name applied to white women online).
The meme is therefore rooted in black American internet culture, says Attiah – an attempt to find humour in real-world racism and oppression. To call someone a Karen is to target a particular behaviour: “It’s a very specific definition and, if you’re not acting that way, it shouldn’t bother you,” says Attiah. To try to hijack the meaning of the meme is “a pretty Karen thing to do”.
The meme has new resonance in the time of coronavirus, increasingly being applied to those who are protesting against social distancing measures or treating the pandemic as permission to unfairly police others.
The male equivalent might be the “Kyle” meme: an angry, aggressive white teenage boy, characterised by his penchant for Monster energy drinks, Axe body spray and punching drywall. “Karen might be Kyle’s mom,” suggests Caldwell, “and they don’t have a very good relationship.”
But “Karen” is far more popular than “Kyle” – and the fact that an older woman’s name has been made an internet-wide figure of fun has led to criticisms of the meme as misogynistic. Philadelphia community organiser Gwen Snyder recently tweeted that it had been co-opted by “white boys [who] stole it and turned it into code for ‘bitch’”.
Last month, the British feminist commentator Julie Bindel tweeted that “the ‘Karen’ slur is woman hating and based on class prejudice”, arguing that it was a working-class name.
She later said that she was not aware of the origins of the meme, and had reached her view after seeing “white misogynistic men use it towards older women”. (At time of writing Bindel had deleted her Twitter account.)
Advocate Alicia Sanchez Gill was among those to push back (as did Attiah, in a recent opinion article). She says now that it is possible that men have wielded the meme against women online – but it is still more typically used “by black women and working-class women to talk about the way wealthy, and often white women enact classism and racism”.
As for suggestion that “Karen” is now a slur, says Sanchez Gill, the measure must be of material harm. “Being named Karen, as far as we know, has never blocked a person from getting a job the way some ‘ethnic-sounding’ and ‘black-sounding’ names have.”
Bindel’s comparison of the “Karen” meme with how “Sharon” and “Tracy” – names of characters in the sitcom Birds of a Feather – were used to dismiss younger, working-class women in 1980s Britain suggests the meme might be being interpreted differently either side of the Atlantic.
Karen Rhodes of Suffolk, England, says that 15 years ago the stereotype of a Karen was of someone who was “a bit irritating, with big boobs”. She had only recently learned of the meme, and saw it as just a bit of fun: “I’m sure there are people out there that will take offence, but it doesn’t bother me.”
She was, however, horrified to recognise the “Can I speak to the manager” haircut as the exact same one she used to have: “I’m not having that again.”
It is the meme’s connotations “of expectation, of self-importance, of racism” that irk Geier – a self-described “gobshite leftist” – about her name being used against her online. “I don’t talk to cops. I definitely wouldn’t be calling them on someone running a lemonade stand.”
Like Attiah, she distinguishes between being called Karen herself, and being a Karen: “Punching down IS the definitive Karen behaviour.”
For one Karen, it has proved a learning opportunity.
Karen Sandler, an attorney and software freedom advocate, says at first she was “a little sad” to see her name being applied so negatively – “but it’s just so funny, and also clearly, a little bit true”.
It has in some ways been a wake-up call, says Sandler. “I never want to be ‘a Karen’ in the way the meme suggests and, since it’s my name, I think about this often. It has helped me really appreciate the advantages that I have in life, and emboldened me to speak out when I see people being ignored or disadvantaged.”
The Karen character serves as a reminder to support people who are being ignored or overlooked, says Sandler, and to use her Karen powers for good. She included it in a recent talk she gave as an example of how everyone – not just Karens – can learn to be more mindful of others.
“The only way we’ll help our societies to become fully equal is if we each are willing to speak out for other people who have more to lose by speaking up. And Karens are known for their voices!”
For the best-selling Christian novelist Karen Kingsbury, the meme came as a little welcome light relief. “Honestly, I hadn’t seen the ‘Karen’ meme until your email,” she replied. “I must say when I looked at it, I smiled and laughed. Out loud. Which is always a fun thing.”
No, she wasn’t offended, Kingbsury wrote: “I don’t mind the meme. It’s not me.”
Elle Hunt is a freelance journalist.