A meme often emerges from a need to describe a cultural phenomenon that seems borderline infectious. If you’ve ever worked in a public-facing job, you’ve no doubt encountered a “Karen.” They’re usually White, often a middle-aged woman who sports an A-line bob, and they’re a menace to service workers. Quick to anger, fueled by entitlement and misguided, weaponized victimhood, the “Karen” wants to talk to the manager. She wants things her way, at any cost, and in her mind she can do no wrong.
It’s challenging to pinpoint the exact date of the first appearance of the Karen meme, with various sources crediting everyone from Dane Cook to Mean Girls. In a 2020 episode of NPR’s Code Switch, “What’s in a Karen,” Karen Grigsby Bates points to a long history within the Black community of using code words and names to describe unreasonable behavior from White people. While there’s room for interpretation and debate about who is and is not a Karen, one critical component is the stench of entitlement and a pressing need to appeal to authority.
On May 25, 2020, Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her dog in Central Park, called the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man who was simply birdwatching. In a video recorded by Christian Cooper, she says before dialing 911, “I’m calling the cops … I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” On the phone, she pleads and begs, pretending she’s being attacked. The video went viral on Twitter, and Amy Cooper was dubbed “The Central Park Karen.” What makes this video so exemplary is how Cooper invokes a system she believes will back her up. Even if they may themselves be subject to class inequality or patriarchal violence, a Karen fears losing their standing. In these demands, there’s an understanding: The system does not uphold justice, but its own power.
2021 saw the release of Karen, a horror-crime-comedy film about a young Black couple who are terrorized by the president of their HOA (who is, of course, named Karen). The film was a transparent cash-in on the internet’s villain du jour, and its Karen is petty, entitled, vindictive, and racist. Emboldened with a false sense of authority, she goes off the rails after she’s kicked out of the HOA after calling the police on three young Black men. The film captures the essence of what is at play with the Karen meme without accounting for nuance or complexity. Ignoring that the movie is terrible, it only serves to comfort audiences. “You’re not like these women,” it says. “You’re better than that.”
Unloading on Karens online serves some much-needed catharsis. People work underpaid jobs where they have to smile while customers walk all over them. Black people minding their business are harassed, or worse, for no reason. Publicly shaming individuals for their entitled tantrums feels good, like much-needed comeuppance. But shaming Karens only treats the symptom and not the disease.
While Karens come in all ages, it shouldn’t be surprising that the name reached the height of its popularity during the Baby Boom. Now that name symbolically evokes a way of life that’s dying out. Karens embody a robust strain in US exceptionalism wherein power isn’t earned but asserted. There’s a portion of US society that grips onto an old way of doing things, set by an age of abundance and privilege for White people. It’s no surprise that the meme reached its peak saturation under Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID Karen” has emerged as a two-faced monster, an accusation employed both by extreme adherents to COVID regulations and those who flout mask mandates. As tensions explode, Karen becomes a scapegoat for state and corporate failures.
Ironically, the values that the stereotypical Karen tries to uphold were always too good to be true. The empowerment of the consumer class at the expense of workers has created the unfavorable conditions (a mass of understaffed, underpaid, and overworked employees) that have in turn led to a general deterioration of service quality. When a Karen gripes about not being served fast enough or a Black family having a barbecue nearby, it’s an expression of a more profound social unease. The “American Dream” has withered under the weight of greed. People who benefitted from white supremacy for so long are being forced to reckon with the reality most others have always known. The promise of equality was a lie. Confronted with those lies, a Karen doesn’t push for change or reform; they still want to believe the lies.
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