Countless TikTok videos are dedicated to the Karen meme. What was once a way of describing women’s behaviour is now too often about controlling it
Karen has been a busy lady of late. There have been more than 816m views to TikTok videos dedicated to the Karen meme, and last week, just days before Jess Phillips was appointed shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, over 11,000 people liked a tweet saying “BREAKING: Jess Phillips assigned Shadow Karen Minister.” But Karen? Who the frick is Karen? Well, as Jennifer Aniston would say, here’s the science bit.
“Karen” is commonly used in the US to refer to a strident middle-class white woman who talks down to people of colour, usually in serving-staff positions. But the term was never just about racial oppression. As Vox wrote in its extremely extensive history of the trope, the comedian Dane Cook was using it in his act in 2005: “Every [friendship] group has a Karen, and she’s always a bag of douche.” The term went more mainstream a few years ago when someone on Reddit wrote so much bile about his ex-wife that his posts got their own subreddit called “r/FuckYouKaren”. One of the most popular ever tweets using the Karen meme was posted a month ago, just before the lockdown: “I’m scared for people who actually need to go to the store & feed their fams but Susan and Karen stocked up for 30 years.” This was liked 1.2m times, because only women shop, apparently (and shop selfishly). This weekend, the Sunday Times defined Karen as “an annoying person in the office”, and you have to admire the use of the genderless word “person” there because I’d love to know how many men out there have been called “a Karen”. I’m gonna guess it’s a feminine, curvaceous zero. “Karens are moms – pushy ones. They share corny inspirational quotes on Facebook, buy merchandise inscribed with ‘Love Life Laugh’ and love to ruin teenage fun,” Elaine Moore wrote in the FT. Moore adds that Karen is her “favourite internet villain”. Pushy mothers: aren’t they THE WORST? Lolz.
The Karen chat stepped up a notch last week when the feminist writer Julie Bindel tweeted: “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?” Cue a social media firestorm, one I blithely wandered into: “Yes – it’s sexist, ageist and classist, in that order.” Soon, I had thousands of responses. Some were from people of colour, frustrated that the term’s original meaning had been lost and that two white women were denigrating a term they use to describe racism, and fair enough. But they were at least equalled by men gleefully calling me a Karen (“OK, Karen”) and telling me to make them a sandwich. Truly, few things warm the heart like the palpable excitement of men when they find a new misogynistic term they can lob at women with impunity.
Do I really need to spell out the sexism of a meme about a woman’s name that took off from a man griping about his ex-wife and has become a way of telling women to shut up? Yes, there are memes about Chad and Zach, but these have never gained the popularity of ones about Becky, Susan or Tammy, let alone Karen. When I see young (and not so young) white women defending the Karen meme, I’m reminded of the Cool Girl passage in Gone Girl: yeah, I’m not a basic pushy-mum-type woman – I’m a cool girl. Mmm, let’s see how long denigrating your own sex works for you, ladies.
Next, ageism: “Karen”, as we have established, is a mother. One with multiple children, as Vox put it. So we’re probably talking middle age here. Middle-aged women – ew!
Finally, class. Whatever upper-middle connotations Karen might have in the US, in the UK the name is not posh. Try substituting Karen for Emily, Freya, Alice or Isabel and the meme doesn’t work. It is no coincidence that a tweet calling Jess Phillips a Karen was so popular, given Phillips grew up working-class, is a mother and – not wanting to shock anyone here – a woman. Tick, tick, tick.
Contrary to what some silly articles have claimed, no serious person is equating Karen with the N-word. People of colour should describe their experiences of racism in whatever language works for them. But women should also be free to point out when a trope has become mired in sexism without being accused of being humourless old shrews, ie Karens. No one wants to be a Karen, amirite? The Karen meme has become a way of not just describing women’s behaviour, but controlling it. No wonder so many men enjoy it.