The name “Karen” has become synonymous with nosy neighbors and manager-demanding, coupon-weiding suburban white women who’ve largely taken it upon themselves to police “social distancing” measures amid the coronavirus crisis, often using passive-aggressive posts on social media networks like Facebook and NextDoor.
But now some feminists are concerned that the “Karen” meme is “mired in sexism,” perpetuating long-running stereotypes about women, and encouraging others to police and control “female behavior.”
“[I]t’s sexist, ageist and classist, in that order,” whined a Guardian columnist after seeing Karen memes pop up on Facebook. “The Karen meme has become a way of not just describing women’s behaviour, but controlling it.”
To be sure, the Karen meme isn’t flattering, and it isn’t new. As the Guardian points out, comedian Dane Cook, who had his heyday in the late 1990s, began using “Karen” as a way of referring to a particularly awful brand of women in the dating pool. Redditors started using “Karen” to refer to annoying women back around 2005. The term gained further traction in 2018 and 2019 as a way of describing often white, suburban women who called the police on neighbors — usually African-Americans or Hispanics — doing mild things, like holding barbecues in the park or selling lemonade from unlicensed roadside stands.
By some weird twist, a number of these women turned out to be left-leaning. At least one of the most famous police-calling incidents involved a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and, while she ran for president, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was often referred to as the “queen of Karens” for her intrusive policy ideas — so there’s no question as to why some feminists might find the term less than endearing.
Now the meme is everywhere as Americans, forced to stay inside and near their homes by coronavirus-related lockdowns, encounter neighborhood busybodies apt to call law enforcement the moment they glimpse a pair of teenagers standing too close together in a public park.
The Guardian expands, though, on its dissatisfaction with the term, “Karen,” by noting that its sexist and classist and ageist, to boot.
“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?” the author exclaims, as though each use of the “Karen” meme, which is now ubiquitos, connects directly back to Reddit circa 2005.
“Next, ageism: ‘Karen,’ as we have established, is a mother,” she says, hoping to inflame the sensibilities of women with children. “One with multiple children, as Vox put it. So we’re probably talking middle age here. Middle-aged women – ew!”
That is, of course, its own stereotype, but then, there’s classism.
“Whatever upper-middle connotations Karen might have in the US, in the UK the name is not posh,” she says. “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.”
Fortunately, the Guardian author is largely alone. Every outlet from Forbes to Bitch Media has now weighed in on the subject and decided that “Karen” is decidedly not sexist, ageist, classist, or even an affront to real people named “Karen.”
Unless she’s really a “Karen,” of course.