Picture this. You’re a middle-aged white woman. You still wear your oversized 2000s Chanel sunglasses that your white husband got you for Christmas 15 years ago. You rock a side-swept bob, with aggressive blonde highlights. You drive around your safe community in your Volvo SUV. To you, masks are optional. To you, you have the right and authority to always “speak to the manager.” Black people are always a threat in public and private spaces. The majority of the internet hates you! Who are you?
Without even identifying who this person is, meme cultural would immediately identify this profile as Karen. This person would not even be a specific Karen but be considered a “Karen.” While the name Karen is the 36th most popular name in the U.S., the “Karen” type is much more popular and well-known as an annoying type of person that populates America wherever you go.
The “Karen” meme became especially prominent in 2020 through all of the political, social and cultural waves. In light of the coronavirus, the election, and the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), the Karens were put under major scrutiny. But before I talk about the current status of Karen, it is important to note that the “Karen” meme’s essence has been around for much longer; people have been making fun of the “Karen” type long before it was established as a distinguishable meme. Some believe that the “Karen” meme can date back to 2005, in comedian Dane Cook’s stand up. He talked about this “Karen” type in every friend group, and how she is always a “douchebag” to others. The popular film Mean Girls (2004) also seemed to contribute to the “Karen” persona. There is a popular line in the movie in which the main ‘mean girl’ says to the Karen character: “Oh my god Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.” While this line became a comedic icon for the movie, it built “Karen” as an ignorant and socially insensitive character.
Jumping forward in time, in 2014, a reddit thread was created, titled “F*ck You Karen.” This reddit thread later got a lot of attention and posts in 2016 and 2017, as it compiled more characteristics and examples of real life “Karens.” The most notable addition to the “Karen” persona is the “see the manager” haircut. Across multiple social media platforms, essential workers (any job that necessitates customer interaction) would post videos of customers who demanded to “speak to the manager.” They would be extremely hostile, impatient, and have a lack of respect for the workers they were communicating with. And while not all the subjects of these videos went to the same hair salon, they all seemed to share the side-swept bob hairstyle, iconizing this specific hairdo for the “Karen” clan.
In terms of present day memes of “Karen,” it has quickly evolved and solidified its place as a pinnacle inside joke on social media platforms, Generation Z, and even in mainstream media. In light of the new health regulations caused by coronavirus, a new wave of video posts emerged, focusing on a type of middle-aged white woman who would refuse to wear a mask in public spaces. There is a very famous viral video of a woman being recorded, demanding she get her teeth cleaned at the dentist, despite the establishment’s regulation of not serving customers who don’t wear a mask. Once this video went viral, the internet and meme culture unanimously decided that she was a “Karen,” and all others like her would be given the same name.
On top of public safety intolerance, Karens added, or rather solidified, to their repertoire anti-Black sentiments and racism. The first ‘racist’ viral video of a Karen was of Amy Cooper (notably, not actually named Karen) where she called the police on a Black man in Central Park who was doing nothing wrong. This representation of Karen reveals their affinity towards racial profiling. But more than just ignorantly racially profiling individuals and groups, they go so far as to call reinforcements out of (probably genuine) fear for their safety. This sentiment is riddled with problematic and false understandings of race, antagonizing Karens to the mass of the Internet population. This video, and the many iterations of it, encapsulate the ‘All Lives Matter’ stance that Karens would obviously subscribe to.
When thinking of the name “Karen” and the “Karens” of the world, it is easy to get frustrated by the intolerance, and discouraged by their unapologetic beliefs and actions. But there is a major silver-lining to the “Karen” meme: we’re getting better! But identifying, publicizing and universalizing this type of person (racist, sexist, insensitive, you get the point) as the ‘bad guy’ in society, it shows that there is a universally accepted sentiment towards Karens: that we don’t accept her as one of us! If anything, the harsh scrutiny of Karens is a sign of political and social progress.
DISCLAIMER: All statements and claims above are not a direct or personal attack to people legally named Karen. I am sorry. You are in interesting company.
Greenspan, Rachel E. “How the Name ‘Karen’ Became a Stand-in for Problematic White Women and a Hugely Popular Meme.” Insider, Insider, 26 Oct. 2020, www.insider.com/karen-meme-origin-the-history-of-calling-women-karen-white-2020-5.
Lewis, Helen. “The Mythology of Karen.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 Sept. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/08/karen-meme-coronavirus/615355/.
Nagesh, Ashitha. “What Exactly Is a ‘Karen’ and Where Did the Meme Come from?” BBC News, BBC, 30 July 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-53588201.