If you have an Instagram account, read the news or are a sentient being, you will be familiar with the concept of ‘Karen’ - a pejorative term given to problematic women who would like to speak to the manager. In The New York Times, Sarah Miller describes them as “the police women of all human behaviour,” so between COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, Karen has been unsurprisingly busy.
A predominantly American trope (though one that's increasingly infiltrating British culture), Karen is a comment on basicness and bigotry, and white privilege and power. (Lest we forget that 53% of Trump’s voter base was reportedly white women.) Karen is ignorant and arrogant, agitated and irritated. Her propensity to complain about petty slights knows no bounds. Middle-class and largely lacking in taste, she might have a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ sign in her kitchen.
From viral videos to thigh-slapping memes, Karen is being served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are whole Instagram accounts dedicated to capturing her; @KarensGoingWilds boasts 579k followers while the hashtag Karen has 794k posts. On Reddit where the debate is as didactic as it is jocular, “r/FuckYouKaren” has 750,000 followers, and there are entire sub threads dedicated not only to Karen’s haircut (blonde, severely undercut at the back, and spiked on top - the original “can I speak to the manager haircut”), but also to her dress code (activewear and slogan Tees).
So what do Karens look like in the wild? First and foremost, they’re without a face mask, despite the fact that it’s mandatory to wear one in many states and supermarkets. When - politely - confronted, they have monumental meltdowns. Trolleys are shoved. Food is thrown. They’re prone to pseudoscience too (what with being anti-vaxxers and all). One Karen justified her not wearing a mask by yelling she was a Doctor, thereby implying that the universally acknowledged science that masks are necessary to flatten the curve is, er, wrong. “[Reddit forums] get - rudely - at the most destructive logical fallacy of the pandemic, which is any wishful thinking that we won’t personally become a vector for disease, even if we’re breaking rules and taking risks for our own comfort,” writes Kaitlyn Tiffany in The Atlantic. Given Karen's racism, it makes sense that supermarkets, where people of colour not only make up the majority of the workforce, but who are also disproportionately affected by the virus, are her stomping ground.
Advice in The New Yorker’s satirical Shouts and Murmurs section offers a three step crisis management for Karens who have been caught being Karen-like. “Immediately scrub the crap out of your social-media accounts” it advises, before regurgiting “our patented Karen Redemption Script,” which hums of the all too familiar “I am not racist… I reacted emotionally… My behaviour is not excusable.”
Despite the apparent comedy, things often turn sinister. Karens “play the victim whenever they feel a person of color is intruding in “their” space - in a park, in a neighborhood, in the spotlight - cocky and certain that things will work out for them by privilege and design,” said The Cut's Adrienne Green about Amy Cooper, the white woman who feigned being attacked by a Black birdwatcher who asked her to put her dog on a lead, in a part of Central Park where dogs are required to be on leads. Cooper by the way, was a registered Democrat who donated to the Obama campaign. Also spine-chilling is the example of a crazed Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who rage thumping through their blood streams, stood barefoot on their lawn, aiming an AR-15 rifle and a handgun at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters as they passed - peacefully - by their mega mansion. It was, as the meme’d movie posters evinced, a scene straight out of a Jordan Peele film, with the roles of Karen and Ken both being tipped for an Oscar.
So Ken is Karen’s husband? Yes, or Chad or Brad. That said, feminists are adamant that Karen-calling is misogynistic. That the name has been co-opted by men to castigate and control the behaviour of women. “Ok, Karen” is a damning retort that can be dispensed indiscriminately. “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman hating and based on class prejudice?” asked writer and activist Julie Bindell on Twitter, sending public opinion into a tailspin. Rebuking the very thought Karen Attiah Tweeted: “Karen” has not been part and parcel of centuries of violence and state-sanctioned oppression”. Yes, Karen is of a certain age, class and sex, but is it not rather Karen-like to be enraged at the trope in the first place?