In this article:
- Once a common and unassuming name, “Karen” has since become a viral meme to describe entitled (and angry) white middle-aged women.
- More often than not, their entitlement is based on race or class and their anger is so overblown that they have meltdowns or become inconsolable.
- As the Karen meme grows in popularity, though, some have pointed out that this isn’t the first time entitled white women have been called out for their behavior. Before Karen, there was Mistress Ann, Becky, and Patty.
- Some also point to a double standard. While women have been called out for showing entitlement, there’s no male equivalent to Karen, despite the fact that white middle-aged men are perhaps even more likely to behave entitled and angry.
Seattle Karen Calls Cops on Black Man for Standing on His Own Property
“Male Karen” Embarrassed Son in Disneyland Queue Argument
Dunkin Karen Has Meltdown with Racist Tirade Against US Workers
Those are just some of the news headlines in the last few weeks that contained the name “Karen.” What once was an innocent and popular name derived from the Greek word for pure has forever been altered by a viral internet meme. Karens are now widely recognized as entitled and, often, angry individuals. They’re also usually describing white middle-aged women.
Who or What Is a Karen?
We need to talk about Karen. Not any specific Karen but the popular meme and Gen Z slang.
A Karen is a stereotype. It’s a pejorative assigned to people who display extreme privilege and entitlement, be it in real life or online. Karens have historically caused a disruption in the spaces they occupy, demanding that their needs and wants be met ahead of everybody else’s. More often than not, their entitlement is based on race, class, and gender.
Karens have many battle cries but the most common phrase associated with these individuals is: “I’d like to speak to the manager.” A person who demands to complain to someone in charge for a minor inconvenience is displaying behavior typical of Karens. They don’t seem to realize that the scene they cause is a bigger inconvenience to everyone than, say, a delayed order at a restaurant.
Having to wait a bit longer for their food is not the only reason someone might release their inner Karen. Some of them exhibit inappropriate behavior for things that don’t remotely affect them.
Remember Janene Hoskovec? In case you missed it, she’s a white middle-aged woman caught on video harrassing fellow customers in a supermarket by coughing at people who wore masks. Hoskovec was later fired from her job after the clip went viral. Her actions only added to the growing list of offenses of the Karens of this world: They are, to no one’s surprise, anti-vaccination as well.
Karens like Hoskovec not only cause an unnecessary commotion, they also harm other people whether they intend to or not. Deliberately spreading viruses could actually lead to criminal charges.
Another example is Amy Cooper who became known as the “Central Park Karen.” She was recorded harassing Christian Cooper (no relation), an African-American man who was birdwatching in the park.
The birder requested that Amy put her dog on a leash as the area of the park required it. She responded by calling her namesake racial slurs and making a prompt call to the police claiming that the man was threatening her life.
At the time of heightened police brutality in the U.S., calling the cops on a Black man for literally no reason (or a made-up reason) is an irresponsible exercise of white privilege. The Central Park incident became cemented as one of the wildest displays of peak Karen behavior. On that same day, May 25th of 2020, Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The Karen Meme Wasn’t The First to Represent Entitled and Abusive Individuals
Karen is definitely one of the most popular and widely used stereotypes online. As long as there are rude, entitled, racist, anti-vaxx individuals who are fortunate enough to be caught on camera, there’s plenty of fodder for the meme to continue proliferating.
In this world, I don’t think we’ll run out of those people any time soon, regardless of the consequences Karens face if their behavior becomes a viral video.
While Karens became embedded in our collective consciousness during the height of the internet age, they aren’t the first to represent entitled and abusive individuals. The earliest iteration of the Karen of today is the Miss Ann of the era of African-American slavery in the U.S.
Miss or Mistress Ann, a Keeper of Slaves
Miss Ann is another pejorative commonly used by enslaved Black people in the 19th century to refer to the white mistresses of slave plantations. Miss Anns are the slaveowners’ wives, daughters, or siblings (women were forbidden from owning slaves themselves).
Regardless of her relationship with the Mister Charlie of the plantation, Miss Ann is in a position of privilege and authority because she is white and upper-class. She considers herself superior to the people her husband enslaves and is typically the person who kept enslaved Black people in line.
Although racial segregation was still happening long after slavery was abolished in 1865, Miss Ann slowly disappeared from the vernacular. It wasn’t widely used outside of the African-American community. That doesn’t mean that white folks died out, but Miss Ann no longer fit the context.
Becky With the Good Hair
What did fit was the privilege that came with being white that even well-meaning individuals did not realize they benefited from. This type of person — one who is unaware that their whiteness provides certain advantages and immunity that other people don’t have — was dubbed Rebecca, or Becky for short.
Becky is white, but unlike Miss Ann or Karen, she doesn’t mean to be racist. She’s young, open-minded, and is not the type to complain to the manager or call the cops on a Black person for simply walking on the street. She doesn’t see color! Or so she says.
What makes Becky potentially dangerous is her ignorance. This racial denial stems from the fact that the Beckys and the Karens of this world are not persecuted for the color of their skin or their ethnicity.
Becky is “color blind” but constantly draws attention to the POC in her life. She also ignores racism as a systemic issue since it doesn’t affect her personally, and thinks world issues could be solved by peace and love.
Becky is also a name associated with the Valley Girl stereotype that originated in the 1980s. They’re materialistic, ignorant, and superficial.
Think of the white girls who speak in the intro of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back. “Oh my God, Becky. Look at her butt,” one Valley Girl says to another who is named Becky, as they ogle at and shame a Black woman with a blessed derrière.
Becky means no harm because she is too blissfully unaware of her privilege. That doesn’t mean her ignorant views on race are harmless.
Another pop culture reference is Beyonce’s song Sorry, in which she describes a Becky with “the good hair.” Becky in this context is a white woman whose hair has been described as the ideal, as opposed to the curly or coarse hair for which Black people are criticized.
BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Other Precursors to Karen
Like Miss Ann, Becky as a label lessened in use. That is until 2018 when Jennifer Schulte, a white woman, called 911 on Black folks enjoying a barbecue in public. The internet immediately dubbed her BBQ Becky and she became a poster child for people, typically white folks, who disrupt Black folks going about their business.
The meme blew up on Twitter, with users photoshopping BBQ Becky calling the police during harmless events, such as graduations, and historical events, like Barrack Obama’s swearing-in.
As funny and distracting as the memes were, they shed a light on a disturbing trend of the unnecessary 911 calls white people made usually to report people of color doing innocuous activities. One of these callers became known as Permit Patty who sought police assistance to stop an eight-year-old from selling water on the street without a permit.
The name that stuck the most, though, is Karen. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific incident that solidified the name as the internet’s designation for entitled people. Some say it could be traced to a comedy special by Dane Cook in which he lambasts the Karen in a friend group who is “always a bag of douche.”
Some say it’s Amanda Seyfried’s character in Mean Girls who, like Becky, is ignorant about people’s race. “So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?”
Regardless of its origin, online forums like Reddit’s r/FuckYouKaren is what truly cemented Karen as the catch-all term for people who are entitled, rude, and abusive towards others and a general menace to society. It’s a place where people share personal experiences with a Karen they encounter on a daily basis.
For instance, the Coronavirus Karen became one of its subtypes, which represented pandemic deniers and people with anti-vaccination (or anti-science) views. The Karen meme has become ubiquitous on the internet.
Even news publications use the name to describe an individual who acts entitled, creates a disturbance in public, and potentially harms other people.
The Gender Politics of the Karen Meme
We have all thrown the epithet Karen in conversation. “Oh my god, you’re being such a Karen,” I remember saying to a male friend of mine who complained of loud children at a cafe. It never occurred to me that I was being flippant about my use of the term — I knew little of its origin and even less about the gender politics behind it.
As the Male Karen in Disneyland exhibits above, not all people who are given the name are necessarily women. But why not just designate a male equivalent to Karen, like Kevin? Or Ken, as in Ken and Barbie, who are famously privileged due to their white and middle-class background?
Isn’t it true that entitlement, being a wet blanket, and general awfulness are traits not exclusive to women, or even white women?
The issue speaks of the bigger, more persistent problem of sexism that we’re not going to solve by abolishing a meme. There is no name that translates Karen into a designation for males because society doesn’t treat men and women equally.
One interpretation is that men, specifically white men from middle-class backgrounds, are more likely to receive the service or treatment they demand. They’re not going to be chastised for making the same complaint a woman does.
However, I think a more important point of view here is how society has continued to demonize women through the use of stereotypes. Seemingly harmless gendered terms like drama queen, Debbie Downer, primadonna, and diva are words we’ve all used in the past.
But we fail to pay attention to the underlying misogyny that allowed those terms to persist in the first place. All of the names highlight a negative trait and reinforce the association with women through repeated use of the term.
Reinforcing the Karen stereotype could be more problematic than relatable in the long run. Many have used the term to shut women down and ultimately put them in “their place.” After all, r/FuckYouKaren was allegedly started in 2017 by a forlorn ex-husband of an actual Karen, until it spiraled into a forum for ranting about the Karens that have evolved since.
Criticizing individuals for their entitled and abrasive behavior is valid. We shouldn’t stop doing that especially if they are harming others through their privilege.
But some argue that it is necessary to designate names that represent oppressors without making them opressed in the process. In defense of the plethora of Karen memes, Karen Attiah — an actual Karen — wrote in The Washington Post: “Calling the Karen meme the new n-word or asserting that it is sexist slur only trivializes actual violence and discrimination that destroy lives and communities.”
She speaks of how, historically, claims by white women against people of color are given credibility, especially in the context of assault. The lynching and murder of Emmett Till is a prime example of a white woman benefiting from her race- and gender-based privileges.
So in a battle between casual sexism through the use of gendered stereotypes like Karen versus systemic racism and the use of privilege to oppress others, Karen Attiah argues that we’re much better off putting our energy into fighting the second. “Is ‘Karen’ gendered? Yes, it’s a girl’s name. But sexist? Nah,” Attiah argues.
One can argue that Karen has evolved from being a name that calls out oppressors of Black people. The moniker refers to anyone who exercises their privilege by abusing others and no one can lay claim to an ephemeral internet meme.
When Karen has died out as our go-to label for entitled brats, a new one will emerge to take its place. Personally, as long as we’re not demonizing anyone with a valid complaint by branding them with the Karen nametag, I don’t mind the use of the meme.