As the meme has become more prominent online, its meaning has become confused – with real-life Karens caught in the crosshairs.
A meme communicates an idea quickly – sometimes a nuanced, complex idea – using an image or words or both. People use memes on social media as commentary. The original “Karen” meme depicts a middle-aged white woman who insists on speaking to a manager, but Karen has become shorthand for describing middle-aged white women who harass people of color. To confuse perception even more, sometimes people use Karen as an all-purpose slur. Journalist Elle Hunt, writing in The Guardian, talks to real-life Karens and unpacks the meme. As it turns out, not all Karens are “Karens.”
- A “Karen,” according to a well-known internet meme, is a white, middle-aged woman with a sense of entitlement.
- The Karen meme intentionally undermines white privilege in a humorous way.
- The Karen meme also applies to women who oppose pandemic public safety measures.
A “Karen,” according to a well-known internet meme, is a white, middle-aged woman with a sense of entitlement.
You can envision the Karen of the famous meme. She is white, with an asymmetrical short haircut and an air of peevish entitlement. Originally, the name referred to a woman in a shop who insists on speaking to the manager.
Writer Karen Geier first came across the meme on the social media site Twitter, where she saw it often. Now, she says, people often use “oh Karen” in a derogatory way for less-clear reasons. Some link the Karen meme to another meme from the movie Mean Girls, in which a character says, “Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” Geier is quite liberal, so it irks her when someone uses her name against her.
“Geier “distinguishes between being called Karen herself, and being a Karen.”
Washington Post editor Karen Attiah, an African American, says her name often surprises people because – especially in the Black community – people usually associate the name Karen with middle-aged white women. Attiah was born in 1986, long after 1965 when the name Karen reached its greatest popularity. Attiah’s mother named her daughter Karen to give her an advantage in a world of white privilege. By 2018, parents in the United States gave the name Karen to only 486 newborns.
The Karen meme intentionally undermines white privilege in a humorous way.
In 2018, several viral social media videos showed white women harassing people of color and sometimes calling the police. In one video, a white woman called the police because a group of Black men were barbecuing in an Oakland, California public park. Viewers dubbed her “BBQ Becky,” “Becky” being another name that people and memes often associate with white women harassing people of color. The meme allows Black Americans to find humor in examples of ever-present racism.
British commentators may interpret the Karen meme in a different way than Americans; British humor is already vested in an older “stereotype of a Karen” as a plumpish and irritating woman.
The Karen meme also applies to women who oppose pandemic public safety measures.
Stereotypical Karens use the coronavirus pandemic to police the behavior of others, including “Kyles,” who are excessively angry, aggressive white male teenagers. Kyles are the ideological “sons” of Karens. Some critics charge that white boys use the Karen meme as a substitute for a slur and that it’s misogynistic. Others, while acknowledging that some people do use the meme that way, point out that the name “Karen” doesn’t prevent women from getting jobs as “ethnic-sounding” names sometimes do.
“The only way we’ll help our societies to become fully equal is if we each are willing to speak out for other people who have more to lose by speaking up. And Karens are known for their voices!” (Karen Sandler)
Attorney Karen Sandler says the meme forced her to think about the advantages she’s enjoyed in life because of white privilege and caused her to be a better advocate for the disadvantaged. As a software freedom advocate, she seeks to use her “Karen powers” for good, by speaking up on behalf of others whose voices seldom find a receptive audience.
About the Author
Journalist Elle Hunt frequently writes for The Guardian.