Central Park birdwatching incident

Karen is a pejorative term used in the United States and other English-speaking countries for a person perceived as entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is appropriate or necessary. A common stereotype is that of a white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others.

Depictions also include demanding to ‘speak to the manager,’ anti-vaccination beliefs, being racist, or sporting a particular bob cut hairstyle. As of 2020, the term was increasingly being used as a general-purpose term of disapproval for middle-aged white women.

The exact origins of the term are unknown. The term may have originated on Black Twitter as a meme used to describe white women who ‘tattle on Black kids’ lemonade stands.’ It has also been described as originating with black women but having been co-opted by white men. University of Virginia media researcher Meredith Clark has said that the idea of a white woman in the vicinity of whom Blacks need to be careful because she won’t hesitate to use her ‘privilege’ at the expense of others ‘has always been there; it just hasn’t always been so specific to one person’s name. Karen has gone by different names. In the early 1990s, when ‘Baby Got Back’ came out, it was ‘Becky.” According to Clark, ‘Miss Ann’ was a Jim Crow-era ‘cheeky, in-group shorthand among Black people’ for white people who used their privilege as a weapon.

According to NPR reporter Karen Grigsby Bates, the concept of a Karen, as Black people used the term, became clear to whites when ‘Saturday Night Live’ did a ‘Black Jeopardy’ sketch with Chadwick Boseman playing as his Black Panther character T’Challa. Grigsby Bates said, ‘And T’Challa is getting all his answers wrong in Jeopardy because the game is based on Black American idioms, which he doesn’t get at all because, duh, he’s from Wakanda. But at the last minute, he’s asked about someone named Karen bringing her potato salad to his cookout.’ T’Challa gets the last question right, responding, ‘Aw, hell no, Karen. Keep your bland-ass potato salad to yourself’; Clark ‘says this moment and a few others like it is when the nation kind of got it, too.’

Another use of the term as an internet meme dates to an anonymous Reddit user, Fuck_You_Karen, who posted rants denigrating his ex-wife, Karen, whom he alleged had taken both his children and his house during divorce proceedings. The posts led to the 2017 creation of the subreddit r/FuckYouKaren, to both compile a narrative and share memes about the posts. Since Fuck_You_Karen deleted his account, the subreddit refocused on memes about the stereotype in general rather than a specific woman. Other uses of Karen as a joke punchline include Dane Cook’s 2005 sketch ‘The Friend Nobody Likes’ on his album ‘Retaliation,’ and a 2016 Internet meme regarding a woman in an ad for the Nintendo Switch console who exhibits antisocial behavior and is given the nickname ‘antisocial Karen.’

Kansas State University professor Heather Suzanne Woods, whose research interests include memes, said a Karen’s defining characteristics are ‘entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,’ and that a Karen ‘demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.’ Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor for ‘Bitch,’ agrees, saying a Karen ‘sees no one as an individual, instead moving through the world prepared to fight faceless conglomerate of lesser-than people who won’t give her what she wants and feels she deserves. She’ll wield the power that, yes, might be very different from that of a white man, as she makes her demands. And that feeling of entitlement is what makes her, undeniably, a Karen.’

The meme carries several stereotypes, the most notable being that a Karen will demand to ‘speak with the manager’ of a hypothetical service provider. Other stereotypes include anti-vaccination beliefs, racism, excessive use of Facebook, and a particular bob haircut with blond highlights. Pictures of Kate Gosselin and Jenny McCarthy’s bob cut are often used to depict Karen, and their bobs are sometimes called the ‘can-I-speak-to-your-manager’ haircut.

There has been some debate as to whether ‘Karen’ is a slur. While the term is used exclusively in a pejorative manner toward a person of a specific race and gender, some argue that it lacks the historical context to be a slur, and that calling it one trivializes actual discrimination. Others argue that the targets of the term have immense privilege, and that ‘an epithet that lacks the power to discriminate is just an insult.’ Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman argued that use of the meme has become less about describing behavior than controlling it and ‘telling women to shut up.’ Jennifer Weiner, writing in the ‘New York Times’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the meme had succeeded in silencing her, saying she had had to balance her desire to complain about a nearby man coughing into the open air, hawking and spitting on the sidewalk, with her fear of being called a Karen.

In April 2020, journalist and radical feminist Julie Bindel asked, ‘Does anyone else think the Karen-slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?’ Freeman replied, saying it was ‘sexist, ageist, and classist, in that order.’ In May 2020, Kaitlyn Tiffany, writing in ‘The Atlantic,’ asked, ‘Is a Karen just a woman who does anything at all that annoys people? If so, what is the male equivalent?,’ saying the meme was being called misogynistic. Matt Schimkowitz, a senior editor at ‘Know Your Meme,’ said the term ‘just kind of took over all forms of criticism towards white women online.’

The mid-2019 formation of Tropical Storm Karen in the Atlantic hurricane basin led to memes likening the storm to the stereotype; several users made jokes about the storm wanting to ‘speak with the manager,’ with images photoshopped to include the ‘Karen haircut’ on either the hurricane or its forecast path.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was used to describe women abusing Asian-American health workers due to the virus’s origins in China, those hoarding essential supplies such as toilet paper, and both those who policed others’ behavior to enforce quarantine, and those who protested the continuance of the restrictions because they prevented them visiting hair salons, as well as over being forced to wear face masks inside of stores.

In May 2020, Christian Cooper, writing about the Central Park birdwatching incident, said Amy Cooper’s ‘inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn’ when he started recording the encounter. He recorded her calling the police and telling them that an ‘African-American man’ was threatening her and her dog. In July 2020 a video of ‘Permit Karen,’ a New Jersey woman calling the police to report her Black neighbors were putting in a stone patio without a permit, went viral. A San Diego woman who posted a photo of the barista who refused her service because she wasn’t wearing a mask was labelled a Karen; she later announced she was suing the barista for half of donations raised on his behalf after her post went viral.

In June 2020, California State Assembly member Rob Bonta introduced bill AB 1550, which would classify fraudulent, racially discriminatory 911 calls as hate crimes. Under the bill, someone making such a call could be sued for up to $10,000. In July 2020, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies (CAREN) Act. It would change the San Francisco Police Code to prohibit the fabrication of racially biased emergency reports.

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