Karen: She’s the woman that wants to speak to your manager, the mother you always avoid at the school gates, the woman driver that stole your parking place and possibly even your ex wife. Karen is outspoken, irritating, entitled and very opinionated. Star of a million memes; we all know ‘a Karen’ and we are probably all guilty of smirking at least a little when we recognise her in a meme. But beneath the ‘lols’ isn’t this vilification of a middle-aged woman all a little misogynistic?
According to www.knowyourmeme.com Karen is;
‘a slang term used as an antagonistic female character in memes. “Karen” is generally characterized as an irritating, entitled woman, sometimes as an ex-wife who took custody of “the kids.’
Urban dictionary defines Karen as;
“mother of three. blonde. owns a volvo. annoying as hell. wears acrylics 24/7. currently at your workplace speaking to your manager.
watch out for fkn karen. MID AGED WHITE WOMEN WITH BOB CUTS ARE NOT TO BE SPOKEN TO IN ANY SORT OF TONE.“
In both the US and the UK the name Karen peaked in use between 1965 to 1975 making the vast majority of Karens currently between 54-44 . If you know a real-life Karen it’s quite likely she is every bit the middle aged woman that the meme connotes.
So Isn’t That…A Bit Misogynistic?
Of course it is! If you search for a male counterpart to Karen you will be disappointed, for there simply isn’t one; Chris and Simon (both similarly popular names of that generation) simply do not provoke as much mockery as Karen despite the fact that if you’ve ever worked in retail or any other public facing job you know that male customers can be every bit as demanding (not to mention potentially considerably more threatening) as women. The male name with the most comparable notoriety is ‘Chad’ and with Chad’s combination of good looks and sexual attractiveness it is clear he is no parallel to Karen.
I propose that it is actually Karen’s implied lack of sex appeal that makes Karen such an easy tool of casual misogyny. With her sensible, unfashionable ‘mum hair cut’ and practical family car Karen’s biggest social crime is perhaps her unwillingness to cater to expectation of male appeasement. Karen has her own family to prioritise; she does not have time to coddle other men. Karen is a victim of redundancy from male gaze. As a middle-aged woman with a family Karen has little to offer the younger male observer therefore she is relegated to a comic figure defined by unfavourable stereotype and fit only to be ridiculed and mocked.
Karen’s assertiveness is self-serving, unapologetic and if it is rooted in entitlement you can bet as a woman it’s an entitlement that doesn’t extend to all areas of Karen’s life, behind the cliché of the ‘wife that takes the kids’ is the reality of the unpaid and oft under appreciated carer. Where is the (ex) husband in all of this? He is the victim of course, the viewer of the meme, the default male.
Karen’s “female antagonist” status sees her cast as the evil stepmother, the hostile adversary, the evil queen. Karen is not even the protagonist in her own story, Karen is exiled to eternal opponent. Karen memes are the modern day answer to the mother-in-law jokes of yesteryear, despite the eponymy of the meme Karen is actually dehumanised, we are not supposed to consider Karen’s point of view.
If you’re a woman you may even be a Karen yourself. If you’ve debated/argued for long enough on social media you certainly stand a chance of being considered a Karen.
“Karen” is used as a insult to dismiss someone whose opinion is not deemed to be important enough to consider. A woman offering unwanted advice or unpopular sentiment. Karen is in many ways a scapegoat for feelings of frustration towards women that stand in men’s way, the ones that dare to have an opinion that differs. It becomes easy to see how Karen isn’t that different to those pesky TERFS in your mentions.
As a feminist I find myself sympathising with Karen, even as a 30 something woman firmly planted in the millenial age group I’m not ashamed to say I recognise myself in Karen. “Je suis Karen” I mutter as I wait in a shop to speak to someone who will hopefully know a little more of the product they are employed to sell. Karen is the scourge of the incompetent worker, willing to call-out bad service and get what is rightfully hers, which; in this age of courier tracking, Trip Advisor and 24hr online support surely isn’t that uncommon a thing? Aren’t we all a ‘little bit Karen’?
So quite why is it acceptable to vilify Karen’s particular brand of female consumerism? Is it perhaps because Karen is so ubiquitous to generation X. From her sex, to her age and even her whiteness; Karen is a generic representation of everything society tells us we are allowed to mock without question. As Catharine A MacKinnon states the white woman who does not share her oppression with men is a fine indicator of just how hated women are for merely being women:
Unlike other women, the white woman who is not poor or working class or lesbian or Jewish or disabled or old or young does not share her oppression with any man. That does not make her condition any more definitive of the meaning of “women” than the condition of any other woman is. But trivializing her oppression, because it is not even potentially racist or class- biased or heterosexist or anti-Semitic, does define the meaning of being “anti-woman” with a special clarity. How the white woman is imagined and constructed and treated becomes a particularly sensitive indicator of the degree to which women, as such, are despised.Catharine A. MacKinnon – From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?
Karen has no ethnic minority status, no inferred gender-id outside of her biological sex, no preferred (or demanded) pronouns, Karen is often representation of a woman taking a traditional role as protective mother, her vulnerability is weaponised against her.
In this age where (nearly) everyone can be considered special, ‘unique’, daringly different and even ‘queer’; Karen is presented as a straggler from a previous generation, one that did not grow up on the internet and may not even be aware that she is the source of ridicule.
With this realisation of casual misogyny and ageism comes threat from the future, and no amount of superfluous pronouns will save you; one day you will be a left over from your own generation. One day you may find yourself hated, just for being a woman. If you’re not a modern day Karen there is every chance that you are the Jess, Katie, Maisy or Amelia of tomorrow…