The “Karen” Name-shame Fad Turns Adults into Playground Bullies
Imagine this: Someone starts a series of internet jokes about an obnoxious character who wears glasses. The character is named with the playground insult “Four-eyes.” The internet jokes become a sensation. Late-night comedy shows do “Four-eyes” skits. Articles appear with titles like, “Who is Four-eyes? The meme craze that’s sweeping the nation!” The tagline “Don’t be a Four-eyes!” is repeated over and over.
Now imagine that some people begin insulting and mocking total strangers who wear glasses—face to face, in real life. Imagine that even some doctors, pharmacists, store clerks and restaurant staff join in, so that adults who wear glasses—ordinary people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s—never know when a simple medical appointment or shopping trip may expose them to hostility and humiliation. Imagine the shock and disorientation a person would feel when the societal norms of behavior suddenly collapse and grown adults act like bullying schoolchildren. Imagine that some people who wear glasses start to go without them in public, to avoid trouble.
The “Karen meme” fad is the real-life equivalent of the imaginary “Four-eyes” fad. It started as an internet meme, but it has snowballed into something destructive. The constant repetition of “Karen” as a term of abuse has resulted in numerous incidents of harassment and hostile teasing of women just for being named Karen: incidents in real life, face to face, not just online. Some women named Karen now use false names in everyday life, and some have undergone legal name change. Most of the people casually using “Karen” as an insult have no idea that they are participating in a fad that has such a serious social impact. Surely many would choose not to keep participating in this fad if they knew that it was leading to incidents like these:
Playground Bullying at the Store
• A 67-year-old grandmother who was buying groceries in a store in South Carolina was humiliated in front of her granddaughter, as four people made “Karen” jokes after she handed over her debit card and the cashier called out loudly, “Oh, we have a real Karen here!” As the tone of the “jokes” got uglier, her granddaughter asked them to stop, but the taunting continued until they left the store.
• A woman who gave her name, Karen, for her order at Starbucks was called a “racist bitch” by the customer in line behind her. She had done nothing to provoke this other than give her name.
• A woman named Karen gave her name at the drive-through order window of a fast food restaurant in Indiana. At the pick-up window, staff members teased her for being named Karen, swinging the bag of food back and forth and refusing to hand it to her. The taunting ended only when her husband spoke up loudly from the passenger seat—the staff apparently hadn’t seen that he was in the car (the incident happened after dark). Her husband was as shocked as she was. He said to friends later, “The name Karen is apparently being used as a pejorative now so the young staff jumped right in on it, and gave her a hard time.” The woman who had been harassed wrote the next day that she was still in shock—she had known about the “Karen memes” but had assumed they had nothing to do with her, and she had never imagined that people would act that way.
• A woman who was returning a pair of shorts said afterwards that the transaction seemed perfectly normal and routine until she handed over her ID and the clerk read out the name “Karen” in a loud voice. The clerk then called over three other nearby employees to look at the ID and see for themselves that they had “a real Karen” there. The clerk continued the transaction by ending every statement and question with a loud, taunting “Karen!” After each “Karen!” the four employees laughed together; the customers in line behind the woman began to join in the laughter. The woman stood frozen, afraid that if she protested, it would only get worse. When she got out to the parking lot, she broke down crying. She found an online support group for women named Karen the next day. Though the group urged her to contact corporate headquarters to report the incident, she refused, as she was afraid that they, too, would laugh at her for being “a Karen.”
• A middle-aged woman gave the name Karen to pick up her prescription at CVS. The clerk sneered, “Oh, do you want to speak to the manager?” In this case, the actual manager (who happened to be named Karen as well) overheard and made him apologize.
• There have been numerous incidents in which women named Karen have heard both employees and other customers burst out laughing when their name was given or called out for an order—too many to list them all. One representative instance: “At Taco Bell, when the guy behind the counter asked for my name, I said ‘Karen’ and he started laughing hysterically, as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Some of the other customers started laughing too. I just stood there. I was glad I had sunglasses on so no one could see I was about to cry.”
• At a restaurant, a woman gave the name Karen to get on the waiting list for a table. The hostess said “To save time, we’ll get you the manager right now!”
• Denial of service to women named Karen: In late October 2021, a man tweeted, “My son in law called to order food. My daughter was going to pick it up on her way home from work. He told the guy Karen will be picking it up. The guy hung up on him. He called back and spoke to someone different. The 1st Guy never took the order because of her name. Sad.” In a follow-up tweet, he said that his daughter is now giving her middle name in public. In a separate incident the same week, a woman named Karen ordered at a fast-food place and heard one of the employees, who was out of sight behind a partition, say loudly to another that she was not going to serve anyone named Karen. Things have not yet deteriorated to the point that it is official company policy in any restaurants not to serve women named Karen—so far as we know, there has been no enforcement of the now-widespread signs saying “No Karens Allowed,” and business owners who have put up such signs would most likely say that they’re “just a joke.” But in both of these incidents, the individual employee clearly felt comfortable refusing service with no reason other than the woman’s first name.
• A woman named Karen who was trying to renew her driver’s license was mocked by three different staff members at the Department of Motor Vehicles, each one remarking on her name in a sarcastic tone. When the photographer snapped the picture before she was ready, so that it came out with a strange expression and eyes mostly closed, he snickered, “No retakes—this one stays!” The tone of the remarks was definitely not ‘friendly ribbing’; in fact, she was disturbed by the eerie feeling that these total strangers were genuinely hostile towards her just because she was “Karen”.
How do women named Karen respond when grown adults suddenly transform into playground bullies? Frequently, the woman is frozen in confusion and shock, or even fear. Afterwards, she may say that the incident still feels eerie and unreal, and that she can barely believe that people were actually behaving so bizarrely. Especially disturbing is the way in which the ordinary, taken-for-granted norms of behavior were suddenly abandoned, as if somehow, these people went into a mental state in which they lost all awareness that they were interacting with a person.
Playground Bullying in the Workplace
The dehumanizing effects of the “Karen” meme fad manifest in the workplace as well. Women named Karen have found that some employers, co-workers and customers apparently believe that if a woman is named Karen, they are allowed to subject the woman to humiliation and hostility in a way that would normally be utterly off-limits.
• A woman named Karen started a new job in June 2021. On her first day at work, the boss announced to the other five employees, “We need to find a new name for her—‘Karen’ is too negative!” While she stood there frozen, afraid to argue with her new boss, these six people joked around and eventually picked the name “Alice” for her. The boss then began calling her Alice. The woman was stunned and humiliated, but afraid to protest for fear everyone would laugh at her even more for complaining (i.e. “being a Karen about it”). About half an hour later, another person entered the office. The boss introduced the woman to the new person as Alice. After a couple of minutes, he said to the new person, “Her name isn’t really Alice, though—her name is Karen.” They both laughed at her.
• This tweet is from a man, reporting a different incident of a woman named Karen being “renamed” by her boss, against her will. Some people thought the tweet might have been a joke, so in follow-up tweets he affirmed that the incident happened as described.
• Women named Karen who wear name tags at work report getting hostile teasing to the point that they hide their name tag or ask management to put a different name on it. Some have cried after their shift. The women who have described this harassment include retail workers, nurses and optometry assistants. One man tweeted that his sister was physically assaulted by a man who was apparently set off by the sight of the name on her name tag: he began screaming at her and spat in her face.
• Another young man went online to write about his concern after seeing his 72-year-old co-worker receiving hostile treatment from customers just because her name was Karen; his account is quoted in Name-shaming Is Never Harmless.
One might assume that an individual’s professional identity would be respected, regardless of internet meme fads. Yet some women named Karen have been told to change their name to continue to function professionally:
• A scholar named Karen who had done three years’ worth of research for a book was advised by professional colleagues not to publish using her real name, but to switch to her middle name or initials. The publisher also expressed concerns about publishing under her real name; in the end, the publisher allowed her to publish under her real name, with the proviso that she include her middle name in order to detract attention from the “Karen.”
• A woman named Karen wrote, “I worked at a college advising kids from disadvantaged backgrounds about careers, courses, etc. One manager there felt my name was giving the impression that I would not be helpful or supportive (despite brilliant reviews from the students themselves) and that having an advisor named Karen was not a good reflection on the college. She wanted me to call myself Kaz or just go by the initial K.”
Playground Bullying in a Medical Setting
The impact of the “Karen meme” extends even to the doctor’s office, where again the ordinary rules of adult behavior may be suspended if the patient is named Karen.
• A woman named Karen who was going in for a surgical procedure phoned the office to ask questions about the anesthesia and possible interactions with her current medications. The staffer asked sarcastically, “Are you a complaining Karen?” He laughed, and she heard other people in the background laughing too. Frightened, she hung up.
• A woman named Karen in a UK hospital was prescribed medication that she knew her body couldn’t tolerate. She told the nurse that there was a mistake. The nurse insisted that she had to take it and accused her, in front of other staff, of being “an angry Karen.” Outnumbered and frightened, she gave in and took the medication, resulting in a severe reaction. A few weeks later, she filed the forms for legal name change. She has a complex medical condition and she feared that having the name Karen could have life-threatening effects on her ability to communicate with medical personnel.
• A woman named Karen went to her optometrist to tell him that her new glasses were giving her severe headaches. He told her “Now, don’t be a complaining Karen!” and laughed. She fled the office, as she was on the verge of tears. Two weeks later, after consulting with a different optometrist, she found out that the glasses she had been given had the wrong prescription.
•A woman named Karen telephoned to try to get an adjustment to her elderly mother’s pain medication. “The nurse seemed to think I was just complaining about nothing, and then I heard her say loudly to someone else, ‘Her name is Karen’.” The attempt to get her mother’s pain addressed led nowhere.
• Another woman attempted to renew prescriptions over the phone and had a bizarre experience, as the pharmacy clerk couldn’t seem to engage with her in a normal way. “She just kept saying ‘Karen… Karen… Karen…’ as if she couldn’t get over it.” She eventually gave up and moved her prescriptions to a different pharmacy.
Bear in mind that the women being treated this way are just ordinary people, some of them senior citizens, who are trying to do the basic tasks of everyday life—pick up a prescription, renew a driver’s license, ask questions about medications. But for women named Karen, the basic civility that we all take for granted can be unexpectedly replaced with hostility, mockery, and an eerie sense of disconnection—as if the name “Karen” triggers some people to mentally “check out” and act as if they were dealing with internet memes rather than a person.
Social Rejection of Women Named Karen
Besides the shocking incidents of harassment and unprofessional behavior, there is a steady drumbeat of examples of rudeness, coldness and hostility toward women named Karen. Some women named Karen report noticing hostile stares, snickers, and people whispering when they give their name. Sometimes the hostility is shockingly overt.
• A husband of one woman named Karen posted on Reddit:
We have a 22 month old daughter and have recently moved to a new town. In this environment it’s been hard for her [his wife] to make new friends, but last week she saw a woman walking with her young son who looked to be about the same age and they waved from across the park. Since then she’s seen the woman walking pretty much daily. Earlier this week she told me she was going to work up the courage to go talk to her and maybe exchange numbers, as this was the only other mom who’s been friendly by waving and smiling back.
Today she did it - she stopped and introduced herself in her beautiful, cheery way and the woman instantly responded back “whoa, your name is Karen? Not a good time to have that name right now, eh?”. My wife was stunned. She didn’t know how to respond, so she just said “well, that’s mostly an older generation… and… well, I’m going to change the way people see Karens!”. She said it came out awkwardly and the rest of their conversation was uncomfortable. Needless to say, the brief small talk that ensued after that was shallow and no numbers were exchanged.
My wife was crushed. I’m home working, but she was so sad she called me immediately after to release her emotions a bit, not even able to wait until she got home to tell me. Now she keeps talking about wanting to change her name or tell people her name is “Kay” or some other nickname.
—OftenOpposingOpinion on Reddit August 5, 2020
• In April 2021, as lockdowns were lifting, a woman in a restaurant was invited to join a small group at their table for drinks. When she introduced herself as Karen, one man responded, “So, are you a racist?” This isn’t what anyone would call normal, acceptable small talk; it’s the kind of hostile teasing elicited by the name ‘Karen’.
• In summer 2021, a woman named Karen signed up for tennis lessons at the local community center. When she introduced herself to some of the other students, she was barraged with comments: “I bet you don’t like having that name now, do you,” “Well, I guess it’s okay—if you say something I can just say ‘okay Karen’.” Another one put in, “Don’t listen to them—you can just pull a Karen!” The lady named Karen commented afterwards, “I’d kind of expect it from high school kids, but these were older ladies—you’d think they would know better.”
So what can we do about it?
First, if you are a woman named Karen, don’t despair. These incidents are shocking and concerning but they aren’t yet the norm. In one large support group for women named Karen, many of the members report that they have not yet had any face-to-face, real-life harassment. Some haven’t even experienced the (now fairly common) phenomenon of hearing people in a waiting area burst out laughing when their name is called for an order or an appointment. It’s clear that there are still many people who can interact in a normal way with a woman named Karen, and who think of our name as simply our name, not a punchline. There are quite a few people out there who haven’t even heard of the memes and have no idea that anyone is using our name as an insult. We need to persuade decent people to drop out of this fad before things get worse, but the situation is definitely not hopeless. So if your name is Karen and you’re only now finding out that women named Karen have been harassed, please don’t assume you need to start using a fake name.
Also, forewarned is forearmed. Most of the women in these incidents were blindsided: they had had no idea that the “Karen meme” fad could result in face-to-face bullying and so they were frozen in shock. But now that you know that some people are acting this outrageously, you won’t be taken by surprise. In one support group for women named Karen, anti-bullying skills are taught and effective response strategies discussed, so that the women feel prepared and not afraid to use their real name in public.
Second, for people who are not named Karen: The most important thing you can do is simply to use the name Karen as only a person’s name—no more, no less. Using a birth name as an insult and circulating “Karen memes” sends a powerful signal that the identity ‘Karen’ is not a respected personal identity but a joke, unworthy of respect—and as we have seen, it is influencing some people to abandon adult norms of behavior when they deal with women named Karen. In effect, the constant repetition is “training” some people to see women named Karen as something other than people, something other than members of society. But there are still many people who do not abuse our name, and we have faith that decent people who didn’t mean to hurt anyone will stop abusing our name when they see how badly the whole thing has spiraled out of control.
Some people try to help by saying something like, “Don’t worry, you’re a good Karen—not like those other ones.” But that actually puts a stamp of approval on the meme fad and thus contributes to the problem. The women in the news who are called “Karens” (the ones caught on video acting crazy or obnoxious or racist) aren’t actually named Karen—their real names are things like Lisa, Lena, Amy, Irene, Janene and so forth. Saying “You’re a good Karen” implies “Those badly-behaved women who aren’t named Karen are also Karens.” But they aren’t. They’re Lisas, Lenas, Amys, etc. Taking the birth name Karen and applying it to other people as an insult only sends the signal that the personal identity “Karen” is degraded and not worthy of respect.
If a woman named Karen is upset by the meme fad, a truly helpful thing for a friend to say is, “I just think of Karen as your name, not any of that other nonsense.” For strangers who interact with a woman named Karen in public, often the most helpful thing is to just let “Karen” be a normal name and treat a woman named Karen just as you would a person with any other name. There’s no need to bring up the meme fad unless she mentions it. Women named Karen don’t want people to feel sorry for us or connect us with the meme fad by mentioning it as soon as we give our name. We just want to be treated the same as everyone else and to use our name in an ordinary way in everyday life. (On the internet, though, if you feel moved to write a post or a comment in support of dropping the memes and treating the name ‘Karen’ with ordinary respect, you will usually receive expressions of gratitude from women named Karen who see it.)
When a woman named Karen knows that friends and loved ones (as well as members of the public who have spoken out on the internet) respect her name and do not go along with the meme fad, it becomes much easier to deal with people who behave badly. One reason some of the women named Karen in these incidents were easily frightened and felt overwhelmed is that the sheer size of the fad can give a woman the mistaken impression that “everyone” has contempt for “Karen.” In reality, the majority of people are not using the name Karen as an insult, nor are they circulating “Karen” memes. But because the people yelling “Karen!” and making “Karen” jokes are so loud and prominent—including many late-night entertainers and media figures who should know better—and because the voices defending the dignity of women named Karen have been few, it is easy for women named Karen to feel as if they are alone, as if all of society were cheering for the playground bullies. Speaking up to express respect for the name Karen and disapproval of the meme fad—whether you do it publicly, in an internet post, or privately to a friend or loved one named Karen—helps to break the “spell” cast by the meme fad: the illusion that “everyone” agrees that women named Karen deserve to be removed from society and treated with contempt, just because their name was chosen for an internet meme.