The “Karen” Fad is No Joke
The “Karen meme” fad became wildly popular in the spring of 2020 as a series of internet jokes and memes, often involving a sarcastic cat and a woman who “wants to speak to the manager”. As the coronavirus pandemic spread, the early jokes gave way to a more hostile tone. “Karen” was blamed for an ever-expanding range of anti-social behavior, and the comments about “Karen” became angrier.
At this point, women whose birth name is Karen are forming support groups (one has over a thousand members), using false names in everyday life, and even contemplating legal name change. Of course, not all real Karens—women with the birth name Karen—have been so seriously impacted. Some find the fad merely annoying (and a small minority even continue to find it funny). But many feel that the “Karen” fad has become serious, ugly, and even dangerous.
Many of the women affected are between the ages of 50 and 75: mothers and grandmothers, women who’ve raised families and built careers, and who haven’t worried about how to deal with bullies since they left high school. A 77-year-old Karen spoke for many when she said simply, “I don’t know if I can handle this.”
And yet many people continue to insist that the “Karen” fad is an elaborate joke. Real Karens who are already in support groups continue to receive “Karen” memes and “Karen”-themed gag gifts from people they thought of as friends. These friends are often bewildered when the recipient seems upset. Why wouldn’t a woman whose name is Karen laugh at a “Karen” Halloween costume or a mug that says “Nobody f*cking asked you, Karen”? Can’t she take a joke?
Here’s an allegory:
Imagine a town had a fad of throwing snowballs at people as a teasing way of saying hello. Snowballs small and soft enough that a person can easily brush them off and laugh. But then one day, purely at random, three or four people in a row toss their little snowballs at the same woman. Other people notice, and then everyone starts aiming their snowballs at her. And the snowballs get bigger. And bigger. And the crowd grows, until she’s nearly surrounded and the snowballs are hitting almost without pause.
How long would you say this is still just a joke? Until her clothes are soaked? Until her glasses are knocked off? Until her nose is bloodied? Until she’s crying and pleading with people to stop?
What if she’s in her late 70s and she’s using a walker?
If this scenario kept going the same way as the “Karen” fad, most of the crowd would erupt with laughter and jeers at her pleas for people to stop attacking. “We had snowball fights all the time when I was a kid, and I never saw anyone whining about it like this!” one man would yell out, as the woman clung to her walker, sobbing. And “What the hell, you can’t take a little snow?!” someone would sneer, throwing a heavy chunk of ice that gashed her forehead.
By now there would be people joining the crowd who had no idea how it had all started. They didn’t know that anyone ever threw a small snowball as a joke-greeting. But the excitement of the crowd was contagious, and with such a large crowd piling on, it was safe to assume this woman must’ve done something awful. So awful that mere snowballs wouldn’t really count as punishment. These people start looking around for rocks…
While no one is being physically stoned in real life, women named Karen increasingly see the participants in the “Karen” fad behaving as an out-of-control mob. The tone of memes and insults has become seriously hostile, even frightening. When real Karens try to point out that things are getting ugly and that women’s lives are being impacted, the crowd often reacts with greater anger and mockery, insisting that even women who are by now deeply traumatized just need to “quit whining” and “get a sense of humor.”
Why So Serious?
Some people may be astonished to learn that “Karen” has transformed from an internet joke to a genuine problem for women whose legal name is Karen. How could it grow from something most of us hadn’t heard of to a serious concern in just a few months? And why does it cause trouble for real Karens, when surely everyone knows that the women who are called “Karens” aren’t actually named Karen?
The fad is complex and multi-faceted, but the bottom line is this: The personal name “Karen” is being used as a badge of shame—a label that is applied to demean someone. There is no way to turn a birth name into a badge of shame without degrading the people whose name it is. And once the process of shaming people has begun, inevitably some people in the crowd will keep pushing it further.
We now have incidents of women with the birth name Karen being harassed by strangers—not only online but face-to-face, in places like grocery stores and pharmacies. Many real Karens report getting mocking or hostile remarks when they give their name on the phone. Many more have received harassing comments and private messages from complete strangers online, calling them names like “Ku Klux Karen” and telling them to change their names or kill themselves.
Why is “Karen” Different?
Why on earth would “Karen” bring out all this hostility? After all, the word “john” has been used as slang for “toilet” and “prostitute’s customer” for a long time, but we don’t hear of men named John being harassed. Debbies and Felicias didn’t form support groups (though in fact, phrases like Debbie Downer or Bye, Felicia have hurt people with those names; many real Karens will no longer use these or any other slang phrases that use personal names, because they don’t want to hurt other people in the same way that they’ve been hurt).
Part of it is the slang meaning of “Karen.” People who have seen only a small piece of the fad often assume that “Karen” has one specific meaning. In actual usage, it’s applied to an ever-increasing smorgasbord of bad behavior: A “Covid Karen” is both an anti-mask protester and a woman who nags everyone to wear masks. So-called “Karens” are rabid Trump supporters and fanatical liberals, women who refuse to follow rules and women who enforce rules, “anti-vax” conspiracy theorists and women who want to force everyone to receive a poorly-tested coronavirus vaccine. Since May 25th, when a woman named Amy Cooper was dubbed “Central Park Karen,” the idea of “racist white woman who threatens people of color” has been stirred into the mix—even as some women are called “Karen” online for speaking out against racism.
The only nearly-universal meaning of slang “Karen” is something like “white woman whose attitude and behavior are intolerable.” So rather than express one or two specific, limited meanings, the “Karen” insult is increasingly becoming a general means of venting anger and contempt. As Professor Todd Pittinsky of Stony Brook University points out, one key effect of dubbing a woman “a Karen” is to dehumanize her. He notes further, “When you call someone a Karen [...] you encourage others to jump on a bash-the-Karen bandwagon.” In other words, calling someone “a Karen” erases awareness of that person’s individual humanity and promotes a punitive, mob mentality.
Another factor is the particular way that the crowd uses “Karen” as an insult: by speaking as if the woman’s name is Karen. For instance, telling someone “Calm down, Karen!” or labeling a video, “Karen has a meltdown!” Most people know that the woman’s name isn’t really Karen, but the insult lies in pretending that she is named Karen—replacing her individual identity with that of the meme/stereotype.
In short, to demean and dehumanize a woman, it has become the fashion to rhetorically force her to bear the name “Karen”—similar to hanging a humiliating sign around someone’s neck.
There’s no equivalent way to use “john”. Slang “john” isn’t even a name—it’s a lower-case common noun. You can’t insult Steve or Bill by saying, “Calm down, John!” And you don’t see a video of a man throwing a fit labeled “John has a meltdown!” You can’t humiliate a man by imposing the name “John” on him as a badge of shame. (Even ‘dick’ is not the same as the name Dick—that’s why you don’t see videos labeled “Watch Dick have a meltdown!”)
The abusive use of other personal names for memes and stereotypes—such as Chad, Becky, Kevin, Ken—hasn’t achieved anything like the same level of popularity as “Karen” (though people with those names have been hurt, so the abuse of those names shouldn’t be considered harmless). The “Karen” fad has spawned umpteen memes, many videos (“Karens Gone Wild”), and multiple internet groups devoted to sharing “Karen” meme imagery. The Reddit group “F*ck You Karen” has one million members.
As Prof. Pittinsky observes, “The widespread use of ‘Karen’ to describe a group of people is now mainstream, including the New York Times and National Public Radio. The media are having a fine old time with this one and it’s not to their credit.”
The “Karen” fad is thus a perfect storm: it turns a personal name into a badge of shame and a powerful tool for dehumanization, and this abusive usage has exploded in popularity, with the blessing and participation of the mainstream media. It has gone from a series of jokes to something more like a witch hunt.
Inevitable Blurring of the Lines
Inevitably, given the size of the fad, the distinction between “being named Karen temporarily as an insult” and “being named Karen permanently because that’s your birth name” has blurred.
Imagine that an angry mob is burning people in effigy, and they make a special point of dressing each dummy in the same distinctive outfit, with specific bright colors that symbolically mark the person as a detested enemy of society. And there you are, dressed exactly the same—but your outfit is one that your parents gave you as a gift years ago, long before anyone thought of making it symbolic of anything. How safe would you feel in that crowd?
In fact, there are warning signs that the slender distinction between “meme Karen” and “birth name Karen” is eroding further.
How far will the “Karen” fad go? No one knows. We’re in uncharted territory here. We don’t know what ultimately happens when a large number of people decide to take the birth name of millions of people (more than one million in the US alone) and use it as a sign of degradation and dehumanization.
There are some indications that the fad is losing popularity, as some people feel it’s past its use-by date (though the crowd may just target another name for abuse next—in which case society will have the same problem but with a different set of people receiving the impact). And women named Karen are increasingly speaking out to defend their identity.
When and how the “Karen” fad will end and what impact it will ultimately have had on the women whose name is being seized and degraded remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: It is no joke.