Name-Shaming Is Never Harmless
Earlier this summer, a young man made a heartfelt plea in the Reddit group “F*ck You Karen,” the largest forum for sharing “Karen memes”:
I work with a really, really sweet woman named Karen. She is 72 years old (I’m 18) and we’ve had many conversations during lunch and after work. She always wears a mask and even asks customers nicely to wear it correctly if they aren’t… She has great customer service and is never rude to anyone, and I have witnessed this personally. She’s the opposite of a Karen. Today she admitted to me that she’s been turning her nametag backwards while she’s working so that customers don’t make snide remarks towards her solely because of her name. She told me that she’s had several customers be extremely rude towards her just for her name, and I just think it’s wrong. She even requested to get a new nametag with “Kay” or “Kar” on it so that customers don’t see her real name. ... She was excited to get the new nametag because now people won’t make fun of her, but I just think it’s really sad that she had to cover up/change her nametag just because her name has a negative connotation in popular culture. Please only ridicule people who ACT like Karens.—“Latteboy50” on July 18 2020
This young man seems sincere, and his story is believable. (In support groups for women named Karen, women who wear a name tag at work have reported similar experiences of rudeness and hostile teasing, sometimes to the point that they have cried about it after their shift.) Clearly he has good intentions. But there’s a fatal flaw in his reasoning.
He writes that this woman named Karen is “the opposite of a Karen” and asks “Please only ridicule people who ACT like Karens.” But there’s a built-in contradiction. When people use a personal name as a label to ridicule other people, they are already ridiculing everyone whose name it is – even if that wasn’t their intention. There are two major ways that calling women “Karens” contributes to shaming women whose name is Karen, and neither one of them can be avoided.
First, using “Karen” this way strengthens the association in other people’s minds between “Karen” and the idea of “a ridiculous, hated person.” When “Karen” is repeated as a joke/insult on a large scale, that meaning takes over. Inevitably, there are more and more people who simply don’t care about the difference between “meme Karen” and “woman named Karen.” They have a Pavlovian response to the name “Karen”: mockery and hostility.
Second, using “Karen” this way demonstrates—even if unintentionally—that it’s now acceptable to treat innocent women named Karen shabbily. Bullies are always looking for signs that someone is vulnerable—like sharks sniffing for blood in the water. When people take someone’s birth name and turn it into an insult, they send a powerful signal of disrespect for that person, even if that wasn’t their intention. The widespread use of the “Karen” insult unavoidably sends the message that women named Karen don’t command much (if any) respect, and that society has no objection to their being demeaned.
To change the meaning of a personal name so as to shape it into a weapon is to attack everyone whose name it is. It’s that simple—even when people sincerely wish it were otherwise.
Making easy targets for the real bullies
Returning to the story of the 72-year-old lady and her name tag, it’s clear why the real bullies—the people who like to hurt innocent people—would naturally pick on an employee named “Karen.” As customers, they already have some leverage, because the lady is there to serve them. And thanks to the current name-shame fad, the name “Karen” is increasingly seen as a sign of stigma and an open invitation to abuse. The lady might as well be wearing a sign that says Kick Me.
Moreover, bullies look for emotional soft spots—individual vulnerabilities that they can exploit to make the other person feel deeply hurt. A name-shame fad makes it easy for bullies to inflict a sense of personal violation on a complete stranger. In other circumstances, a few of these people might toss out other inappropriate remarks, perhaps thinly disguised as friendly banter: “How come a nice lady like you has gotta work at your age? Tell your kids to get off their butts and help you out!” Sometimes they’d accidentally score a direct hit: maybe she’s sensitive about the fact that she never had children or that her only child is estranged. But without knowing much about her, it would be hard for them to think of invasive remarks that would be certain to make her feel judged and shamed in a deeply personal way.
When society makes a birth name into a tool of humiliation, the bullies know exactly how to make the attack personal, and they can score a direct hit every time. The bull’s-eye is right there on her name tag.
Many people who use “Karen” as a slang word are like the young man who wrote the post: wanting to use “Karen” to make fun of insufferable people, but assuming (or hoping) that there’s a clear distinction between “women who ACT like Karens” and women with the birth name Karen. But if you call people “Karens” as an insult, you’re unwittingly acting as part of the mob that gives the bullies encouragement and the ammunition they need to hurt innocent people.
If people keep accepting and perpetuating name-shaming, the harmful effects will only spread and worsen, both for women named Karen and for whoever has the name that is targeted next. But we have the choice of speaking up against the abuse of personal names—all of us, including the many people who have been participating in the “Karen” fad but not meaning to hurt anyone. A number of people who used to share “Karen” memes and use “Karen” as an insult have stopped participating as they saw the unexpected destructive effects. Some have even written posts to let other people know that the fad has gone too far.
There is no way to make a personal name into a badge of shame without hurting the people whose name it is. The only way to keep name-shaming from hurting innocent people is to stop name-shaming: to end the “Karen” fad and then to make sure there are no more like it.