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The Karen Trope, Explained

Notorious and nosy, the Karen is the self-victimized villain of our times. We can recognize a Karen by her “soccer-mom” look, her entitled meltdowns, or her signature demand to “speak to your manager.” All the attention on the Karen has felt sudden, as if this new entry into our cultural lexicon has come out of nowhere to match our current moment. But looking back over the years, we can find many fictional Karen predecessors in film & TV who can give us insight into her deeper drives and pathologies. So who is the Karen, really? Here’s our take on how the Karen came to exist in a world that detests her, and why—while we can pity her—her struggles still don’t excuse the pain she inflicts.

TRANSCRIPT

Notorious and nosy, the Karen is the self-victimized villain of our times. We can recognize a Karen by her “soccer-mom” look, her entitled meltdowns, or her signature demand to “speak to your manager.” All the attention on the Karen has felt sudden as if this new entry into our cultural lexicon has come out of nowhere to match our current moment. But looking back over the years, we can find many fictional Karen predecessors in film & TV who can give us deeper insight into her deeper drives and pathologies. So who is the Karen, really?

She’s an entitled, middle-aged white woman. She has a reputation for mistreating those she considers ‘beneath’ her, like customer service and waitstaff. Her obsession with hierarchy makes her a stickler for the rules — all the better when she gets the power trip of enforcing them.

As New York Times columnist Sarah Miller puts it, Karens like to think that they’re “the policewomen of all human behavior.” In recent years, the Karen is best known for her racism. Her compulsion to interfere disproportionately targets people of color, and she weaponizes her society’s view of white femininity to cause real harm while feigning helplessness. Looking at onscreen Karen characters, we can see that deep down she’s plagued by a core feeling of powerlessness — but instead of addressing in a productive way, she takes it out on others who have less than her.

Here’s our take on how the Karen comes to exist in a world that detests her, and why — while we can pity her — her struggles still don’t excuse the pain she inflicts.

Aibileen: “All you do is scare and lie to try to get what you want.” - The Help

What’s in a Name - The Karen Origin Story

The Karen as we know her grew out of a convergence of at least three memes. The classic “can I speak to the manager” meme first identified her with aggressive, obnoxious entitlement — as well as her signature haircut. Meanwhile, a well-known meme added that a ‘Karen’ would take the kids in the divorce — just like reality star Kate Gosselin, the unwitting face of real-life Karens after her public divorce from husband Jon.

Karen was also one of many generic ‘white woman’ names used on Black Twitter to criticize viral racist behaviors, like BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Cornerstore Caroline.

Trevor Noah: “I love that now Black people are giving white ladies their nicknames on the spot.” - The Daily Show

Looking back, you can also view the trope as the spiritual descendent of a Miss Ann, a shorthand and code enslaved people used to discuss demanding, entitled white women in the antebellum period.

While it’s difficult to determine where exactly where the Karen moniker came from because of her roots on the Internet, there are a few earlier namesakes in TV and movies that some have put forward as possible influences. Karen Hill from 1989’s Goodfellas — the wife of criminal Henry Hill — fits the central paradox of the trope:

Karen Hill: “This is Karen Hill, I want to talk to you. Hello, hello? Don’t hang up on me!- Mean Girls

She’s the victim of a husband who mistreats her, yet assertive in conflict with just about anyone else. This Karen is also first charmed by Henry’s wealth and status, so her complicity makes our sympathy for her later suffering somewhat limited.

Mean Girls’ Karen Smith — who’s been floated as another possible component of the Karen’s creation — doesn’t fit the bill for the trope’s age but does share her background and lack of racial awareness.

Karen Smith: “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” - Mean Girls

The same year as Mean Girls came out, a Dane Cook routine joked that every group of friends has one member that no one likes — and she’s usually named Karen.

Dane Cook: “Every group has a Karen and she’s always a bag of douche.” - “The Friend Nobody Likes”

Although she may go by a different name, there have long been Karens in our popular movies and shows — and they help illuminate the most central aspects of the trope. Being upper- or upper-middle class has afforded the Karen more than her fair share of privileges, like the luxury of throwing a fit in public and expecting no consequence. She’ll kick up a storm over painfully trivial matters, seemingly feeling exempt from the imperative to remain polite in public, while acting aghast if anyone treats her with less than the utmost respect.

This kind of conduct comes across as so hateable that fictional narratives have used this model to very effectively manipulate audience sympathy against Karen characters.

Joanna: “I was prepared to sue you. I don’t know who I am, but I’m sure I have a lawyer.” - Overboard

After Joanna from Overboard is domineering and cruel to the man she hired to build a cabinet for her shoes, the audience happily goes along with him getting revenge by kidnapping her and convincing this woman with a brain injury that she’s the mother of his four kids.

Karen is also a proud consumer. She values status markers because they keep her visibly near the top of the food chain, which she deems more important than anything else. And she typically has narcissistic traits. Admiration for herself mixed with apathy for others is a recipe for trademark Karen behavior. Game of Thrones’s Cersei, the Karen of Westeros, values herself — and the children that are an extension of herself — above all else, while her lack of regard for others makes it easy for her to feel justified in going to any length to protect her power and status. This self-importance — the misconception that she and her loved ones are better than everyone else — is vital to what drives a Karen.

Even if it’s a relatively new trope, the Karen exists to criticize an entitlement that’s always been there. today’s Karen critiques focus on the significant harm she can cause through her racism and selfishness.

The Inner Life of a Karen: Privilege + Powerlessness

The Karen we see on social media, while unmistakably real, is also one-dimensional. Viral moments of her obvious flaws don’t do much to explain why she acts out. Fictional examples of the trope, on the other hand, provide a deeper dive into her motivations.

The Karen’s inflated sense of self leaves her expecting special treatment, which is the source of her ‘speak to the manager’ attitude — but she’s also defined by a sense of personal impotence that causes her to overreact when things go wrong.

When the series Ozark begins, unsatisfied housewife Wendy Byrde feels helpless over her chaotic private life, and her frustration comes out through an inappropriate outburst at someone she can afford to yell at.

Wendy has intuitively picked up on a concept that all Karens understand: what How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson aptly names the ‘Chain of Screaming’.

Barney Stinson: “When your boss screams at you, you never scream back. Arthur screams at you. You go home and scream at Lily. Lily screams at one of the kids in her kindergarten class.” - How I Met Your Mother

Hierarchies dictate exactly who we’re allowed to mistreat; and Karens know their disrespect has to be aimed downward on the social ladder.

Notably, as Wendy gains more actual power over her situation, for the most part, she stops acting like a Karen — which betrays that Karen-ness is often a totally misguided and ineffective manner of coping with a perceived lack of agency in one’s own life.

Little Fires Everywhere’s Elena Richardson is an interfering, overbearing presence who causes damage to numerous lives around her, but it’s eventually made clear that she’s this way because she’s dissatisfied that having four children prevented her from having a serious career. Cersei Lannister is similarly miserable — trapped by a prophecy that’s foretold the downfall of her and her children: which, as we’ve realized, is everything she cares about.

So you could say what most defines a Karen is this contradictory mix of both privilege and powerlessness. One of Karen’s key characteristics is her middle age, and this woman feels disempowered is due to her status as an aging woman in our society. While it in no way excuses her behavior, it’s striking that some reactions to Karen’s focus on criticizing her appearance or lack of desirability, bringing a noticeable air of sexism and ageism to the conversation.

Plenty of colloquial uses of the Karen name, particularly by white men, can function as an excuse to insult older women — while ignoring that entitled white men may more often get away with similar behavior. The Karen has grown up used to the perks of being a young white woman, but has aged out of that demographic which is viewed more favorably as culturally ‘innocent.” The value our society places on youth frames a spoiled YOUNG woman’s faults as endearing. But an older woman’s entitlement is read as far more unpleasant.

Lucille Bluth: “Take it back! If I wanted something your thumb touched, I’d eat the inside of your ear.” - Arrested Development, 1x06.

Stories about Karens may allow us to feel sorry for these women, to an extent. Yet it’s difficult to feel sustained sympathy while watching them act the way they do. The Karen’s superiority and self-righteousness even give the impression she doesn’t want our pity; she’d rather make us hate her and step on yet another person’s neck than admit that she’s not at the top.

The Karen deals with feeling like she has no control by asserting as much authority as she possibly can. She’s notorious for being hypercritical, with a pathological inability to mind her own business. When the Karen is in a position of authority, she’ll mold the rules to comply with her personal beliefs, thus revealing the potential to become a tyrant.

Much of the Karen’s behavior is actually rooted in fear: fear of losing the status and privilege that her whiteness and social rank affords her. And this fear is what can lead her to be a genuinely threatening force in society

The Karen Brand of Racism:

Constant viral evidence has made it glaringly obvious how often the Karen’s unjustified anger is racist in nature.

Amy Cooper: “I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

A Karen knows implicitly how easy it is to weaponize her white femininity and presumed frailty; she motivates white men to do the ‘dirty work’ under the guise of protecting white women.

The history of film reflects how long white womanhood has been used to justify violence against Black men. The Birth of a Nation, which shows a white woman committing suicide to protect her honor from a violent Black man, led to a real-life resurgence of the KKK. The main conflict of To Kill A Mockingbird centers on white woman Mayella Ewell accusing black Tom Robinson of rape because he rejected her advances.

Atticus Finch: “Putting a man’s life at stake, which she has done in an effort to get rid of her own guilt. - To Kill A Mockingbird

To this day, the idea that white women need protection from Black men persists in many subtler forms, too, often in veiled language. The racist history of the Karen illuminates that — though white women have long been victims of a patriarchal society themselves — they have a legacy of frequently responding to this by taking out their repressed rage on the people beneath them. Instead of channeling her own experiences with discrimination to form empathy for other women or marginalized people, she takes comfort that her privilege still places her above most others. In the end, this short-sighted selfishness often backfires on a Karen, as the sad irony is she works hard to prop up a system that doesn’t serve her well. While her position as a well-off white woman may allow her to mistreat many people, she’ll also always be held back by the patriarchal society which limits her prospects.

In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique helped launch second-wave feminism by diagnosing female dissatisfaction (especially in housewives) as the “problem that has no name.” But as intersectional feminist bell hooks argues, Friedan “did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor [...] She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.”

The Karen continues this narrow-minded concern only for herself — the affluent white woman — while neglecting the women and marginalized people who most need help within our current systems. In Blackkklansman, white housewife Connie Kendrickson shows how willing she is to participate in brutal racism — even though, as usual, she gains nothing from trying to side with violent white men who keep her at the bottom of the barrel within her own household.

Ultimately, the Karens in period pieces drive home the truth that their experiences with misogyny don’t excuse their participation in patriarchal racism.

CONCLUSION

The Karen remains such a useful cultural touchstone because she can be adapted to almost any situation where someone’s being unreasonably difficult. Recently, the Karen trope has been used to criticize the selfishness of anti-science behaviors, like rejecting vaccines or avoiding masks in the time of COVID-19.

But with its pervasiveness, the Karen label also risks becoming so loose that it might be losing its meaning. Calling anyone who disagrees with you a Karen dilutes the social commentary the word can generate. The Karen is less a particular person than she is a collection of related behaviors and a certain worldview — or, as Vox puts it, “a pejorative catchall label for a wide range of behaviors thought to have connections to white privilege.”

Fundamentally, the Karen is a criticism of unacceptable attitudes and habits that society has too long accepted as normal. Obvious examples like the Central Park Karen or Period Piece Karens spark an immediate disgust in most white audiences, but thinking of racists as extreme, one-dimensional villains risks letting ourselves off the hook, instead of examining the extent to which any of us might participate in some of these behaviors or structures. Ultimately, the true usefulness of the Karen character is to challenge all viewers to look inward, and reckon with the Karen qualities that might be lurking within any of us.

SOURCES

Bates, Karen Grigsby. “What’s In A ‘Karen’?” NPR, 15 July 2020. www.npr.org/2020/07/14/ 891177904/whats-in-a-karen.

Clark, Alexis. “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan.” History.com, 14 Aug. 2018. www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” The Atlantic, 10 Jan. 2017. www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems -with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

Freeman, Hadley. “The ‘Karen’ Meme is Everywhere — And It Has Become Mired in Sexism.” The Guardian, 13 April 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/apr/13/ the-karen-meme-is-everywhere-and-it-has-become-mired-in-sexism.

Gilmore, Mikal. “George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview.” Rolling Stone, 19 July 2020. www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/george-r-r-martin-the-rolling -stone-interview-242487/.

“Karen.” Know Your Meme, 27 Sept. 2020. knowyourmeme.com/memes/karen.

Miller, Sarah. “My So-Karen Life.” The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2019. www.nytimes.com/ 2019/12/07/style/its-karentown.html.

Richey, Shannon. “Why Is There No Male Version Of A ‘Karen’?” Her Culture, 21 Apr. 2020. www.herculture.org/blog/2020/4/21/why-is-there-no-male-version-of-a-karen.

Romano, Aja. “Karen: The Anti-Vaxxer Soccer Mom with Speak-to-the-Manager Hair, Explained.” Vox, 5 Feb. 2020, www.vox.com/2020/2/5/21079162/karen-name -insult-meme-manager.