Karen reappeared this week. Not Karen the helpful next-door neighbour or Karen the successful colleague. No, it was Karen the internet meme, the crazed blonde who wants to speak to the manager. You might think it was exhausted by all its work mocking overprivileged soccer moms and racist white ladies, but apparently there’s enough life left in it that it can now be weaponized against powerful men.
A medical scientist, offended by Elon Musk’s ill-informed suspicions of COVID-19 testing, dubbed the billionaire entrepreneur Space Karen this week and posted an image of him topped with the meme’s signature haircut, an asymmetrical blonde bob. (For his part, Musk had tweeted out conspiratorial skepticism about the contradictory results he had got from a series of 30-minute COVID-19 tests, apparently not realizing the unreliability of the rapid tests is the trade-off for their speed. Unimpressive behaviour for a prophet of new technology.)
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s petulant refusal to accept the results of the U.S. election is also the subject of many Karen posts, adding a multitude of outrageous blonde hairdos to the infamous orange face. Some, borrowing Trump’s own misspelling of the word, have him demanding “I want to speak to the Poles Manager.” This week, #WhiteHouseKaren was trending on Twitter.
I know several admirable Karens, all of them Boomers or Gen-X. Karen was a popular girls’ name in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Today, no parent in their right mind would call a baby Karen because the name is now synonymous with witless privilege and unnecessary grievance. The uppity blonde has become a fast – and sexist – retort to anyone, male or female, who is complaining about personal inconvenience rather than climate catastrophe or budding dictatorship.
The Karen joke is sometimes said to have originated with a 2008 monologue by the U.S. comic Dane Cook in which he identified “Karen” as the friend nobody likes, the outsider in the group whom everyone savages the minute her back is turned. (Others believe it is simply an amplification of the “I want to speak to the manager” meme.) The full-fledged meme emerged five or six years ago and the haircut quickly associated with it – the hair often dyed, with one longer side sweeping under the chin – can be traced back as far as Kate Gosselin, the star of the 2007-09 reality show Jon & Kate Plus Eight.
In recent months, the meme has morphed from shorthand for middle-class privilege into a specific denunciation of white racism in the United States – in particular after an incident in Central Park in May when a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher who had the temerity to ask her to leash her dog. Karen Attiah, a Black editor at The Washington Post, has defended the meme for the way it can be used to expose racism, while other Karens have weighed in with everything from annoyance to a hearty laugh. Still, by September, feminist Gloria Steinem and director Julie Taymor were pointing out that it’s sexist.
Perhaps the meme was not originally rooted in misogynism; Cook’s monologue does also mention the unwanted friend Brian. But despite the best liberal intentions of those denouncing their conspiracy theories, its application to Musk and Trump exposes how it functions as a sexist trope today. Karen-ing powerful men carries with it an assumption that any man is belittled by comparison with a woman. Underneath that lies an old prejudice that women are somehow inherently ridiculous, overblown characters best targeted by heterosexual male comics with socks stuffed down their shirt fronts. Trump has also been repeatedly compared with a toddler throwing a tantrum; snippy women are surely as poisonous to society as nascent dictators – and both as ridiculous as two-year-olds.
The meme is intended as a critique of privilege, or at least of privilege that is unearned but much insisted upon. Yes, that’s obnoxious, anti-social behaviour, but a whole lot more men than women enjoy such privilege. Why, asked Taymor, are we not shaming Karen’s husband, the guy who really has the money and power?
What’s so funny about comparing the dangers of Trump’s tantrums or Musk’s ignorance with a suburbanite who can’t find a good parking spot? Reversing a social order – and man over woman is an old one – is a traditional source of comedy. Unspoken in the Karen meme is the notion that men have some entitlement to their entitlements, but women, not so much.
So enough already with Karen. The alternative? Occasionally, somebody guiltily points out that there’s also the Kevin meme, although we don’t see much of him. I have no idea, for example, what his hair looks like. So get working on Kevin, Twitter. Just please don’t make him gay.
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