Karen (pejorative)

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Karen is a pejorative term for women seeming to be entitled or demanding beyond the scope of what is normal. The term also refers to memes depicting white women who use their privilege to demand their own way. [1] [2] Depictions also include demanding to "speak to the manager", being racist, being anti-vaccination, or sporting a particular bob cut hairstyle. [3] The term has been criticised for being sexist, ageist, misogynistic, or seeking to control female behaviour. [3] As of 2020, the term was increasingly being used in media and on social media as a general-purpose term for middle-aged white women, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. [1] The term has also been applied to male behaviour. [3] [4]


The Guardian called 2020 The year of Karen: how a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism. [5]


There are several possible origins of the term. [6] One theory is that it is an evolution of an AAVE linguistic term of referring to "unreasonable white women." [7] University of Virginia media researcher Meredith Clark has said that the idea of a white woman in the vicinity of whom Blacks need to be careful because she won't hesitate to use her "privilege" at the expense of others "has always been there; it just hasn't always been so specific to one person's name. [7] Karen has gone by different names. In the early 1990s, when "Baby Got Back" came out, it was Becky." [7] As late as 2018, before the use of Karen caught on, names matching particular incidents were used, such as "Barbecue Becky", "Cornerstore Caroline" and "Permit Patty". [8]

Another origin theory relates to Reddit, where Karen memes regarding entitled women date from December 2017, the earliest being from user karmacop9, whose rants about his ex-wife, Karen, went viral. The posts led to the creation of the subreddit r/FuckYouKaren, containing memes about the posts, and inspiring spinoffs including r/karen and r/EntitledKarens dedicated to criticizing Karens. [9] [10] Other uses of Karen as a joke punchline include Dane Cook's 2005 sketch "The Friend Nobody Likes" on his album Retaliation , [10] the airheaded character Karen from the 2004 film Mean Girls , and a 2016 Internet meme regarding a woman in an ad for the Nintendo Switch console who exhibits antisocial behavior and is given the nickname "antisocial Karen." [9] [11]

Meaning and use

Pictures of Kate Gosselin are often used to depict Karen, including the "can-I-speak-to-your-manager haircut". Kate Gosselin.jpg
Pictures of Kate Gosselin are often used to depict Karen, including the "can-I-speak-to-your-manager haircut".

Kansas State University professor Heather Suzanne Woods, whose research interests include memes, said a Karen's defining characteristics are "entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain", and that a Karen "demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends." [7] Rachel Charlene Lewis, writing for Bitch , agrees, saying a Karen "sees no one as an individual, instead moving through the world prepared to fight faceless conglomerate of lesser-than people who won’t give her what she wants and feels she deserves. She’ll wield the power that, yes, might be very different from that of a white man, as she makes her demands. And that feeling of entitlement is what makes her, undeniably, a Karen." [14]

The meme carries several stereotypes, the most notable being that a Karen will demand to "speak with the manager" of a hypothetical service provider. [9] [15] Other stereotypes include anti-vaccination beliefs, [7] [9] [16] [3] [17] racism, [18] excessive use of Facebook, and a particular bob haircut with blond highlights. Pictures of Kate Gosselin and Jenny McCarthy's bob cut are often used to depict Karen, [12] and their bobs are sometimes called the "can-I-speak-to-your-manager" haircut. [10] [9] [19] [15]

In December 2020, The Guardian expanded on the links between the term and racism with an article titled, The year of Karen: how a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism, and saying "The image of a white woman calling police on Black people put the lie to the myth of racial innocence". [5]

A university in Michigan included 'Karen' on a list of words people should stop using, as it is used as a "misogynist umbrella term for critiquing the perceived overemotional behavior of women". [20] [21]

Male context

The term is generally used to refer to white women, but The Atlantic noted that "a man can easily be called a Karen", with staff writer David A. Graham calling President Donald Trump the "Karen in chief". [4] [22] Similarly, in November 2020, a tweet calling Elon Musk "Space Karen" over comments he made regarding the effectiveness of COVID-19 testing became viral. [23] [24] Numerous names for a male equivalent of Karen have been floated, with little agreement on a single name. [25] [26]


The term has been called a slur. [16] Karen Attiah argues that it lacks the historical context to be a slur, and that calling it one trivializes actual discrimination. [27] Others argue that the targets of the term have immense privilege, and that "an epithet that lacks the power to discriminate is just an insult." [16]

The term has also been called sexist and anti-woman, with Hadley Freeman arguing that use of the meme has become less about describing behavior than controlling it and "telling women to shut up". [28] Jennifer Weiner, writing in the New York Times during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the meme had succeeded in silencing her, saying she had had to balance her desire to complain about a nearby man coughing into the open air, hawking and spitting on the sidewalk, with her fear of being called a Karen. [29] In August 2020, Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic, "Karen has become synonymous with woman among those who consider woman an insult. There is now a market, measured in attention and approbation, for anyone who can sniff out a Karen." [3] Lewis also noted what he called the "finger trap" of the term, saying "What is more Karen than complaining about being called "Karen"? There is a strong incentive to be cool about other women being Karened, lest you be Karened yourself." [3]

British journalist and feminist Julie Bindel asked, "Does anyone else think the 'Karen' slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?" [30] [17] Freeman replied, saying it was "sexist, ageist, and classist, in that order". Kaitlyn Tiffany, writing in The Atlantic , asked, "Is a Karen just a woman who does anything at all that annoys people? If so, what is the male equivalent?", saying the meme was being called misogynistic. [7] Nina Burleigh wrote that the memes "are merely excuses to heap scorn on random middle-aged white women". [31] Matt Schimkowitz, a senior editor at Know Your Meme, stated to Business Insider in 2019 that the term "just kind of took over all forms of criticism towards white women online", and that it had risen to popularity due to that demographic being seen as entitled. [10]

Notable examples

The mid-2019 formation of Tropical Storm Karen in the Atlantic hurricane basin led to memes likening the storm to the stereotype; several users made jokes about the storm wanting to "speak with the manager", with images photoshopped to include the "Karen haircut" on either the hurricane or its forecast path. [32]

In December 2019, Australian media reported that in the town of Mildura, a woman named Karen had been filmed trying to pull down an Aboriginal Flag being displayed by her neighbors. She was unable to pull it down, leading to a Twitter hashtag #TooStrongForYouKaren and other social media responses. [33] [34]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was used to describe women abusing Asian-American health workers due to the virus's origins in China, [35] those hoarding essential supplies such as toilet paper, and both those who policed others' behavior to enforce quarantine [29] and those who protested the continuance of the restrictions because they prevented them visiting hair salons, [7] as well as over being forced to wear face masks inside of stores, prompting one critic to ask whether the term had devolved into a all-purpose term of disapproval or criticism for middle-aged white women. [7] Use of the term increased from 100,000 mentions on social media in January 2020 to 2.7 million in May 2020. [31]

In May 2020, Christian Cooper, writing about the Central Park birdwatching incident, said Amy Cooper's "inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn" when he started recording the encounter. [36] He recorded her calling the police and telling them that an "African-American man" was threatening her and her dog. [37] [36] In July 2020 a video of "Permit Karen", a New Jersey woman calling the police to report her Black neighbors were putting in a stone patio without a permit, went viral. [38] A San Diego woman who posted a photo of the barista who refused her service because she wasn't wearing a mask was labelled a Karen; she later announced she was planning to sue the barista for half of donations raised on his behalf after her post went viral. [39]

In July 2020, "Whitefish Karen" was arrested after a video of her, unmasked, showed her coughing intentionally in people's faces after being asked to put on a mask. [40] [41] [42] "Kroger Karen" stood in front of a Black woman's car to block her from leaving a Detroit grocery store parking lot while she called police to report that the woman's child had stood on a shelf to take down an item too high for the child to reach. [40] [43] "San Francisco Karen" called the police to report a Filipino man stenciling "Black Lives Matter" on a retaining wall on his property. [40] [44] "Bunnings Karen" threatened to sue the Melbourne, Australia, hardware store Bunnings for requiring her to wear a mask. [45]

In July 2020 an internet meme in the form of a parody advertisement for a fictional Girl of the Year character depicted as a personification of the "Karen" stereotype, wearing a track suit, bob haircut and openly carrying a semi-automatic pistol while defiantly violating face mask guidelines mandated due to the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic, provoked criticism from American Girl who took umbrage to the use of their name and trade dress, stating that they were "disgusted" by a post from brand strategist Adam Padilla under the online persona "Adam the Creator", and "are working with the appropriate teams at American Girl to ensure this copyright violation is handled appropriately." [46] Boing Boing however expressed doubts over the merits of American Girl's proposed legal action against the "Karen" parodies citing the Streisand effect, though it has also noted the debate on whether the satirical intent of the parody advertisement is protected by law. [47]

In July 2020, Domino's Pizza ran an ad in Australia and New Zealand offering free pizzas to "nice Karens"; [17] the company later apologized. [17] [45]

The BBC called the Wall of Moms "a good example of mainly middle-class, middle-aged white women explicitly not being Karens. Instead, the Wall of Moms is seen by activists as using their privilege to protest against the very same systemic racism and classism that Karens actively seek to exploit." [17]


In July 2020, San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies (CAREN) Act. It would change the San Francisco Police Code to prohibit the fabrication of racially biased emergency reports. [48] The Act passed unanimously in October of that year. [49]

See also

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