The Karen Stereotype

written by Karen Stollznow, Griffith University, Queensland

Karen is a first name, in fact, it’s my first name, but online, “Karen” has evolved to mean so much more than just a name. In recent years, “Karen” has also become a negative stereotype, a meme, and an insulting epithet. The colloquial meaning of “Karen” is multi-faceted and complicated. The term typically refers to a middle-class, middle-aged white woman who is obnoxious and entitled in her behavior, and she is often racist. She is angry, aggressive, and a bully. Her catch-cry is demanding to “Speak to the manager” of an establishment over the slightest inconvenience. In some versions she even wears a stereotypical hairstyle. Her complaints are selfish and petty. For example, Cathy Hill, a patron at a Red Lobster restaurant in Pennsylvania, was labeled a “Karen” after she brawled with staff this past Mother’s Day, because she believed she had waited too long for her take out food.

In recent months, the label has broadened in usage. “Karen” is now used to refer to a woman who is perceived as ignorant and uninformed, such as “anti-vaxxers”, those who refuse to have themselves or their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. The term is used for those who openly flout health and safety measures like wearing masks or social distancing in public to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. The term also refers to women who initiate confrontations in public that have a more sinister, racial undercurrent. Most infamously, the incident in which Amy Cooper was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park when she illegitimately called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper, because he politely asked her to put her dog on a leash. Another current event involved Patricia McCloskey and her husband Mark standing outside their home in St. Louis, Missouri, aiming guns at Black Lives Matters protestors as they marched by their neighborhood.

Historically, other women’s names have been used as related stereotypes. Most notably, “Sally” and “Miss Ann” were generic names for white women, which go back to the time of enslavement in the United States. In particular, these terms were often used within the African American community to refer to a white woman who behaved in a condescending and arrogant manner, especially exhibiting behavior that revealed racist undertones.

In recent years, a series of incidents have constructed the legend of the “Karen” stereotype. In this digital age, these events have been captured on video and posted online. They’ve gone viral and the antagonists were dubbed with alliterative nicknames. In 2018, Alison Ettel aka “Permit Pattie” called the cops on an eight-year-old girl selling water on the sidewalk in San Francisco, because she was “illegally selling water without a permit.” In South Carolina in 2018, Stephanie Sebby-Strempel shouted slurs at a black teenager swimming in a community pool, ordering him to “Get out!” of the water and hitting him repeatedly, the act earning her the nickname “Pool Patrol Paula.” Also in 2018, Jennifer Schulte was dubbed “Barbeque Becky” for calling the police on a black family using a charcoal grill in a park in Oakland, California, because she claimed they were breaking the law. At a dog park in Massachusetts in 2019, “Dog Park Debbie” called the police claiming her dog was being “assaulted” by another dog when it attempted to mount her pet in play. A common thread across these examples is that the women’s actions appear to be racially motivated.

Over the years there have been several contenders to the term in pop culture, including Becky, Tammy, Felicia, Sarah, and Susan. Anyone’s name can potentially be used as a negative stereotype, so why Karen? That Karen won out is largely coincidental, although it was a common woman’s name in the United States and other Anglophone countries spanning the generations of the late Baby Boomers and early Generation X. Data from the U.S. Office of Social Security shows that the name peaked between 1951-1968, when it appeared in the top 10 for the most popular baby names. “Karen” is no longer a popular name among Millennials, Generation Z, or babies, and for these reasons, it sounds slightly old-fashioned to some people’s ears.

But who was the original “Karen”? The origins of the moniker are hotly debated, although the stereotypical use of the name can be traced back to several sources in the early 21st century. In the 2004 film Mean Girls, Amanda Seyfried plays the role of Karen Smith. Revealing the characteristic of a “Karen” as ignorant and oblivious, airheaded Karen asks her friend Cady who’s relocated from Africa, “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” Many people trace the Karen meme back to stand-up comedian Dane Cook. In a 2005 comedy routine from his album Retaliation, Cook delivers a “Karen” punch line in a joke about a friend that no one actually likes. As he says, “There is one person in every group of friends that nobody likes”…“Example, Karen is always a douche bag. Every group has a Karen and she’s always a bag of douche.”

The Karen type even has stereotypical physical attributes. In 2009, Kate Gosselin, the co-star of the mid-2000s reality TV show Jon and Kate plus 8 sported an asymmetrical bob cut hairstyle with blonde highlights. This was dubbed the “Can I speak to your manager?” haircut. Some believe Gosselin was “Karen Zero.” Another theory links the meme to a Reddit account, which was set up by an anonymous man in the midst of messy divorce proceedings. He posted rants about his ex-wife Karen, who allegedly won custody of their children and took possession of their house. The account was later closed, but a subreddit emerged in 2017, which is described as “dedicated to the hatred of Karen” and posting memes of the stereotype. The group features a photograph of Gosselin, whose images are often used to depict Karen. The term has also been used for years on Black Twitter, a subculture of black users focused on issues of interest to the Black community.

The meme exploded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by the growing awareness of police brutality against African Americans. During this time, there has been a trend of exposing “Karens” in video footage on social media, to shame women who have done offensive things in public. These have resulted in varieties of “Karen”, such as “Grocery Store Karen”, who had an altercation with staff in a supermarket in North Hollywood, California, after being asked to wear a mask. “Coughing Karen” intentionally coughed on fellow customers in a New York bagel shop after being asked to put on a mask. “San Francisco Karen” demanded to know if a man who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the front of his home was defacing public property. These examples typify the “Karen” as an entitled white woman who exploits her privilege when things don’t go her way. Some cases of public shaming have led to real world consequences. Amy Cooper, otherwise known as “Central Park Karen”, was in the wrong, but out of spite she attempted to exploit Christian Cooper’s skin color to persuade the police to arrest or hurt him. She was held accountable for her actions when she temporarily lost custody of her dog, she was fired from her job, and now the police plan to charge her for filing a false report.

Karen has people divided. There are those who are in favor of using the name, because it describes modern racism and microaggressions, and reveals how some white women exploit their social privilege against marginalized groups. The term functions as a label to make fun of these women for their unpleasant behavior and attitudes, and serves as vigilante justice in situations that are morally unjust, and occasionally even dangerous. Others express concern that the bad behavior and actions are conflated with the name, demonizing and stigmatizing people named Karen. Women named “Karen” know that the memes aren’t targeting them specifically, but it can still feel personal, because it’s their name and part of their identity. Of course, a woman named Karen is not necessarily a “Karen.” As we have seen, she has been a Kate, Stephanie, Alison, and Amy. The label is not representative of people who happen to have that name, although some Karens have been vilified, experiencing harassment on social media or bullying in schools, simply for having the name.

There are several arguments against the use of Karen as a generalized insult for any woman perceived as annoying in some way. The term has been criticized as classist and ageist. “Karen” is often middle-class or from a working-class background, which are marginalized groups. She is usually middle-aged or older, which is a group targeted by social prejudice. The “Karen” character may be predated by negative stereotypes of older women in television, who were portrayed as demanding, interfering, nagging busybodies, such as manipulative mother Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond or nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched. A woman might be labeled a “Karen”, not judged for bad behavior, but simply because of her physical appearance, her clothing, or her hairstyle. It is a trope that in some usage has become mired in misogyny. A Karen is invariably a woman, and often a mother. The term has been co-opted by disgruntled online men, especially incels and chauvinists, who take advantage of the meme and use the insult with glee to attack any disliked women, as demonstrated by the Reddit thread. The term has been construed as sexist in that there is no male equivalent for a “Karen.” Male types in popular culture include Chad, Kyle, Ken, and Aaron, but these stereotypes are not as derogatory, while some can have positive connotations. Some women also use “Karen” as a general term of abuse against other women, showing that sexism is commonly endorsed and perpetuated by women.

Karen is a gender stereotype, and as a preconception about attributes or characteristics of women, it can be harmful. There is also the issue of social responsibility. It is convenient to have a memorable, shared name to categorize a recognizable type of behavior, but using names as stereotypes often renders the offenders nameless. Assigning “Karen” as a nickname grants them anonymity. Using their real names, such as Amy Cooper, ensures that these people can be held accountable for their actions.

For a further discussion of related topics, see my forthcoming book ‘On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present’.

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