The politics of Karen memes
Lately the term Karen has popped up all over social media. Women are identified as ‘Karens’ for acting in a certain, often racist, way. In this article, we will analyze how karens are discursively constructed and what this says about society.
Because there are no women who self-identify as a ‘Karen’ and it is a primarily online concept, digital ethnography will be used to analyze online data. Digital ethnography applies an ethnographic approach to observations of online communication and communities.
'Karen' as a social phenomenon
The slang term ‘Karen’ was created on social media to describe women who act in a way that is perceived as racist or privileged. The term usually refers to a middle-aged white woman. While the exact origin is uncertain, the meme became popular a few years ago, primarily in the US, and is now well known worldwide. It began as a way for people of color to push back against casual bias and discrimination. The term is now used for any woman who acts inappropriately in public. The internet is full of videos labeling women as ‘Karens’, and filming their behavior has become crucial for ‘outing’ them.
Karen memes go hand-in-hand with the ‘can I speak to the manager' haircut meme. Typically refering to a short asymmetric cut, this hair is a recognizable meme and contributes to the Karen character. Not every ‘Karen’ has this hairstyle, but it has become emblematic of entitled middle-class white women. The ‘can I speak to the manager’ meme originates from multiple videos of women in shops and restaurants who complain and rudely ask for the manager. The meme has since evolved into more than just a joke.
Karens as outsiders
This type of woman does not self-identify as a ‘Karen’ but instead are labeled as such by others. Following Becker (1963), they are defined as rulebreakers or 'deviant' and regarded as outsiders. Normally, it is the mainstream that has the power to define deviants or outsiders. This is where the Karen meme becomes interesting, as we see a reversal of power relations. A ‘Karen’ is usually someone in power and considers herself mainstream, but is now defined as deviant by historically less-powerful people. This reversed power relation is at least partially possible due to social media. As these videos and memes go viral and gain attention, they bring into question the dominance of Karens.
These women are not being labled as Karens without a reason, they all have certain characteristics in common
Karen memes are now produced and circulated by dedicated accounts, such as @crazykarens, @karengohome, and @karensinsane. Further the meme has adapted and involved, like the pandemic-inspired ‘coronavirus Karen’, referring to women who are anti-vaccination and unwilling to wear masks. In the US Karens are mostly (assumed to be) Trump supporters, as seen below:
Characteristics of Karens
Karens share certain characteristics and behaviors that are used to frame them as deviant, but are also criticized and mocked. This criticism targets their entitlement and privilege and thus societal power relations.
The coronavirus Karen memes can are a good example of this. During the COVID-19 pandemic many stores and public places began requiring face masks. In previous example the woman is called a Karen for not wearing her mask and lashing out at staff attempting to enforce mask requirements. She starts yelling and saying, ‘you’re all democratic pigs’, implying she is a Republican.
Interestingly, we see that many Karen memes show women giving the same explanation for refusing to wear a mask, namely claiming they have a breathing problem. However most of the videos display them using a loud, high-pitched voice (figure 3).
The Karen meme has also become emblematic of structural racism. As shown in figures 4 and 6, Karens are often portrayed calling the cops on Black people. In that sense, karen memes have become part of the language surrounding the BLM movement. The meme has a clear political dimension: it is not just a joke but a criticism of white supremacy. The above example popped up on social media and immediately got over a million views. The woman in the video, Amy Cooper, also known as the ‘central park Karen’, called the cops on a black man, Christian Cooper, who confronted her about not having her dog on a leash despite park requirements.
In the clip the woman is anxious and speaking in a high voice, later escalating to screaming. The man (behind the camera) stays calm and asks her to not get closer. She immediately calls the police and says she and her dog are being threatened, specifically ‘by an African American man’, highlighting the racial dimension of the incident. When on the phone she starts speaking louder and making it seem like she is afraid for her life, while the man is not doing anything but recording her. Twitter users labeled her a ‘Karen’ for being racist and calling the police without a proper reason.
Karens feel entitled to their privilege but are being challenged by a changing society. The BLM movement has shed light on the rampant police brutality against Black people in the US. Therefore, calling the cops in this case could cause serious harm. The meme shows her intentions as well as her white privilege. Christian Cooper's sister posted the video on her twitter and it quickly gained media attention. Many people called out her behavior and she was later fired from her job, forced to temporarily surrender her dog, and charged with falsely reporting an incident.
Karen memes play a big role in dissecting white women's behavior towards people of color. On June 28, 2020 a protest in St. Louis drew media attention when videos of a couple pointing guns at BLM protestors where shared on social media. Mark and Patricia McCloskey were nicknamed ‘Ken and Karen’ soon after. In the videos they are standing outside their home openly pointing guns at the protesters. The discourse surrounding this example demonstrates how violent or aggressive behavior has become part of the karen meme.
Many memes of the couple circulated online, mocking the couple. For example, figure 4 is an edit of the image made look like an action movie. The caption insinuates that they are Trumps supporters. The couple later told news outlets they were scared for their lives and had to protect their family from an angry mob, claiming protestors were destroying their property. In the video none of this is visible and protestors were not armed. Many criticized the couple for their violent behavior, while others praised them for exercising their second amendment rights, i.e. the right to ‘bear arms’ or own weapons.
One of the latest additions to the karen meme is Lisa Alexander, a woman who harassed a man writing a Black lives matter message in chalk in front of his home. In the video, filmed by James Juanillo, who identifies himself as a person of color in the caption, the couple demand to know if he lives there. Her demeanor is initially polite but she quickly states this is private property and she knows the person who lives there. Juanillo is reluctant to answer them and suggests they call the police. The couple is apparently under the impression that he is committing a crime and eventually call the cops. He posted this video on Twitter, stirring up further 'karen' discussions.
Many respondants said he could have handled the situation differently and simply explained that this was his property. Juanillo responded that the couple weaponized their white privilege and lied about knowing who lives here. This video had serious consequences for Lisa and her partner. What is noticeable in Lisa's behavior here is her innocent demeanor despite having no good reason for intervening, similar to other examples in this article.
The meme mainly focuses on women, but as seen in St. Louis there are also men who act this way, labled 'Ken' or 'Kevin'. In the above video the 'Karen behavior' is clearly noticeable: 'ken' is upset by the coffee shop's Black lives matter sign and wants the employee to take it down. The employee asks him to leave as he is not wearing a mask. He responds that he is protesting and refuses to leave.
When another man intervenes on behalf of the employee, ‘Ken’ starts shouting ‘all lives matter’. This is a slogan associated with criticism of the Black lives matter movement. He is labeled as a ‘Ken’ for his racist and obnoxious behavior. There are a few Ken cases circling social media but distinctively less than karens, with some critics saying the meme is sexist. There is a noticable similarity between the karen clips and this 'ken,' namely that they maintain an air of innocence while engaging in entitled or racist behavior.
Critics say the meme has now become an excuse to call out all forms of criticism from middle-aged white women.
What do Karen memes say about society?
Apart from issues of sexism, another problem in these videos is that they sometimes only show a small portion of the situation. Critics say this can lead to misinformation and harassment, leading to the emergence of #dontcallmekaren. Some women literally named Karen do not want to be associated with the stereotype.
On the other hand, humor can be a powerful tool in resisting structural oppression. However it does beg the question - what are the long term effects of such shaming strategies? Moreover, some have criticized the karen meme for being too broad - asking for the manager does not have the same stakes as calling the police. Critics say the meme has now become an excuse to call out all forms of criticism fromtoward middle-aged white women.
All these cases revolve around a privileged white person showing disrespectful and rude behavior. These examples show disturbing images of white supremacy and use humor to spread them. While mocking karens' overreactions can be humorous, involving the police can quickly become dangerous for people of color. Filming these situations is not just a meme, but a documentation of white privilege and a pattern of harassement
Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders. The Free Press.