Classic Karen Credit: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

April 21, 2020   4 mins

What is Karen? Karen is asking to see the manager. Karen is reporting people to the police for inadequate social distancing. Karen is not taking social distancing seriously enough. Karen is panic buying groceries. (It’s Karen’s fault you can’t get eggs.) Karen is white. Karen is middle-aged. Karen is suburban. Karen is straight. Karen has children. Karen has a graduated bob. Karen is a racist. Karen is not sexy (ugh, Karen). Karen is eating organic kale salads. Karen is dumb. Karen is Hillary Clinton. Karen is Jess Phillips. Karen is Elizabeth Warren. Karen gets really mad when you call her Karen. Karen, it goes without saying, is female.

The name Karen has been adopted as a catchall label for that kind of woman, and quickly gained social media ubiquity. The not-entirely-coherent list of Karen attributes above comes from a Twitter search I did just before I started writing. You could do your own, and make your own slightly different list, but it would still have one guiding principle, which is this: Karen is annoying. If there’s something irritating in the world, it can be pinned on the Karens. And conversely, if a woman is irritating you, then she must be a Karen.

The correct online etiquette when encountering a Karen is to reply to her with the following phrase: “OK Karen”. That way, everyone will know she’s just a stupid, common, entitled Karen. (In the UK at least, Karen is not a posh name: if Karen is middle-class, she’s lower middle.) Unsurprisingly, not all women have been delighted with this linguistic turn. In a tweet, Julie Bindel described it as “woman hating and based on class prejudice”. In response, inevitably, she received several thousand replies calling her Karen. (Bindel is a lesbian, which just goes to show how flexible the Karen stereotype can be when people want to get their misogyny on.)

She was also called racist. This is because there’s a defence of the Karen meme which claims that it originated with black American women as a way to talk about their aggravating white peers. Consequently, pushing back against it can be framed as entrenching white privilege by denying black women a vocabulary to describe their own oppression. Which is all very lofty considering the way the name is actually used: look at who’s engaging in the Karen discourse on social media, and you’ll find that politically engaged black women are mysteriously outnumbered by angry white men.

If you’re female, and like Bindel you make the error of suggesting the Karen thing is transparent sexism, then you’ll meet those men in your mentions — deeply aggrieved by the suggestion that you, a Karen, should presume to tell them how to speak. It’s impossible to unpick the origins of the Karen meme from the morass of the internet, but if it really were a cherished piece of racial justice rhetoric, it seems likely we’d be having a wider conversation about how these angry white men have culturally appropriated it. The fact that we’re not doing that suggests how flimsy the defence is.

When Karen is used to belittle women, and especially when it’s being used to belittle women for showing solidarity with other women (as in a tweet calling the MP Jess Phillips “Shadow Karen Minister”, which went viral after she was appointed shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding), this is precisely in line with its accepted usage. It’s a finger trap insult, where struggling against it only makes it grip tighter. When its defenders say that there’s no reason to worry about it so long as you’re not a Karen, what they’re really doing is proffering an individual exit from the abuse — so long as you agree that some women deserve it, maybe you can qualify for a pass.

It is and always has been a way to spit out a generalised contempt at women, and make it palatable by casting her as the privileged one. Nearly everyone knows that hating women for being women is a bad look — but what if they were white women? Presto chango, suddenly you’re punching up! No wonder the angry men are so attached to it, and no wonder there are plenty of women eager to defend Karenning in the hope they can keep themselves out of the punching line. Which means that Karen is just the same tatty old woman-hating gussied up for 2020.

In a 1991 essay, the feminist scholar Catharine Mackinnon noted that the phrase “straight white economically-privileged women” had become a kind of “dismissive sneer”, used to imply that the women it referred to were too pampered, too cossetted, too privileged to ever experience subjugation on the basis of sex. What is the “white woman”, asked Mackinnon? “This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really)
 She flings her hair, feels beautiful all the time, complains about the colored help, tips badly, can’t do anything, doesn’t do anything, doesn’t know anything
” What a Karen.

The idea that, three decades on from Mackinnon writing that, I am patiently trying to establish that a disparaging epithet for women is in fact a disparaging epithet for women (or “sexist”, if you want to save a few syllables) is so exhausting it makes me want to nap. The women who pop up now to say Karen isn’t sexist are the same kind of useful idiots who, in the 2000s, would have been laughing too loudly at the jokes in ladmags, trying not to let themselves become the punchline. Karens, it is known, lack a sense of humour.

Here’s what’s funny. There is no way out of the Karen double bind for women. It’s always there to keep you in line. Even if you embrace it, it’s still hanging over you. (Regardless of race: the FuckYouKaren Reddit has multiple posts highlighting the misdeeds of “Black Karens”.) And one day, maybe you will need to speak to the manager after all. Maybe you’ll want to get a haircut that’s a practical length, but also flatteringly layered! Maybe, God forbid, you’ll want to run for public office like Clinton, Phillips or one of those other Karens.

The only way to ensure you’re never a Karen is to be forever quiet and compliant. OK Karen?

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.