We need to talk about ‘Karen’
Humans love labels. Slapper, punk, redneck, hippy, slut, yuppie, homo, ex-con, incel, red, boomer, retard…you get the idea. There are plenty — many of which I don’t feel comfortable using here.
Derogatory social labels have lives of their own. Initially used broadly, seemingly accepted in mainstream conversation, labels give us a short-hand, a way of summing up someone’s attitude, experience or social position. Or so we think.
Baby Boomers, Gen X, Y, Z, Millennials etc tell us when someone was born and the kind of social influences on them — but they fall short of telling us specifics about a person.
When a label is questioned, debated, and challenged it can move abruptly out of favour. Occasionally, the label is reclaimed with pride by the very people it was meant to demean. They take ownership of it, defuse it, give it new life.
Now we have…Karen.
‘Karen’ snuck up on me. ‘Shut up, Karen.’ ‘Get a life, Karen.’ ‘Who cares, Karen?!’
Who the hell is Karen?
It’s a mystery to me why one person’s name, Tweet, death, photo, speech, or action…precipitates a social movement, when another’s doesn’t. (Why is Greta Thunberg a household name, but not Isra Hirsi?)
Word on the street is that ‘Karen’ took off from a man griping about his ex-wife. Then it found a life of it’s own.
“Karen” is commonly used in the US to refer to a strident middle-class white woman who talks down to people of colour, usually in serving-staff positions. — Hadley Freeman ‘The Guardian’ April 2020
But it’s become much more than that.
Do not get me wrong. I am not fan of that kind of behaviour. This is meant to be a conversation-starter about the effect of labels, not the vile manifestations of white privilege.
The thing is, I’m not a fan of labels. Any labels. Sure, sometimes they help us cope by satirising stereotypes particularly against those in power, but equally, they’re used to demean, dis-empower, and dismiss. As a dear friend says: “Often labels are flippant, easy, and lazy. A lot are ultimately unkind.”
More often than not, labels are used to shut people down.
We think labels give us a sense of order and a way of distinguishing things. We think we can sum someone up with a word but every human is complex. Using labels ignores deeper reflections of someone’s ‘person-hood’.
Labels promote both blatant and unconscious prejudice, and they slam the door on dialogue and mutual understanding.
“[The slur ‘Karen’ is] sexist, ageist, and classist, in that order” — Hadley Freeman ‘The Guardian’ April 2020
Full disclosure: I’m white, female, and have led a pretty privileged life. I’m also older than 50.
Maybe I am Karen and don’t know it.
When I was younger, I ate a lot of dishes that weren’t exactly what I ordered. I had drinks I didn’t like, bought clothes from overbearing sales people, and ended up with all sorts of things I didn’t want.
I was brought up to be polite. And I’d enough experience of domestic violence to know the value of de-escalating situations. I had been comprehensively trained — as a daughter, sister, mother — to make people around me feel okay.
Big lesson for most girls of my era was don’t make a fuss.
Something happened when I turned 45. When my twenty year relationship ended and I found myself living in a shed, I also found my voice.
I began to say Karen-esque things: “Excuse me, this is not what I ordered.” “Is there someone I can speak to about this?”
There are some hideously righteous, entitled men and women out there. Watching footage of ‘Karen’ behaviour is ugly.
Of course I try not to be Karen. I try not to be rude, but I’m also done eating food I didn’t order.
I reckon I could occasionally be mistaken for ‘Karen’.
And we need to recognise that ‘Karen’ has morphed.
We have ‘Chad’ the jock, ‘Zach’ the dumbass, and ditsy ‘Trixie’, but none carry quite the same sting and the historic patriarchal weight as this new misogynistic term.
‘Karen’ has become synonymous with humourless, old shrew. And when young women start using it against older women, we know that the patriarchy has won. Again.
Be careful who you’re calling ‘Karen’…and why. Be aware that you might be colluding with the age-old hobby of shutting women down — especially women of a certain age who have only just found their voice.
Call me on my biases. Call me out for my white privilege. Let’s talk about it.
If you’re going to call me a name, call me ‘Ruth’.
Thanks for reading!