She wants to speak to the manager at Red Lobster because her server had an attitude. She calls Starbucks’ corporate office when they don’t put enough sprinkles on her frappuccino. She pontificates about the government's many conspiracies to her 47 Facebook friends. And she just posted a selfie to show off her new haircut: a side-swept bob in the front with short spiky hair in the back—blonde of course.
You might not know her name, but that’s ok. Just call her Karen.
The “Karen” meme has been sweeping social media for years. It’s been the subject of New York Times articles, trending tweets, and viral videos. But who (or what) is Karen? How did the most basic of names come to symbolize an entire population of insufferable suburbanites? And most importantly, what should you do if you encounter a Karen?
The Karen Meme Explained
Despite its connotations, the Karen meme has nothing to do with anybody named Karen. According to KnowYourMeme, Karen is a pejorative slang term for irritating, antagonistic, and mildly racist white women. The Karen archetype carries several stereotypes, namely that she has a short, blonde Kate Gosselin hairstyle and will demand to “speak to the manager” at any restaurant or store over the slightest inconvenience.
Social media is a treasure trove of Karen sightings. One such Karen went viral after leaning on a car to prevent the driver from getting a parking spot. Another called the cops because she felt threatened by a man who was birdwatching in Central Park in New York. The term is so ubiquitous that it’s even been used as a Halloween costume.
The Karen meme has established further relevance during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s typically used to describe a conservative, middle-aged white woman who throws temper tantrums on Facebook in response to hair salons, craft stores, and chain restaurants closing or enforcing social distancing measures.
“Karen” may be louder than ever today, but she existed long before covid-19.
How Did the Karen Meme Start?
The internet has yet to reach a consensus on the origin of the Karen meme. Some claim that it’s an offshoot of the “speak to the manager haircut” meme which first surfaced on Reddit in 2014. Others point out a 2005 stand-up comedy performance by Dane Cook who used the name to describe “the friend that nobody likes.”
The most logical origin for the Karen meme has been traced to an anonymous Reddit user, Fuck_You_Karen, who spent weeks ranting about his ex-wife Karen (she apparently screwed him over big-time). That account was eventually deleted, however, a new subreddit r/FuckYouKaren was created in 2017 to share memes about the “Karen” stereotype and annoying white people rather than critiquing a specific woman.
Regardless of how it started, “Karen” has retained its place in the lexicon of memes for more than three years—an unprecedented run in online culture. The Instagram account “karensgoingwild” has amassed nearly two million followers. Reddit seems to be the largest platform to observe Karens, with the subreddits r/karen, r/EntitledKarens, and r/FuckYouKaren tallying over a million combined subscribers.
“Karen” is by far the most popular catchall term for obnoxious, demanding, cul-de-sac dwelling brats. But it’s not the only one. There’s also "Becky," which stems from the story of a white woman calling the cops on a group of black men for barbecuing in a public park.
What Do Real-Life Karens Think About the Meme?
Is it possible for a generic name to be classified as a slur? Some people think so, and their names are—you guessed it—Karen.
“The Karen meme is misogynistic and ageist,” says Karen Heyman of La Jolla, California. “I refuse to humor a trend that mocks my name. Woe be unto you if you keep insulting your middle-aged readers.”
Karen Goran of Anaheim echoes this sentiment:
“Using a certain name in such a hateful manner seems to appeal to humanity’s basest instinct. Three of my friends named Karen have lived their lives in thoughtful and caring ways, as have I.”
Even the husbands of Karens, like Vincent Brook in LA, are speaking up:
“I’m writing on behalf of my wife, Karen, and I’m sure for Karens of all colors and ages when I say, please cease the senseless sexist stigmatizing of a name that means no harm to anyone.”
On one hand, it’s understandable to be mildly annoyed if you become associated with rudeness, tattle-tailing, and general unlikability because of a name you didn’t choose. And yet, the ensuing outrage from Karens (both real and metaphorical) seems to justify the stereotype.
How to Spot a Karen, and What to Do If You Encounter One
Not all “Karens” are named Karen, nor do they all have closely-cropped blonde hair and a minivan. In fact, being a Karen has nothing to do with your name or even your hairstyle.
According to Heather Suzanne Woods, a professor and meme researcher at Kansas State University, the defining essence of a Karen is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain…[she] 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.”
You can find Karens anywhere, although there are some specific territories where Karens tend to gather en masse, such as chain restaurants, Facebook discussion groups, shopping malls, and supermarkets.
If you encounter a Karen, it’s crucial that you avoid playing into her antics. No matter how many times she blares her minivan horn, threatens to call your manager, or baits you into a Facebook debate, STAY CALM. Karens thrive off others’ misery (as well as their own).
The biggest threat to a Karen is a smile.