In the ongoing, tense conversation over how long America has to remain locked down during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the more absurd moments came two weeks ago: Carolyn Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, called for the immediate reopening of her city’s casinos, offering her constituents up as a “control group” to test whether stay-at-home measures are actually effective. The notion baffled public-health experts, who maintain that a rigorous adherence to social distancing is essential to overcoming the outbreak. It drew swift condemnation from other Las Vegas officials, who referred to Goodman as “reckless” and “an embarrassment.” And, as is so often the case in public blunders, it received its harshest criticism online. Goodman was called “an idiot,” “an actual monster,” and, maybe most damning, “a real Karen’s Karen.”
On the internet, a Karen is not always named Karen. The title has been used to decry a woman named Diane who attended a protest of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order carrying an American flag and announcing, “What do I say to your science? I don’t believe in your science.” It’s been thrown at a woman in a local Facebook group demanding private medical information about a person in her neighborhood, and a woman in Tennessee carrying a handmade sign that read Sacrifice the weak, re-open TN. Becky Ames, the mayor of Beaumont, Texas, was declared a Karen after she was photographed breaking the state’s stay-at-home order at a nail salon.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “Karen” has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme. In The New York Times last year, the writer Sarah Miller described Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” using the example of a suburban white woman who calls the cops on kids’ pool parties. Karens have been mocked for being anti-vaccine and pro–“Can I speak to your manager?” They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.
Their defining essence is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,” according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University. A Karen “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.”
Karens have gained notoriety in this crisis in part because the joke can be bitingly funny, but also because no meme better captures the fraught feelings of the moment. With inconsistent guidance from political leaders and conflicting social-distancing mandates among states, Americans are navigating how and when to police one another’s behavior. Mocking Karens has given people on platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook a shared language to encourage measures that benefit the public. But it can be problematic, too—and not just because of its crudeness. Many people now tossing around the meme seem unaware of its roots as a pointed critique of structural inequalities, even as black Americans are overrepresented in county- and state-level coronavirus infection and death reports. “Karen began as a Black meme used to describe white women who tattle on Black kids’ lemonade stands,” the community organizer Gwen Snyder tweeted last week. “White boys stole it and turned it into code for ‘bitch.’”
Arguments around social distancing have quickly become a tangle of disparities, distrust of science, politics, and America’s tradition of individualism and self-interest. As the country takes its first steps toward reopening, the Karen meme raises the question: Is there any simple way for Americans to shame one another into keeping everyone safe?
Observation and criticism of Karens happens daily on several platforms, but most visibly on Reddit. The platform has several forums dedicated specifically to identifying and pillorying Karens. In r/karen, one Reddit user recently posted a photo of cut-out cookies shaped as shopping carts full of toilet paper with Put it Back Karen piped on in pink icing. In r/EntitledKarens, another user shared an illustration of a Karen sparring off against a doctor, shouting that “stuff I read on Facebook” trumps science.
The largest of these subreddits, r/FuckYouKaren, was created back in December 2017, in honor of a Reddit poster who had achieved brief internet notoriety by complaining virulently about his vindictive ex-wife, Karen. The subreddit has more than 500,000 subscribers, and its founder, a 17-year-old from Irvine, California, who goes by the username karmacop97, told me that the pandemic has only boosted activity. “It’s been a little bit wild seeing how the Karen archetype is increasing in the wild now,” he said, after requesting anonymity because he doesn’t want the forum to be associated with his future professional life. “COVID-19 is just bringing them more into the spotlight.” At the beginning of the pandemic, the most popular Karens were toilet-paper hoarders and suburban shoppers berating grocery-store workers. Now the subreddit is focused on a new species of Karen: the type of protester who insists that social distancing should end because she needs a haircut.
The posts in these subreddits can be insightful when they acutely criticize entitlement. They get—rudely—at the most destructive logical fallacy of the pandemic, which is any wishful thinking that we won’t personally become a vector for disease, even if we’re breaking rules and taking risks for our own comfort. In some cases, these memes are encouraging awareness of bad health practices and singling out behaviors that health experts agree will legitimately kill people.
But Reddit conversations about Karens, perhaps unsurprisingly, can also cross a line—as with posts mocking a real woman named Karen who expressed doubt about the threat of the coronavirus and later died from it. On Reddit—well known as a home for some of the internet’s more toxic attitudes—motivations behind the meme have been questioned as misogynistic: Is a Karen just a woman who does anything at all that annoys people? If so, what is the male equivalent?
The pre-Reddit history of Karens complicates things further. Among black women, the shorthand of a “Karen”—a white woman to be wary of because she won’t hesitate to wield privilege at the expense of others—has existed for years. “The cultural reference has always been there; it just hasn’t always been so specific to one person’s name,” says Meredith Clark, a media researcher at the University of Virginia. “Karen has gone by different names. Back in the ’90s, when ‘Baby Got Back’ came out, it was Becky. There will be another name.”
During the pandemic, Karen jokes have also helped highlight the urgent racial disparities in infections and deaths that exist partly because, in many places, people of color make up the majority of the essential workforce, but also because of long-standing and dramatic health inequalities in the U.S.
André Brock, an associate professor at Georgia Tech who has studied Black Twitter, says Karen memes are freshly resonant now because they allow people of color the chance to indulge in dark comedy about the way the pandemic is disproportionately affecting them. In reference to another varietal of Karen, the type of suburban liberal who uses the Nextdoor app and a Ring security camera to surveil her neighbors and monitor their behavior, he called it “deeply ironic” that white women isolating in single-family homes—whose lifestyle puts them at low risk of exposure to the virus—have been getting militant about teenagers wearing face masks or judgmental about city dwellers’ inability to execute perfect social distancing.
The audience and impact of a meme is impossible to control, especially for one spreading as rapidly as Karen. If social-distancing memes about Karen amount only to calling her ignorant and monstrous, the critique could be lost. They could cause the people being insulted to dig their heels in—and maybe to insist even more fervently that stay-at-home orders are fascist, or that reseeding their lawn is their constitutional right. And if the memes become limited to superficial elements of middle-aged women’s appearances, rather than on addressing deeper issues, they can easily be shot down as sexist.
Research suggests that only certain types of shame are useful: the kind that focuses on specific behaviors, for example. However, the kind that paints someone as an irredeemable archetype of, say, selfishness and bad taste is usually not productive (even if it can be funny). As Americans spend the next several months participating in an unruly group project that requires enormous levels of coordinated behavior, knowing the difference will become ever more important.
Karen memes that are specific to the coronavirus context are at least more coherent than many of their predecessors. “The circumstances of COVID have sharpened the critique,” says Leslie Hahner, a co-author of Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right. Hahner cited an image that showed a white woman with blonde hair pointing a handgun at the camera, with the caption “Open the TJ Maxx.” That particular Karen is insisting she deserves exception even in the midst of a pandemic, and is more compelling than some wholly imaginary abstraction of privilege.
But the “Karen conversation” stays convoluted largely because of the platforms it’s taking place on. On Twitter last month, there was a brief but frenzied debate about whether the word Karen could be considered a slur against white women. “Yes. The K-word is stronger than the N-word, at least currently,” read the tweet that received the most attention. “Misogyny has been around longer than slavery.”
The topic was trending on Twitter for several hours—but if you clicked on it, most of the tweets were about how pointless even indulging such a ridiculous debate was. And, in fact, at least part of the backlash was manufactured. The most popular tweet came from an account with the handle @EmillySwaven, which was created this month, links to an Instagram account for a Canadian marketing agency, and tweets only inflammatory opinions about already divisive social and political issues. When I messaged the marketing agency, the owner said that the character was fake and had been created as a joke, as well as a way to get more followers on Instagram. (He also said he was surprised that people fall for that kind of trick as often as they do: “Like, we purposely leave obvious clues behind, such as making a brand new Twitter account, [and posting] tweets that contradict each other.”)
One risk of the current Karen meme could be that it overplays how many Americans actually oppose social-distancing measures. Online discourse can easily misrepresent reality. America is not divided along strict lines of Karen and not-Karen; the Karens shouting on the news about “reopening America” are pulled from tiny protests that don’t reflect with most Americans’ opinions. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 66 percent of Americans are more concerned about social-distancing restrictions being lifted too quickly than they are about having restrictions in place for too long. (Among Republicans, women were far more likely than men to express that opinion. There was no gender gap among Democrats.)
That’s the challenge that comes along with any meme spreading outside of its original context: It can take on new meanings. Some of them will be creative and additive. Some of them will be stupid potshots. For as long as social distancing remains necessary, many Americans will be spending the bulk of our time on platforms that afford us ample opportunity to comment on others’ behavior. We’ll be seeing almost nothing of one another in the real world, even as crowd-sourced sketches of archetypes circulate more and more widely. Karen is the easiest sort of meme to spread, because she’s not reliant on a specific template. She’s particularly compelling when tensions are high, and she’d like your attention now, please.