17 votes

The year of Karen: How a meme changed the way Americans talked about racism

6 comments

  1. post_below
    Link
    The concept of a "Karen" originally had nothing to do with racism. It referred to a particular archetype of entitled white women who have long frustrated society but for whom there was previously...
    • Exemplary

    The concept of a "Karen" originally had nothing to do with racism. It referred to a particular archetype of entitled white women who have long frustrated society but for whom there was previously no good term.

    If it wasn't Karen it would have eventually been something else. Everyone knows the type, it's cathartic to have shorthand for it.

    Everything that's happened since is just what the internet does. Nuance is lost, people morph the meaning either through intent or honest ignorance. That's what happens in the biggest game of telephone in history.

    I'd like to suggest that the most rational response is not to take it seriously. Laugh or cringe, send it to your friends or don't, but then move on. It's not gonna meaningfully impact the war against racism and it's not a sign of a misogyny apocalypse.

    It's just a meme. It will fizzle and flare and eventually go away along with all the others.

    12 votes
  2. [5]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    So, I personally have a huge issue with Karen memes and name-calling being used in misogynistic ways, and I’m bothered that many people who share my same ideals of social justice turn a blind eye...

    Of course, any attempt by Black people to assert power against white supremacy is instantly met by a backlash, and the backlash against Karen memes was practically foreordained. Complaints about Karen being sexist were noteworthy mostly for how neatly they re-enacted the Karen dynamic. Confronted with evidence of their own agency and complicity, some white women responded by reasserting their victimhood.

    So, I personally have a huge issue with Karen memes and name-calling being used in misogynistic ways, and I’m bothered that many people who share my same ideals of social justice turn a blind eye to this under the auspices of fair criticism. It’s also frustrating that any attempt to voice this gets shut down as Karening. It’s circular, with no winnable strategy. If you complain about the usage of “Karen” rather than Karens themselves, you out yourself as one and automatically relegate yourself to target status, the product of which is that your complaints can be summarily discarded. It’s like if I ended this post with “and anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t know what they’re talking about!” If you predetermine the outcome, then you control the situation. Karen complaints insulate themselves from criticism in this exact way.

    While there certainly is a valid cultural complaint identified in the archetype of a Karen, and while the meme did highlight some salient aspects of racial injustice, I don’t believe these to be the most prominent product of the meme. Instead, based on the usage that I saw, “Karen” instead became a socially acceptable and celebrated way to call a woman a “bitch” or “cunt” and not look misogynistic in doing it. In fact, in writing this, I decided to check the most upvoted posts of /r/FuckYouKaren to see if my theory held, and the top post of all time on the subreddit doesn’t actually include “Karen” as a term at all and opts for “little bitch” instead.

    I’m bothered by the widespread misogyny, but I’m also bothered by the meme’s adoption by those advocating for social justice. Go to any discussion about a Karen meme and you’ll see that the tone of the comments is largely one of contempt and hatred. The main subreddit is literally titled “Fuck You”, but that is somehow softened when we add “Karen” after it? Even if there are valid, salient points and cultural commentary made in some uses of the meme, they are drowned out by many, MANY people who are simply reveling in collective disgust. That is not justice to me, and I find myself frustrated by those who position it as such. My personal basis for social justice does not start nor end with “Fuck You”.

    20 votes
    1. [3]
      wcerfgba
      Link Parent
      I see plenty of instances of "Karen"-shaming and "Karen" memes where -- at least from the admittedly very limited context of a single photo or video -- the person being criticised is acting like a...

      I see plenty of instances of "Karen"-shaming and "Karen" memes where -- at least from the admittedly very limited context of a single photo or video -- the person being criticised is acting like a total asshole, although not necessarily in a racist way. ie There are plenty of "Karen" vids where there is a white woman being an asshole to other white people, and race is not a factor in their selfish behaviour.

      So I would like to understand what aspect of the meme you find to be misogynistic? Is it that women being assholes are being singled out or more prominently highlighted over men being assholes (because being a selfish asshole is not limited to one gender)? Or is it because a gendered term (the name "Karen") is being used to refer to these people as either individuals or a collective?

      Personally I don't think there is anything wrong with shaming someone for behaviour which is widely considered to be selfish. I do avoid the more offensive gendered words "bitch" and "cunt" and while I will note that there is a male equivalent for a 'male Karen' ("Ken"), I do think that there is no need to use a gendered insult (even if it is as seemingly innocuous as "Karen") because the gender of the subject is neither linked to the behaviour in question (as I have said, being a selfish asshole is not limited to one gender), and I personally would argue it is not necessary to bring gender into the wider context of social interaction anyway (see other discussion on Tildes regarding gender, my philosophy is post-gender, I regard gender -- like sex -- to be a personal thing and I don't understand our obsession with having to use gendered terminology in interpersonal interactions (he/she/Mr/Ms/...) when we can just not use any gendering).

      The other problematic aspect of the wider meme is white-washing: if anyone can be a "Karen" just for being an asshole, regardless of racial relationship between the aggressor and victim, then the label loses its weight for highlighting racist behaviour. It seems to me we'd be better off with two different terms: an "asshole" is a selfish person -- akin to non-racial usage of "Karen" --, and we need a new, non-gendered term for white assholes.

      11 votes
      1. [2]
        kfwyre
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I see it as another brick in the wall of internet culture being awful to women specifically. The numerous discussions about what to call a male Karen, and the fact that “Ken” or “Kevin” or...
        • Exemplary

        I see it as another brick in the wall of internet culture being awful to women specifically. The numerous discussions about what to call a male Karen, and the fact that “Ken” or “Kevin” or whatever substitutes have been proposed haven’t taken cultural hold speaks to the way we critique women’s behavior differently than men’s. Culturally, and especially online, men tend to get individualized and defined by their actions; women tend to get categorized and defined by their group membership. Furthermore, women tend to be subject to a higher scrutiny, even in explicitly non-gendered critiques (consider the imbalance we see in complaints about male vs. female anti-vaxxers, for example).

        It's not that examples of "Karens" don't highlight some truly awful behavior; it's that they do so in a way that's disproportionately aimed at women and, most importantly, they do so in a way that permits wider hatred of women a "pass" because it is perceived as "just". The comments on nearly any given Karen meme boil down to garden-variety misogyny, even if the particular example given is particularly egregious on an individual basis. It becomes less about hating that particular person and more about hating an entire category of people who are assumed to be women until proven otherwise, and then those men are included only on an individual, opt-in basis. Their presence does nothing to change the definition of the term as fundamentally and unchangeably gendered, which is the absurd setup that makes the phrase "male Karen" even make sense in the first place.

        I also think the disproportionate representation feeds into other broader internet issues. I see a lot of surfacing of Karens on left-leaning parts of the internet similar to feminist cringe content on right-leaning parts of the internet. Both are aimed at finding and aggregating the most terrible examples of individual behavior and then ascribing them to groups so that they can then characterize the entirety of the group by its worst elements in the least charitable way. This allows participants in the conversation to turn off their empathy and also creates a "fair game" target for abuse according to the values of those participating.

        I will say that I do think there is a modicum of value to the Karen archetype, though I would characterize it differently and I wouldn't use a slur to define it. I’m a public school teacher in a quite wealthy, quite white district, so believe me when I say that I have dealt with my fair share of parents who display toxic entitlement, and I've witnessed first-hand the racialized aspects of that as well. I think Karens took hold of the cultural zeitgeist in part because the term identified a difficult-to-pin down experience in a salient and recognizable way.

        Having this type of behavior come under the cultural microscope is a good thing, but that’s about as far as I can go with any praise, because I believe the damage done by the meme outweighs the value it brings to the table. I think another part of the reason it took hold of the cultural zeitgeist was because it played into prevailing currents of misogyny that carried Karens' ship far further than it would have gone on its own, alone. Even if a discussion of a Karen begins by highlighting a legitimate injustice, it devolves into the old misogyny that we're used to, making “Karen” the new way of indicting women at large for being hysterical, entitled, selfish, standoffish, and manipulative -- the same tired stereotypes and negative characterizations that women have been fighting against since time immemorial.

        19 votes
        1. culturedleftfoot
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I'm not sure I'd agree that this has morphed into garden-variety misogyny, but maybe that's because of my opinion on one related point that is routinely glossed over - the whole notion of Karen...

          I'm not sure I'd agree that this has morphed into garden-variety misogyny, but maybe that's because of my opinion on one related point that is routinely glossed over - the whole notion of Karen representing racist white women is a false premise to begin with. Karen slang far predates the recent awareness of racial injustice within the US cultural zeitgeist, and it always referred to middle-aged, middle-class White women who displayed the kind of toxic entitlement that you mentioned. No racist component was necessarily implied or assumed. The incidents that went viral in the past few years like BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, etc. were kinda subsumed into the Karen narrative while it was hot in the zeitgeist. There might be considerable overlap between BBQ Beckys and Karens, but they aren't one and the same, and neither is one a subset of the other... and that's important to note. Why? That nuance being lost is yet another example of issues that, like many other ideas/slangs/hashtags that originate on Black Twitter between people who understand a shared context, it was taken out of that context and misinterpreted or misrepresented to the mainstream by primarily White liberals who want to be woke, who want to be allies, but don't fully understand the context... that self-congratulatory crowd that wants to be in on the joke but are just as guilty of #YouToo. To me, this is not a reflection of the US actually reckoning with racism; in fact it becomes a deflection, because the contingent who laugh and point fingers at this conflated identity does so to avoid addressing its own white guilt. It's projection.

          I have no evidence to provide for this, just my own anecdotal memory of watching usage patterns within various online circles over the past few years, but make of that what you will.

          9 votes
    2. mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Well, social change is seldom an ordered process governed by reason and restraint. For every salient point of valid satire and criticism, there are droves of vultures going through the flows,...

      Well, social change is seldom an ordered process governed by reason and restraint. For every salient point of valid satire and criticism, there are droves of vultures going through the flows, using those movements to express their vicious desires and abhorrent beliefs.

      There are plenty of unjustified accusations and moral assassinations going on in the midst of numerous reasonable reactions. Not every man that explains something in length to a woman is a mansplainer, and not every woman is automatically a “Karen” just because they decided to voice their complaints. Many good people were hit by violent “cancelations”, some had their lives ruined. Sadly, I don’t see an end to that. Things will get much uglier before they get any better.

      4 votes