Column: Is the 'Karen' meme sexist? Maybe, but it's also apt

Robin Abcarian

A middle-aged white woman in New Jersey intervenes on the side of the road after her adult daughter is pulled over by local police for not having current registration. The woman flashes her New York and New Jersey Port Authority commissioner’s badge. She demands to know what’s going on. The cops tell her she does not have the right to intervene. She berates the officers for almost an hour. Oh, Karen.

Not realizing that tweets are public, a middle-aged white Texas primary school teacher repeatedly tries to contact President Trump, pleading for his help to deport all the “illegal” students in her school. Karen, please.

A 30-ish white woman calls the police on an 8-year-old black child selling water “illegally” on the sidewalk. Pure Karen.

You’ve probably seen the name "Karen" bandied about a lot lately. She is a meme popularized over the past few years on social media websites like Twitter and Reddit (where there are subreddits, or conversations, devoted entirely to variations on the Karen theme).

“Karen” is the white lady at the Red Lobster who goes ballistic because she’s been waiting three hours for her order on Mother’s Day, even though the virus-impacted staff is struggling to keep up.

No one is sure exactly who coined “Karen.” Was it Dane Cook, who, in a 2005 comedy routine said every group of friends includes one person no one likes — and her name is Karen? Was it the Reddit user whose ex-wife Karen took the house and the kids and spawned a vulgar subreddit called “[Epithet] You, Karen?”

In any case, “Karen” has morphed into a catch-all name for entitled white women who demand to speak to the manager, whether it’s the manager of a store, a restaurant, or in the case of that Texas teacher, the president of the United States.

MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski was recently called out as “Karen” after tweeting that she would reach out “to the head of Twitter” — a.k.a. the manager — “about their policies being violated every day by President Tump (sic).”

In memes, the generic “Karen” is often depicted as Kate Gosselin, star of the now-defunct reality series “John & Kate plus Eight.” Her singular hairstyle — an asymmetrical bob with harsh blond highlights and a thatch of short hair sticking straight up at the back of her crown — became the symbol of the entitled white suburban mom.

And now, in the era of coronavirus, “Karen” has made a resurgence, with a slight twist.

“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,” wrote the Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany earlier this month.

Kansas State University professor Heather Suzanne Woods, who studies memes, told Tiffany that the essence of a Karen is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain.” 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.”

These days, Karen is the white lady who tells the Trader Joe’s manager that she has the legal right to shop in his store without a mask. (She doesn’t.) Karen is the lady who deliberately coughs in the restaurant manager's face when he asks her to change tables to maintain social distancing. (Appalling.)

Because Karen is white, she faces few meaningful repercussions. Embarrassing videos posted on social media is usually as bad as it gets for Karen. This is the subversive genius of the meme. It’s not especially vicious, but with luck it causes all the Karens out there to examine the way they move through the world. The Karen meme exists for the amusement of those who take pleasure in watching the privileged take themselves down. It is observational, darkly funny and racially pointed: We see your privilege, even if you don’t.

It's a patronizing term, though, inescapably tinged with sexism: Karens are crazy. Karens are hysterical. Two white men in a Sherman Oaks Target objected to being asked to put on mask. Why weren't they Karens? Because instead of asking for the manager, they broke the employee's arm and were charged with battery. But where's the meme for that kind of guy?

There also have undoubtedly been Karens of all races, but I get why people of color are rarely included in the meme. Karen behavior is a lot more likely to end badly for someone who isn't white.

Compare the case of Caren Turner, the white port commissioner who was treated politely by New Jersey state police even as she berated and threatened them, to the case of Sandra Bland, a black motorist.

In 2015, Bland was pulled over by a Texas State trooper on what is known as a “pretextual stop.” He made up a reason to pull her over, then demanded she put out her cigarette.

“Why do I have to put out a cigarette when I'm in my own car?” she asked.

“I will light you up!” the cop yelled, before wrestling her to the ground, arresting her and taking her to jail, where she died in her cell three days later.

What happened to Turner after she ranted at two New Jersey cops on the side of a highway, telling them "You may shut the [expletive] up?"

The officers told her to “Have a pleasant weekend.”

She drove away unscathed.

Karen strikes again.

@AbcarianLAT

For the record:
3:36 PM, May. 24, 2020: An earlier version of this story said that motorist Sandra Bland died in custody 13 days after her Texas arrest. She died three days after being arrested.