Approximately 179 years ago, a 31-year-old English author with spotty facial hair unleashed the most insidious story in history onto the world. You know it, I know it, those scary football fish that live in the Marianas Trench know it: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’d argue that A Christmas Carol is a more famous Christmas story than the Bible, at this point. Sorry to the Baby Jesus, but you had a few hundred years in the spotlight; time to share it with the guy who probably would’ve thought the Propecia prescription he so desperately needed was dark magic. As Kirstie Alley once infamously (and horrendously) tweeted, “You had a good go at it, thanks for your input.”
Now that I’ve dipped my toe into a little harmless sacrilege, we can move back to the matter at hand: the pervasive cultural saturation of A Christmas Carol. Since we were children, we’ve been unable to escape this story and its many iterations. The Muppets have done it; Jim Carrey sucked himself into a VFX suit and made a particularly terrifying version; who can forget Vanessa Williams and Kathy Griffin starring in the most worthy take yet, VH1’s turn-of-the-century classic A Diva’s Christmas Carol?
Yes, we’ve got more adaptations than we can count, and that means that Hollywood needs to find new ways to spin the same old tale. This has left filmmakers to ask themselves a question uttered by their predecessors for decades: “What’s our current version of Ebenezer Scrooge?” For whatever reason, the bright minds behind two new films have both decided to replace the miserly old coot with the trope for privileged white women, who arm themselves with actual intent to harm: Karens.
It’s okay to shudder along with me. The “Karen” joke has been around for years, but it came to particular cultural significance in summer 2020, following a slew of viral incidents where Karen figures threatened police retaliation against people of color for simply living their lives. Since then, it has been co-opted by white people and devolved into Facebook memes and “comedy” videos posted by multi-billionaires. Needless to say, the Karen joke has not just lost its significance, but its humor too.
And that’s when Hollywood comes a-knockin’!
This holiday season, two Karens have surfaced in adaptations of A Christmas Carol, ready to duke it out to see who can be the funnier joke, long after the punchline has expired. There’s the Karen in the first scene of the Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell-led dreck Spirited (played by Rose Byrne, who must’ve been blackmailed or owed someone money); and there’s the Karen in A Christmas Karen (played by Michele Simms, the queen of Carvana commercial fame). You read that right—there’s an entire 98-minute holiday film about a wicked woman terrorizing her neighbors. Joy to the world!
Which one of these Karens would win in a knock-down, drag-out, smackdown for the Calamitous Chrismas Karen Crown? Well, let’s consider the following criteria: their crimes; their haircuts; their outfits; and their redemption arc. Whoever takes the most categories, wins. And by “wins,” I mean that they were at least entertaining enough to not be a total embarrassment. For the purpose of the study, we’ll call them Foolish Karen (Rose Byrne in Spirited) and Florida Karen (Michele Simms in A Christmas Karen).
Let’s begin with their crimes. Foolish Karen kicks off Spirited on her third haunting of the night, getting a taste of her own medicine when she’s terrorized by the Ghost of Christmas Future. After begging for her life, Foolish Karen wakes up unharmed and emerges from her home to see her neighbors playing broomball in the snow-covered street. We learn from Foolish Karen that, in the past, she’s not only called the police and the local HOA on her neighbors, but she’s also stolen their packages. Downright nastiness!
Down in the panhandle, Florida Karen is calling the police, stealing hot chocolate, calling the manager, telling people to speak English, and quite literally hitting children with her car. This woman isn’t just a hazardous inconvenience; she’s also a dangerous public nuisance! Luckily, the film doesn’t play up her horrendous nature for laughs, but rather mines the reactions of all the people that hate her for a few (surprisingly) effective chuckles. I’ve got to give it to Florida Karen on this one—ramming children down with your Hummer is a new low.
Next up, their haircuts. The bad haircut is a staple of the outmoded Karen joke. Unfortunately, this one is a no-brainer. Both of these Karens have the same hairstyle, but the millions of dollars heaped into the raging cash fire that is Spirited at least ensured that Rose Byrne got a good wig out of the deal. Poor Michele Simms and the production crew of the straight-to-VOD A Christmas Karen were not so lucky. It seems like most of the budget got thrown toward some special effects and rental houses to film in, and the poor piece plopped onto Simms’ head is fighting for its life. Foolish Karen earns her first point.
Third, we consider their outfits. Foolish Karen wears a tracksuit, followed by an ugly, fur-trimmed coat over a nightgown. Florida Karen sports long Old Navy cardigans, abhorrent pajamas, and terry cloth robes that cover tee shirts with bedazzled wine glasses wearing Santa hats. While Foolish Karen certainly gets some points for the tracksuit, we reluctantly award this one to Florida Karen, who earns her second point. Both outfit selections were a bit tepid for this judge’s liking, but the sequin wine glasses tipped the odds in the favor of the Down-South Demagogue.
Finally, we must look at their redemption arcs. With Florida Karen having an entire film on her side and not just a handful of scenes, you’d think this one would be hers. But not so fast! It takes way too long to get there, and her redemption shores everything up far too easily. This Karen remains a Karen until the last few minutes of the film. I’m not buying what she’s selling, and I would like to return it for a full refund.
Foolish Karen, however, is decently convincing! We don’t hear an apology come out of her mouth to her neighbors, but she joins them in a game of Broomball and gets her comeuppance when she’s smacked in the head with a wayward globule. An eye for an eye, I say. And while Simms certainly brings some substantial comedic moments to A Christmas Karen, Byrne has two seasons of great work on Physical under her belt. A second point for Foolish Karen.
What do you know? It looks like a tie! And because this is a completely fake competition that I made up, I’m deciding their fates.
Spirited takes an obsolete punchline and beats the shit out of it, expecting its viewers to giggle and guffaw simply because it had the audacity to do so. It’s as maddening as it is cheap and lazy. And that’s ironic, because A Christmas Karen seems like it was produced for $500 and two dozen Krispy Kreme donuts to keep morale up. Yet, even on a shoestring budget, the script manages to include some genuine laughs before phoning it in for the last half hour.
I began this mission wondering which Karen could properly hit enough marks to be the less annoying version of an already outdated joke, but it turns out, there is no world where Christmas Karens won’t rub me the wrong way. There are no winners here; these characters are products of bad ideas that unintentionally diminish the inherent violence of real-life people that display these kinds of vile behaviors. There is no messaging nor thoughtful examinations from the white men who wrote these films on how to curb these continued acts of prejudice.
You’re free to tell me that I’m taking all of this too seriously, but there’s no reason we still need to bear witness to archaic Karen jokes on top of having to gulp down the umpteenth adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It’s blisteringly depressing that both of these films tried to spin original takes on Dickens’ tale, only to end up competing with one another in a smackdown because artists are so devoid of new ideas. When will Hollywood finally give up the ghost (of Christmas Past) when it comes to recycling memes two years too late? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’ll be rattling my chains come Christmas, haunting whoever keeps greenlighting projects like these.