Left to right: Michael Kovac/FilmMagic; Melody Cooper/Twitter; @savsoares/TikTok
The Karen meme is being used to describe women who commit racist acts in public, like unjustly calling the police on Black people.
The meme, which is often combined with the “can I speak to the manager” haircut, is used as a “pejorative for middle-aged white women,” according to a senior editor at Know Your Meme, to depict their entitlement.
While it’s hard to confirm the true origins of the meme, many believe it is derived from a Dane Cook comedy routine.
But the use of viral monikers becomes problematic when it assigns an innocuous and anonymous name to a person who has seemingly committed overtly racist actions.
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Before the general public learned the name of a white woman who called the police on a Black man in Central Park on May 25, she could easily be identified by a moniker. The internet agreed with certainty that Amy Cooper was a Karen.
Just days later, another Karen went viral for leaning on a car in a parking lot to prevent the driver from getting their desired parking spot.
In the weeks since, the internet has been entranced by viral videos labeling women “Karens,” including “coughing Karen,” who coughed on patrons at a New York City bagel shop; a woman who, with her husband, called the police on her neighbor for writing “Black Lives Matter” with chalk on his own property; and a woman who shouted “I have a Black husband” when a man filmed her after he claimed she cut him off in traffic, gave him the middle finger, and used racial slurs.
The “Karen meme,” which has become so ubiquitous it’s been used as a Halloween costume, burst onto the scene in the last couple of years to depict white women — who stereotypically had “speak to the manager” haircuts — acting entitled in public. Now, it’s used as an identifier for any white woman who acts inappropriately, rudely, or in an entitled fashion.
“It’s usually used as a pejorative for middle-aged white women,” said Matt Schimkowitz, a senior editor at Know Your Meme, the online meme encyclopedia. “It’s almost like they have an entitlement, where they’re kind of lording their privilege over another.”
Before the Karen meme, there was the “speak to the manager haircut.”
The “speak to the manager haircut” became its own meme before the Karen character took hold online. According to Know Your Meme, the joke was first posted on Reddit in 2014. Between 2016 and 2017, that idea began to spread throughout Reddit and spawned other images, including “starter pack” memes.
The best (and most famous) example of the haircut in real life was worn by Kate Gosselin of the popular mid-2000s reality show, “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” which followed a married couple rearing eight children. The haircut is a side-swept bob in the front, with spikey and much shorter hair in the back.
Know Your Meme
Vice wrote about the “often-maligned haircut” in October 2018, arguing that “the different haircut is unjustly derided as ugly and out of place, when it is actually a socially necessary style object.”
“It’s a very easy, recognizable thing to meme,” Schimkowitz said, explaining that just a name itself is hard to make memes out of, and the haircut imagery ultimately helped contribute to the Karen character. “All of these elements kind of blend together,” he said.
The exact origin of the meme is “hard to pin down.”
While there are many origin stories for the Karen meme, it’s not completely clear where it came from — as is the case with many popular memes. “The origins of Karen are kind of really hard to pin down,” Schimkowitz said.
But Schimkowitz said the most “convincing” theory is that the character originated from a Dane Cook comedy special that aired in 2005. “Every group has a Karen and she is always a bag of do-che,” Cook said in the routine. “And when she’s not around, you just look at each other and say, ‘God, Karen, she’s such a do-chebag!'”
Many associate the use of Karen in a pejorative sense with “Mean Girls,” which came out one year earlier, in 2004. The film’s line, “Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white,” has been used as a meme over the years.
Still, the Karen meme wouldn’t become popular until a decade later. The subreddit r/FuckYouKaren was created in 2017, according to Know Your Meme, where it has amassed more than 600,000 members. The page’s description says it’s “dedicated to the hatred of Karen” and its profile picture is of Gosselin. The Urban Dictionary definition of Karen first appeared in March 2018.
Also in 2018, memes about Karen being an ex-wife who wanted to take the kids in the divorce began circulating online, Know Your Meme reported. It’s worth noting that Gosselin and her ex-husband were divorced in 2009, spawning more than 10 years of a custody battle over their kids.
The name has come to be associated with white women who call the police on black people.
There’s a wide array of various “white cop caller nicknames” that are used in cases like Cooper’s, Schimkowitz said, wherein a white person calls the cops on a Black person or group of people out of entitlement. In May 2018, a woman named Jennifer Schulte, in Oakland, California, earned the nickname Barbecue Becky for calling the police on black men using a charcoal grill in a park for their barbecue.
Similarly, the alliterative nicknames Permit Patty and Cornerstore Caroline have also been given to other white women who have called the police on black Americans.
But somehow, Karen is the name that stuck. “The Karen meme just blew up in such a way that it just kind of took over all forms of criticism towards white women online,” Schimkowitz said. “It just became the de facto insult to log a woman who is exerting their entitlement or their privilege.”
The use of viral nicknames like Karen has been criticized.
While many women who are memed and called Karen are doing things like calling the manager or being rude in public, others — like Cooper — are known for exerting racial power dynamics in a dangerous way.
“Usually, the meme is associated with lower stakes situations, like a person at an Applebee’s who got the wrong meal — not serious questions of racial justice and silence and privilege,” Schimkowitz said.
There does appear to be a big difference in what happened with Cooper in Central Park, who explicitly threatened a black man with the police by invoking his race, and the other viral Karen of the week, “Parking Lot Karen,” who was trying to reserve a parking spot for her daughter.
David Dennis Jr., a journalist who has written about the pitfalls of assigning nicknames to women who do nefarious things, told Insider that calling women like Cooper by a false name grants them a level of “anonymity” and belittles what they’ve done.
“It seems like [Cooper] used his race and wanted the police to either arrest him or beat him up or kill him. And I think that’s something that we can’t forget that all of these women are doing,” he said. “They’re calling to put Black people’s lives in jeopardy.”
Dennis Jr. said that when Karens commit racist acts like these, the public needs to remember their real names to ensure that they can be held accountable in some way. “These people go out into the world, they have jobs, they do things that impact people. We need to remove them from those positions.”
In Cooper’s case, she was fired from her job and her dog was taken away — Dennis Jr. said he’s glad this incident turned out in a positive way, but that it doesn’t always happen like that. “I understand what [the Karen meme is] doing as a function of making fun of these women who are doing these things. But also, we can get so sucked into it that we feel like that’s enough,” he said. “I think there is a function of adding virality to them by using nicknames, that you’re going to get more eyes on the video… But I think that there’s also just this desire to gain popularity on social media by being clever.”
Still, Dennis Jr. sees a clear connection between white women who ask for the manager and those who call the cops on Black folks. “It ties into this audacity that white women are showing, especially now, that they’re owed something by the world — that they are to be served — especially when it comes to marginalized people or people who they feel are below them, like working class people or essential workers,” he said.
Many essential workers have expressed fear amid the coronavirus pandemic, as some people across the US are threatening to inflict harm on others by refusing to wear face masks. Even President Donald Trump has continued to deny the importance of using face masks to slow the virus’ spread. “There is a connection there between the racism of calling the police on a Black person,” Dennis Jr. said, “and feeling as though you are there to be served.”
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