We need to talk about Karen: social media gone wrong

Have you met Karen?

She is a middle-aged, middle-class white woman with a blonde, choppy bob. She’s ignorant, always needs to complain and see the manager. She also calls the police on black people and she’s staunchly anti-vax, weaponizing her relative privilege against the more disadvantaged.

Or at least, supposedly.

In reality, ‘Karen’ is a widespread pejorative meme and insult. An imaginary woman the internet loves to hate.

Social media has seen this once inoffensive name turn into something a lot more problematic. Because what starts on social doesn’t stay there. We live in a virtual world where online discourse and ‘real world’ events blur to the point of being indistinguishable. You need to understand the one to understand the other.

So, what’s online is also offline – and vice versa.  Something that starts as a jokey meme can end with immense social pressure to change your name. Or worse.  Some of those denounced as ‘Karens’ online have lost their jobs, gone into hiding or issued desperate denunciations of themselves in a bid to save some shred of their reputation.

But how on earth did we get here? Let’s dive into the warped social-media appetite for naming and shaming, as well as its real-world effects.

What’s in a name?

According to Know Your Meme, the joke was first posted on Reddit in 2014. Between 2016 and 2017, the stereotype began to spread, wracking up so many followers that Reddit had to ban the largest thread, “#fuckyoukaren”, for its “witch-hunt” themed posts. It has since come back in full force on social media platforms across the board. Trending hashtags on Twitter range from #Karen, #Karens, #KarensGoneWild and #KarenGonnaKaren to #KarenStrikesAgain, #BlameKarenFor, #AndThenKarenSnapped and #karenmemes.

But the meme took a darker turn on May 25th, 2020. Having previously been associated with annoying, entitled and demanding behaviour, the Central Park birder incident made “Karen” a politically charged watchword for white supremacy in action. The timing was especially sensitive: the confrontation happened the same day as the arrest and murder of George Floyd, sparking worldwide protests against racism and police brutality. A woman called Amy Cooper called the police on a black birdwatcher called Christian Cooper (no relation) and claimed that he was harassing her when he was reprimanding her for unlawfully letting her dog off its leash. She became known as ‘The Central Park Karen’ after this video recording went viral:

In fact, so swiftly did ‘Karen’ morph into a shorthand for white people calling the cops on Black people that when San Francisco lawmaker Shamann Walton proposed a city ordinance that would outlaw “false racially biased” 911 calls, he dubbed it “the CAREN Act”.

And so, meme ‘Karen’ became a symbol of real-world racism and a stand-in for 2020’s and 2021’s fraught social politics. Yikes.

From bad to worse

We can study the latest turn of political debate in the most recent evolution of the long-standing meme: Covid Karen. Amid the pandemic, ‘Karen’ has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority who are opposed to social distancing and government restrictions. Karen-bashing has thereby been legitimised as the ‘common good’; a way to shame someone into keeping everyone safe.

This raises the question: are we seeing a new form of public vigilantism? The Reddit group ‘FuckYouKaren’ now has over 1.2 million members and the Facebook group ‘Karen’s Gone Wild’ prides itself on “Exposing Karens and their ignorance”.

This raises the stakes for anyone who is publicly accused: those who are caught on camera are aware that their life could completely fall apart. We see this most explicitly in a video recording of a confrontation between Karlos Dillard and a white woman known as Leah, outside her Seattle home. She screams after he calls her a ‘Karen’ for allegedly flipping him off during a road rage incident. He pans his phone to the woman’s car and announces:

“Guys, this is her license plate number. She lives here. This is her address.”

She weeps as she covers the license plate of her car in a desperate effort to remain anonymous and protect herself from online harassment. We can hear her say:

“He wants to say I’m a Karen! You’re going to ruin my life and you don’t even know me.”

We are witnessing a woman fighting for her private life, aware of the fallout that comes with social media shaming. It goes to show how the most flippant memes on social now have real-life consequences, cultural relevance and societal significance.

So while the Karen meme is an interesting study into how culture adapts and changes on social media, we must not forget the faces behind the joke. Its weaponisation and politicisation have made it a lot more difficult for the more than one million people in the US alone who share the name. You probably even know a Karen.

So remember them, and think before you share something seemingly frivolous and harmless online. It’s up to all of us to maintain a respectful dialogue online by keeping ourselves in check and held to account for what we say.

And lest we forget – it could be your name next.


By Louise Alestam


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