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Karen: The anti-vaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair, explained

How the name “Karen” became an insult — and a meme.

Kate Gosselin on the set of the Today show.
Kate Gosselin serving up some serious speak-to-the-manager attitude.
Lisa Berg/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If your name is Karen, Becky, or Chad, you may have noticed a growing trend of people using your name as an insult. Increasingly, “Karen” in particular has emerged as the frontrunner for the average “basic white person name” — a pejorative catchall label for a wide range of behaviors thought to have connections to white privilege. And the recently trending Twitter hashtag #AndThenKarenSnapped has further shifted the “Karen” meme from its nebulous origins toward becoming a mainstream trope.

Where a similar insult like “OK Boomer” stereotypes a specific generation, calling someone a “Karen” draws on associations people have built around extremely common names. But the stereotype the name conjures — at least in the US — is limited mainly to white women in their mid-30s or 40s. The archetypal “Karen” is blonde, has multiple young kids, and is usually an anti-vaxxer. Karen has a “can I speak to the manager” haircut and a controlling, superior attitude to go along with it:

Kate Gosselin — or the Ur-Karen, if you will.
Cory_Blaine4 via Buzzfeed

How exactly did “Karen” become the manager-summoning meme of choice? And is any of this justified?

To find out, we talked to a lot of interested parties, including some Karens, the creator of a Karen meme forum, and some naming experts. Here’s everything we learned about what’s in a name.

“Karen” is an attitude — a bad one

The “Karen” meme has multiple origins, each one using the idea in slightly different ways. But one of the most prominent uses developed on Reddit, thanks to a redditor known for posting amusingly bitter invectives about his ex-wife — posts so amusing, they inspired a high school student to make an entire subreddit, r/FuckYouKaren, devoted to turning his saga into a meme.

Karmacop97 is a 17-year-old from Irvine, California. He made the subreddit two years ago as a joke and named it after the now-deleted user account Fuck_You_Karen. At first, karmacop97 told me, the subreddit was “just to compile the lore behind this guy’s relationship,” which he viewed as likely being a parody. The villainous Karen had taken the kids and then the house, both typical parts of the “Karen” meme. Soon, a few thousand redditors had subscribed to make memes based on the redditor’s enraged posts — but when that aggrieved user eventually deleted his account and vanished shortly after the subreddit’s creation, the forum kept growing. Since then, the subreddit has grown from 4,000 redditors to more than 435,000 — and the memes posted there call out all kinds of “Karen”-ish behavior.

In particular, the “Karen” has evolved into a figure known for her hypocrisy, rudeness toward working-class staff, and anti-science beliefs.

Especially trenchant is the idea — as you can get from this satirical Instagram bio of a spiritual “Karen” — that a stereotypical Karen plays fast and loose with pseudoscience, appropriates identities, may be conservative, and is extremely picky.

Reddit — FuckYouKaren

“A Karen divorces her husband and takes the kids, is a pseudoscientist/anti-vaxxer/flat-earther, an MLM participant, an avid user of Facebook to post shitty motivational posts/’Live Laugh Love,’ and more,“ karmacop97 explained to me. “Our Karen in the wild won’t satisfy all of [these attributes], but she can still be a true Karen.”

“She’s the mom in Kroger with her kids asking to speak to the manager,” one Karen, a 29-year-old law student from Oxford, Mississippi, told me in a phone interview. “You do see that basic stereotype sometimes, so it’s kind of funny. It’s a little bit of a commentary on white privilege, perhaps.”

On one level, we’ve seen all of this before: After all, resentment toward the upper middle class — what we might call “bourgeoisophobia” — has been around since the middle class itself, often coming most strongly from members of that very middle class. What has changed are Karen’s specific offensive traits: Like all bourgeoisie stereotypes before her, she’s snobbish, prudish, and hypocritical. But now, she’s against science on principle, which is definitely a new twist to the traditional bourgeois model. And the chief way she manifests her class consciousness is not by, say, being a patron of the arts, but by being aggressively rude to the help.

“Karen” isn’t alone in receiving this treatment. We’ve increasingly seen a lot of “basic white names” — commonly associated, rightly or wrongly, with Middle American white Protestants — being used in mocking memes that portray them as archetypes rather than individuals. Consider such examples as: “They’re lesbians, Harold,” “Talkback Tammy,” “they’re good dogs Brent,” and, of course, “Becky with the good hair.” White people seem just as likely to make fun of these names as everyone else, especially when it comes to men making fun of women; in the predominantly white men’s rights movement, “Chads,” “Stacys,” and “Beckys” are used to embody and mock people who conform to mainstream gender norms and beauty standards.

This trend might have also gotten a boost from social media, according to Dr. I.M. Nick, a nomenclature scholar and former president of the American Name Society. “The general tendency which social media users have been shown to manifest is a high frequency of shortenings and abbreviations,” she said in an email, though she hesitated to speculate on how this tendency might apply to specific names. Combined with what seems to be an underground but culturally established association of “Karen” with rude entitlement — more on that in a minute — it’s possible that social media shorthand could also be one potential origin point for the meme.

Oxford Karen told me she’d seen the meme applied to other names like “Susan” and “Zach”— what she describes as “basic white people names.” She compared the meme to the famous Key & Peele “Substitute Teacher” sketch, which inverts/calls out the tendency white people have to stigmatize and mock “ethnic” names by applying that mentality to white names. “I taught at a school with predominantly children of color,” she said, “and that Key & Peele sketch hit home.” In other words, she suggested, there’s potentially an element of reclamation in this trend — payback for decades of “black names” being pejoratively stereotyped, as the sketch highlights:

Not everyone agrees with this reclamation assessment. “From a scientific point of view, there is nothing intrinsic about a personal name that makes it ‘black’ or ‘white,’” Dr. Nick told me in an email. “What I think is brilliant about the Key & Peele sketch is that it underscores the fact that personal names are often used to help create and reinforce discriminatory and injurious power differentials within societies.”

In other words, names have always played a key role in reinforcing existing societal rules, including power imbalances. The “Karen” meme, in fact, is part of a long tradition — and a pejorative one at that.

Karen as an insult may be new, but names as insults are as old as names themselves

There’s plenty of historical precedent for using a proper name to stand in for a whole archetype or stereotype of a character. This linguistic use is usually referred to as an eponym; calling someone a “Scrooge” is perhaps the most recognizable example, in reference to a wealth-hoarding, greedy personality. Particularly in the US, racist depictions of fictional characters have often become stand-ins for the negative stereotypes they represent — the “Uncle Tom,” the “Mammy,” the “Stepin Fetchit,” and so on.

Cleve Evans is a professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska who studies onomastics — the history and etymology of proper names. “There are myriad examples of words derived from names,” he told me in an email, including as racial or ethnic slurs. Names like “Paddy” and “Mick” functioned as anti-Irish slurs in the 19th century, while “Guido” was a common slur for Italians.

Evans said the takeaway wasn’t that “Karen” is an insult now, but rather that names have always been fodder for this kind of use. “They are just another linguistic item that’s possible to be associated with a particular group because of the perception that it’s common among that group,” he said.

Nick agreed. “The use of a personal name to refer to an entire group(ing) of people is a long-documented, cross-cultural, linguistic phenomenon that can be attested over many, many centuries,” she said. “The specific names used, the connotations intended, and the peoples involved, vary greatly.”

Karen itself was originally a Danish form of “Katherine,” descended from the ancient name “Aikaterine,” which Evans told me was often confused and conflated with a Greek word meaning “purity.” That does lend a bit of accidental irony to the “Karen” meme, with its emphasis on sanctimonious morality, but it had nothing to do with the way the meme came about. In other words, there’s nothing in particular about the meaning of the name “Karen,” or the specific trajectory of the name in pop culture, that lends itself to this kind of pejorative use.

What does seem to be new, Evans said, is that names can increasingly stand in for a generational slur — like “boomer” — because there are more names associated with specific age groups and naming fads and trends over the years. Especially among women, he said, “the fads and fashions of the last century have led to many more names that can be linked to a particular age group in addition to names that can be linked to a particular ethnicity.”

The name “Karen” peaked as a popular baby name in the US around 1965 — so even though the typical meme “Karen” is from Gen X, the actual majority of women named Karen in the US are boomers. So if there’s any correlation between the name and reality, we can, at most, speculate that the women who’ve wound up giving all Karens a bad name are a group of white senior citizens behaving badly.

But speaking of moral hypocrisy ... isn’t this name-calling all just really mean?

Isn’t this all really sexist?

In Dane Cook’s 2005 comedy album Retaliation, he included a sketch called “The Friend Nobody Likes.” The whole joke of the sketch is that every friends group contains one person everyone else hates. “Karen is always a douchebag,” Cook joked. “Every group has a Karen, and she’s always a bag of douche. And when she’s not around, you just look at each other and go, ‘God, Karen!’”

It’s a largely forgotten joke — but Vox editor Karen Turner told me she was subjected to it constantly as a kid. “Imagine being, like, 13 and everyone is constantly quoting this joke to you,” she said. The idea of “the group’s Karen” still turns up once in a while, and may have gotten a boost from 2016’s “antisocial Karen” Nintendo meme, which framed the group’s outlier as a relatable gamer who’d rather play with her new Switch console than engage in social activity. Other culturally well-established uses of “Karen” are also negative — think of ditzy Karen from Mean Girls and meddling Karen from Goodfellas.

The current use of the “Karen” meme is almost always to call out the perceived entitlement and rude behavior of white women. But it’s easy to see each of these variants coming back to bite real Karens — and many people think the “Karen” meme itself is just a form of blanket misogyny.

“I am sure there are occasions where a complete jerk is deliberately using this new slang term as a way to harass a particular woman named Karen, and I think that should be called out,” Evans said.

And sure enough, Karen Han, who writes for Vox sister site Polygon, told me that “sometimes people on Twitter do assume I’m white and respond to tweets that they disagree with that ‘Karen’ meme.” Karen Turner likewise told me she gets people spamming her with the Karen meme on Twitter.

Karmacop97 framed this behavior as the exception to the meme rather than the rule — at least on Reddit. “I don’t think it’s particularly sexist,” he said, defending the Karen-focused subreddit, “because the general userbase only calls out specific people, not all women. Also, a few male spinoffs have been posted and done pretty well, where a guy is acting like a Karen (typically Kyle). Anyone who takes it too far as to say all women are like this gets downvotes.”

Still, it’s probably hard not to feel the effects of the meme if you are, in fact, a Karen. “It’s definitely annoying to see, as a Karen who doesn’t think of herself as that kind of ‘can I speak to the manager’ attitude nor haircut (and also given that it’s usually defaulted to a middle-aged white woman),” Han said.

As Turner’s years of being teased because of Dane Cook’s old joke indicate, this name-based mockery can be hurtful — and it’s probably unfair to tell Karen to grow a thicker skin. “Name-based prejudices can leave lasting and deep psychological scars,” Dr. Nick stressed. “Calling people names is sadly one of the first strategies people learn to use to hurt one another. I think most of us, regardless of what our personal names may be, have memories of being hurt, seeing someone hurt, or even hurting someone else by teasing involving a personal name.”

It’s tempting to ask what a Karen — or a Chad, Stacey, Susan, Becky, or Kyle — can do to ward off this memetic derision; if, for example, there are ways you can work around or minimize the fallout related to your Basic White Person name. But Dr. Nick told me she felt that question was missing the point. “As a society, we often expect people to somehow modify their behavior to avoid becoming a victim,” she said. The better course, she proposed, would be to “work against the source of the name discrimination and protect those who are harmed by it.”

In this case, because the “Karen” meme doubles as a callout method to highlight white privilege, working against the source of the meme also means not only dismantling systems of privilege but becoming more aware of your individual entitlement. Oxford Karen told me she’s become a little more self-conscious because of the meme. “A couple weekends ago I told my husband he should speak to the manager, and as soon as I said it, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m such a Karen!’”

She told me she usually rolls with the joke. “I try to be funny about it,” she said. “I think it’s a joke about how often the things we think are important, or the things we get all worked up about are just not that serious — especially given the situations other people have to deal with.” Like Oxford Karen, many Karens seem to have accepted that, ironically, the meme isn’t really about them. Some have even started playing along.

“It’s mildly irritating, but I would probably do the same if the situations were reversed. It’s way better than when I was in middle school,” Turner said. “At least this one isn’t Dane Cook-inspired.”

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