Who is a “Karen?”
People on the internet have recently labeled the angry customer in a store or shop setting publicly throwing a tantrum and demanding to speak with the manager as a “Karen.” The “Karen” persona typically embodies an angry woman who demands to speak to the manager at any inconvenience. She uses her power and privilege to intimidate workers and other customers to get what she wants.
A popular example is the woman who enters a store to return a recent purchase. She comes without a receipt and demands a full refund. The workers remind her that she must show proof of purchase for a refund, to which the woman grows infuriated. This woman, Karen, publicly throws a tantrum, complains about the unfair rules, and thus demands to speak to the manager. Karen acts as the stereotypically privileged and entitled woman who expects nothing less than queen-like treatment. When not treated above the law, she humiliates and belittles others, victimizes herself, and weaponizes her privilege to exact revenge.
“Karen” and COVID-19
Recently, the internet has extended the “Karen” persona to other scenarios. One example is Amber Lynn Gilles, the American woman who completely disregarded store policy, and refused to wear a mask at a Starbucks. The barista, Lenin Gutierrez, asked her to comply with the rules, to which Gilles grew infuriated. Gilles posted a picture of Gutierrez on Facebook, criticizing him for refusing to serve her. She cited that she will wait for the cops next time, and bring a medical exemption. The Facebook post blew up, and people set up a GoFundMe for Gutierrez to commend him for standing up to Gilles. Now, Gilles has involved her attorneys and demands half of Guttierez’s GoFundMe money.
“I feel like I need the apology,” she said. “I’ve been discriminated against. I’m the one who’s sick,” citing medical reasons for not being able to wear a mask. Users commented that Gilles could have used a face shield, or could have even used the drive-thru. But she intentionally entered the store while breaking their rules, and expected exemption from rules she did not want to follow.
In this instance, Karen casts herself as the innocent victim of unfair oppression. She then demands to speak to the manager, threatens to call the cops, and even publicly shames her “oppressor.”
“Karen” the Racist
Other times, “Karen” describes the white woman who weaponizes her whiteness to call the cops on a black man. Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her unleashed dog in an area that requires leashing. A black man named Christian Cooper, who had been birdwatching, asked her to follow the rules to which Amy refused. When Christian beckoned the dog toward him, Amy called the cops. She grew hysterical, and frantically cried that an “African-American man” was “threatening her life.” Again, Karen casts herself as the victim of harassment. She calls the police to save her from a threat.
In both scenarios, Karen refuses to follow the rules. She thinks of herself as above the law. She believes she is entitled to do whatever she pleases whenever she pleases. she casts herself as the innocent victim being threatened, harassed, or oppressed when called out. She demands that an authority figure protect her.
History of “Karen”
The “Karen” figure is simply a product of the “damsel in distress” figure that the media has ingrained into society. The damsel in distress figure is a classic theme in literature, art, film, video-games, and more. It involves a beautiful, innocent, helpless young female oppressed by a villain, who needs a male figure to rescue her. Disney shows, for example, ingrain this representation into young children at an early age. Whether it be Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or others, there is a common theme of a weak and fragile princess who is the victim of oppression. She relies on an authority figure to save her.
Historically, white women have leveraged this stereotype against black people. The Scottsboro Boys is a classic example. In 1931, nine black teenagers aged thirteen had been riding on a freight train with several white males and these two white women. A fight broke out between the white and black people, and subsequently, the train ticked the white people kicked off. Thus, the two white women went to the sheriff’s department and claimed these boys had raped them. There was no evidence beyond the women’s testimony that proved the men guilty of the charge. In fact, there was enough evidence to prove that no one had even touched the women. But the all-white jury sentenced eight of the nine boys to death. When the white woman is called out for trying to be above the law, she victimizes herself and calls upon violent institutions to protect her once again.
“Karen” as a Mindset
Karen believes others are required to serve her. She looks down upon people who she perceives as below her – this can be workers or people of color. It is important to note that anyone can be a “Karen,” and “Karen” is not a catch-all phrase for all white women. It is a term people use to describe privileged people who intentionally make individuals’ lives harder because they feel entitled. Karens can weaponize economic privilege, white privilege, something else, or even both. But the “Karen” persona embodies the mindset of a woman who believes the world owes her something.