Where did the meme ‘Karen’ come from?

Dictionary.com defines Karen as a slang for:

  • a pejorative slang term for an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people’s behaviors.
  • As featured in memes, Karen is generally stereotyped as having a blonde bob haircut, asking to speak to retail and restaurant managers to voice complaints or make demands, and being an anti-vaxx Generation X soccer mom.

In 2020, Karen spread as a label used to call out white women who were captured in viral videos engaging in what are widely seen as racist acts.

Where did the meme come from?

Although its exact origins are uncertain, the meme became popular a few years ago as a way for people of colour, particularly black Americans, to satirise the class-based and racially charged hostility they often face.

Over the last decade, as it became easier to film confrontations on our smartphones, incidents started to be captured on camera and uploaded to social media with far greater ease – a woman calling the police when a black eight-year-old child was selling water without a permit, for example.

When these videos inevitably went viral, people online would assign the perpetrators commonplace names that chimed with the situation.

The woman who complained about the young water-seller was dubbed “Permit Patty”. Another woman who called the police when a black family was having a barbecue was named “BBQ Becky“. And a white woman who called 911 on a black dad at a football match, while sitting in a golf cart, was called “Golfcart Gail”.

This trend properly broke through in 2018, and eventually all of these names became distilled into one or two of the most popular – including Karen.

It also became synonymous with a particular type of hairstyle – specifically, the short, choppy cut sported by US reality TV personality Kate Gosselin in 2010. (Gosselin has since changed her hairstyle.)

In recent months a male version of the Karen meme has emerged, although it is less widely used: Ken. In June of 2020, when wealthy couple Patricia and Mark McCloskey were pictured pointing guns at protesters passing by their home in St Louis, Missouri, they were widely dubbed “Karen and Ken”.

In April, British feminist Julie Bindel tweeted: “Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman-hating and based on class prejudice?”

This is an argument that has been repeated in recent months, as the meme has become more mainstream.

However, people who use the term “Karen” say that it is not simply a catch-all for all middle-aged white women – and is, rather, dependent on a person’s behaviour.

NOTE: This post is an informal word summary that explains the key aspects of the meaning and usage of the slang Karen in the English language. This is not meant to be a formal definition of the name Karen.


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