The popularity of names comes and goes. Some stand the test of time and remain firm favourites, while, as tastes and influences change, many are confined to a few generations. Celebrities, royals, sports stars, religious figures, and the rest often provide sparks of creativity for the greater population in naming their children. Commonly gestures of emulation or adulation, giving a child a trending name comes from a predominantly positive space. However, as much as we like to elevate and champion those who grab the public’s imagination, the desire to tear pedestals down, increasingly at the slightest deviance from our preferred narratives, has the tendency to cast many names to the wayside.
Following its memeification and mainstreaming into Western slang, the name Karen has joined the ever-growing roster of passé US monikers from the last century. It continues to be avoided when filling out birth certificates; most likely to be followed in the not-too-distant future by the likes of Alexa, Harvey, or Ghislaine. Although what makes Karen’s decline so interesting is that it can’t be linked to the actions of an individual or single event but those of a perceived collective.
In the past 20 years, the US saw the name fall from 153rd most popular to 831st, accelerating a steady decline from its glory days of the mid-sixties. Namesakes from this era are now middle-aged, the etymology of Karen points to Denmark and, given the demographic makeup of the US during the mid-20th Century, it is a largely white name. These factors contributed to the meme taking off quite the way it did: it was relatable. Most know or have encountered someone that fit the description, even if their name was something else.
So, what are the connotations that Karen now carries in 2021?
Visually a lot of the early forms of the meme relied on hair. There is a certain ‘look,’ typically an inverted bob, short at the back and long at the front, dyed some variant of blonde with an angular fringe. One of the best descriptions found to describe the overall aesthetic of a Karen is to imagine a ‘lightened emo.’ Accompanying texts would at first play along with the riff of ‘I would like to talk to the manager,’ suggesting a confrontational and entitled vibe to those who met the mould.
To begin with, that was the whole bit. The Karen meme was designed to poke fun at pockets of entitled middle-class and middle-aged white women in the US, their latent and overt racism, and the fact they weren’t afraid to use their privilege to get what they wanted.
But then it really took off. The format of the meme evolved. It reached more people and finally crossed over into that blurry space between the virtual and reality, becoming a cultural reference with no need for a picture to aid description. Just saying, ‘What a Karen!’ following an anecdote of someone’s entitlement became the perfect summary. And for many in the wakes of BLM, Trump, and Covid-19 it is now a handy shortcut for ‘anti-woke’ or ‘not on our side.’
Spurred on by a heavy year of protests, combined with pandemic lockdowns, digital activism has cemented itself as so much more than an auxiliary to modern-day social movements. One widespread pursuit of social media justice to emerge is documenting and disseminating acts of racism, doxing perpetrators in the process. Entire accounts are created for the express purpose of doing just that: exposing racism through the camera lenses of mobile phones.
The existence of these sites isn’t all that surprising. There is clear evidence that since the election of Trump, as was the case in the UK following the Brexit decision, citizens harbouring prejudicial views have felt emboldened to voice these opinions. Thanks to the toxic discourses surrounding the 2016 US Election and the Trump Administration’s term, views that had privately festered in many for years have been legitimised for public use. Although that is only half of the story. It is not as if racialised abuse had not been a part of life in the West up until the point that Donny threw his hat in the presidential ring. The increased prevalence of racism must also be accredited to our augmented ability to consume and share imagery and information. Millions of citizens, who not long ago relied on traditional media outlets to relay events to them, now, with little effort, have the ability to ‘break news’ to the world.
Interactions between shopkeepers and abusive customers, irate adults calling the police on black children for playing too loudly, scuffles on beaches over towel placements, they all, among many more, have found their places on these hubs. Videos, usually condensed to a few explosive minutes of an altercation, are saved, viewed, and shared by thousands every day. Most focus on any recorded instance of racism, although there are several geared exclusively towards outbursts from middle-aged white women: ‘Karens.’
Is the goal of sharing these examples as part of the greater pursuit of eradicating racism from Western society a bad cause? No, it is not. When framed within the agenda of educating citizens on racial sensitivity and how to constructively interact with one another, undoubtedly it is important that the unacceptable is clearly defined.
Is identifying and exposing individuals behind racist attacks an unfair result? Again, no. Although now carrying far worse and further-reaching ramifications than the pre-digital age, examples should be made of proponents of hate, exemplifying the zero-tolerance approach that must be taken.
Are self-appointed curators of social media accounts best placed to filter and ethically decide the fates of all involved in captured racist incidents? For all their good intentions, the answer to this is not as clear-cut.
karensgoingwild currently stands as the most frequented Instagram profile by online visitors, with a whopping 1.1m followers and near-daily uploads. It has snatched pole position from one of the first and now-defunct profiles, Karens Gone Wild, and is one of many that work with similar headings. Whether administrators are fully aware of the shady late nineties video franchise Girls Gone Wild of Joe Francis infamy, where titular inspiration is taken from, is another question. But the similarities between both in the format and goal of filming and exposing private citizens in public places are discernible. With the obvious, yet questionable, caveat that Girls Gone Wild supposedly included young college women who consented to be filmed and, according to Francis, wanted to have their drunken escapades shown to horny VCR collectors.
A few months back, when Karens Gone Wild was still up and running, and before a much-needed Instagram hiatus on my part, I got caught up in this social media phenomenon, finding uploads as intriguing, maddening, and at times, sardonic windows into US life. Here was Trumpland being played out in front of us. It was the raw hate that the media had been reporting for quite some time, unsanitised and packaged into an easy-to-view format. It was morbidly gripping and added to the still-growing sense that the animals have snatched the ring leader’s whip in one of the oldest of circuses, the US. And, in many respects, it was satisfying to see these people get their comeuppance. Countless individuals after being featured on Karens Gone Wild were chastised by the baying masses, ostracised by their communities, lost their jobs, and overall taught valuable lessons in how their actions had no place in modern society.
However, among the clearly repugnant examples of hate crimes, several uploads begged for a more nuanced interpretation. The meaning of the abusive words spat out remained as unacceptable as any other but the question of the mental state of these showcased ‘Karens’ was hard to shirk. There were clear examples of women displaying violent and erratic symptoms of mental health issues, where it was evident they were not in control of either their words or actions. As much as it was difficult to witness people being on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks, it was equally as difficult to imagine women in incredibly vulnerable positions being filmed, exposed, and subsequently identified to thousands.
Following one such post that included a ‘Karen’ screaming obscenities at a couple on a beach, mostly incomprehensible and not cogent, while her clearly distressed husband tried to as calmly as possible deescalate the situation, imploring the person filming to stop, I reached out to the administrator of Karens Gone Wild. After explaining that I supported the general objective of their account and the role that it played, I then put it to them that perhaps there were some submitted instances that required contemplation over the mental vulnerability of those involved before being posted. This was immediately met by hostility, and I was asked what my qualifications were to determine that this particular ‘Karen’ was mentally vulnerable. When I asked what their qualifications were to be sure of the opposite, I was accused of being a racist sympathiser and a ‘Klan member’ and then blocked.
This is all part of the larger problem with catch-all terms like Karen. It stiffens critical thought and doesn’t allow for nuance. Karen problematically reinforces common tropes of the ‘nagging woman,’ and runs the risk of disincentivising women from talking of unhappiness or displeasure out of fear of receiving the label. And, even when ridicule and contempt is rightfully thrown at excessive entitlement and acts of hate, it seems that it is women that are receiving the lion’s share. There is no real established male equivalent for the term ‘Karen,’ no multitude of social media accounts focusing solely on the racist and entitled acts of white men. ‘What a Karen!’ has become just as acceptable when referring to a man’s behaviour as it has for a woman. Despite male figureheads predominantly leading the emergence of right-wing ideologies throughout history, much of our attention is focused on women – ‘Karens’ – who have become the default everyday foot soldiers of these movements and continue to attract the most scorn.
Over the past few years, a lot has been said for the unaccountability of social media platforms, the need to curtail their excessive power and the lack of content oversight. The same concerns must be levied at the administrators of popular accounts, especially those that actively seek to dox others. There is something unsettling about the concept of anonymous entities wielding the sort of power and influence that can publicly ruin individuals in this way. Even if most Karen uploads are of hate-filled individuals, the risk that in some cases the mentally vulnerable slip through, are given this label, and find themselves in among the rest repeats questions over who is qualified to be the ethical arbitrators of social media content.
Once this information is put out into the digital ether, there is no way of truly deleting its presence, not by those featured or by those posting. And with the ever-present incentive of seeking ‘likes’ and garnering new followers, the desire to produce as much content as possible will continue confining these concerns to the back burner.