The year my name turned toxic

'You want a way to call someone out on entitled behaviour without using a term that’s a pejorative catch-all for all women? Retire ‘Karen.’'

December 23, 2020 13:20

"I’m going in there and asking to speak to the manager."

It was that brief respite from the pandemic in August, and my family was enjoying the breath-taking views of rolling green hills and bright blue sea in North Yorkshire. One afternoon, we were having lunch al fresco in a cute little town called Goathland, the setting of the popular British television drama, Heartbeat. Clearly most tourists who visit Goathland and peer into the old-timey “Aidensfield Garage” and local shops featuring Heartbeat memorabilia are nostalgic not only for the show itself, but also the nostalgia the show sold: that of a better time, a time when police were unquestionably the good guys, and the criminals always apprehended, never to pose a threat to Aidensfield residents or anyone else ever again. Also, a time when ‘gollys,’ or ‘golliwogs,’ Robertson’s Jam’s dolls with black skin, big red-and-white smiles, fluffy black hair, and giant round eyes, were good fun, not racist at all! Leaving the restaurant, I pass these ‘gollys’ in a shop window, do a doubletake, return, and stare in horror at the sight of a minstrel show right there, in 2020, in contemporary England, before my very eyes. I am stunned. "I’m going in and asking to speak to the manager," I announce.

My three children, ages 10, 13, and 15, do not react as they ought. Rather than show themselves to be mensches, cheerleaders for social justice, they alternately hide and shame. The youngest ducks behind his father. The older two whip out their phones and start to record me. "Hashtag Karen!" shouts the oldest. "Karen has three children and wants to speak to the manager!"

Presumably you’ve heard of the ‘Karen meme.’ Everyone has (yes, thank you, you can stop sending me every new ‘Karen’ gif that shows up on your social media feeds). Though its history is contested, the meme has actually been around for a while; this year, however, my name really went toxic. Take the ‘F- You Karen’ Reddit community: once a little-known kvetch site, it now has 1,000,000 members!

If I’m honest, I never liked my name. It’s not that Karen had nefarious associations when I was growing up, but just that it was so common in my generation. My fifth-grade class had five Karens in it! Still, I tolerated it. My mom said she liked the ‘k’ sound, so when I was born, she debated between Karen and Candy—but the latter, she worried, had the ring of a prostitute’s name. Now I rather wish she’d gone with that.

Over the course of the meme’s evolution, ‘Karen’ has been depicted as a woman in her 40s, a mother of three kids who wears a harsh asymmetrical blond bob. About the last of these, I will note that I do not have, and never have  had any such style (but then, surely there’s a Jewish version with brunette curls? – 'Keren'’??). ‘Karen’ has long exploited her privilege as a white, middle-class woman. The question is, for what?

It’s here that the goal posts keep moving. If the original meme was mostly associated with a woman who is rude to service workers, she has evolved and mutated. ‘Coronavirus Karen’ refuses to wear a mask and wants the salons to open so she can get her haircut. She coughs on people because she’s anti-science. Yet another ‘Coronavirus Karen’ reports her neighbours when there is any sound of life coming from their gardens (are they having visitors? In Tier 3??). Amy Cooper became ‘Central Park Karen’ in May when she tried to get the police to go after a Black birdwatcher, even as she was the one breaking the park rules. ‘Racist Karen,’ in fact, has become one of the most prominent versions of the meme, visibly displayed on signs in #BLM marches, and turned into a bill in San Francisco (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies, or CAREN Act) to penalise people making racially motivated calls to the police. I’m entirely sympathetic to the condemnation of racists, but then I remember that ‘Karen’ can also be the opposite of ‘Karen’. Aren’t I also a ‘Karen’ for wanting to fight racism?

The ability to accommodate so much contradictory behaviour suggests that this meme is, in the end of the day, just another sign of rampant misogyny. You want a way to call someone out on entitled behaviour without using a term that’s a pejorative catch-all for all women? Retire ‘Karen.’

As for this Karen speaking to the manager in Goathland, it turned out, to my disappointment (and that of my oldest, who had nothing more interesting to post on Instagram than Whitby Abbey), the shop was closed.


December 23, 2020 13:20

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