In defense of Karen
At the risk of outing myself as a hopeless contrarian, I would like to put in a good word for Karen.
For those of you who have not been in front of a computer in the last six months or so, Karen is an online stock character, like the "Fedora Atheist" or the "Reply Guy." Unlike these other personalities, Karen's behavior on the internet is not what she is known for — in fact, the comparative unimportance of the internet in Karen's life is one of her most endearing characteristics. Instead she is a stand-in for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of middle-aged white women in certain decidedly offline public situations. The single action most commonly associated with her is asking to "speak to the manager," often about trivialities such as a mistaken order or apparently surly behavior on the part of a waitress or a clerk.
I'm not sure when I first became aware of her, but my initial thought was that Karen must have been a television character, perhaps from The Office, which I have never watched. The actual origins of the meme are somewhat unclear, but over the last few months, hatred of Karen and the things she is said to represent — brashness, self-aggrandizement, a grotesque inability to distinguish between the spirit and the letter of various rules — has become a rare unifying force in American public life.
Like millions of others throughout the English-speaking world, I have laughed at jokes about Karen wearing a mask alone in her own car and lecturing other people's children about the non-existent danger of running lemonade stands or playing in public parks. My misgivings began when I saw people asking what the male equivalent of a Karen was. (The first name I saw proposed was "Neil," after the scientist Neil Ferguson, who resigned from his advisory role in the British government after violating his own social distancing recommendations in order to visit his mistress.)
Then it occurred to me: There is no such thing as a male Karen for the not so surprising reason that when men behave like her they are not doing anything society deems worthy of comment. A man whose defining personality traits are (to quote a professor of memes, something that we have in this country) "entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain" is not called anything in particular. He is not associated with a particular generation, much less with certain kinds of haircuts. His behavior might be deplored, but it is just as often excused or even lauded according to the logic of firm handshakes.
One of the most obvious objections to the Karen meme, then, is that it is just the latest acceptable political outlet for misogyny. This is certainly true in right-wing and corona-skeptic circles and among the dirtbag left. But if anything Karen hatred is even more prominent in the radical "Yas Queen/Notorious RBG" set that for 30-somethings looks increasingly like the center of American politics, where former Teen Vogue editorial interns project their worst fears about themselves on to an older generation. If this were the only thing to be said about Karen, she would hardly be worth defending, not because the shortcomings of the horseshoe theory of politics should never be addressed but because one could safely assume that there was nothing to the stereotype.
Instead of arguing that Karen is not real, which seems to me untenable (not least because, upon a moment's reflection, I realize that she is my mother), I will not only accept the premise of her existence but do my best to paint a sympathetic picture of her, even though doing so requires painting with the same broad strokes as her critics.
The first thing that ought to be said about Karen is that she is a product of her times, an indelible Gen Xer, equally removed from the self-justifying antinomian spirit of her boomer parents and the ennui of her children. Karen belongs to the first generation of American women who were almost universally expected to work outside the home, not simply as part of "careers" in obviously rewarding professions but in order to make ends meet, something her mother had done, if at all, only after Karen had grown up or else temporarily, if Karen's father were laid off. In addition to these newfound responsibilities, Karen inherited from her mother's generation a series of assumptions about domestic work and child rearing that were no longer tenable but which she nevertheless did not question. Karen raised her own children amid the backdrop of an illusory economic boom, an expansion of the range of consumer goods that this country had not experienced since her own parents had been children in the 1950s, and nothing short of a revolution in our ideas about education, health, and safety.
Karen herself might have owned a Barbie or two in the late '60s or early '70s; her father might have presented her with a new bicycle for her eighth birthday. Karen raised her own children in a world full of malls, plastic licensed toys manufactured in the newly opened markets of China and Southeast Asia, video games, endless fast-food options, and both the cultural and economic expectation that they had to partake of these things. Instead of smoking cigarettes with Barb and Doris while the children roamed the neighborhood and Bob and Charles worked at "the plant" or "the office," Karen spent hundreds of thousands of hours ferrying children between swim lessons and soccer practice and haircuts and sleepovers, with goodness knows how many exhausted interludes at McDonald's drive-throughs, where the last thing she needed was a hamburger Happy Meal with unasked-for pickles that Ashley was not going to eat. (Of course the sullen teenager whose one job was to take down her order accurately and convey it to the other sullen teenagers — who should be grateful they have these opportunities — whose job it is to make the food without a hitch should be held to account. When was she not?)
When Karen got home, she vacuumed. When she finished vacuuming, she read John Grisham or slept. When she woke, she parceled out three different kinds of sweetened cereal to her children before loading them in the car for school; with any luck, Ashley would get her shoes on, traffic would be light, and she would be at her desk in time to avoid explaining to her own manager why she was four minutes late. Her husband's role in all this was to earn the income that paid the mortgage and the car loans and the annual Disney vacation; the Pokemon cards begged for in the checkout line, the McDonald's receipts, and the occasional guilty CD purchase were all on her, and somehow the credit card bill that made all of them possible was as inexplicable to him as it was inevitable to her.
What equipment did Karen bring to parenting at the end of history, to the unheralded cultural revolution she had not asked for? Her neat handwriting, her hatred of bad manners, her unthinking sense of duty, her consistent expectations — Karen's occasionally harsh treatment of strangers without regard for race or class is refreshingly egalitarian. Karen did not question the underlying assumptions of the age in which lived. She did not regret her life choices. She did not understand why the world was like this. But she did not complain about it either, in part because she sensed (rightly) that these things were beyond her control, and in part because she was determined to see the good in Jacob's desire to own all four of the new Big Bad Beetleborg toys (creative) and play Lego Island on Windows 98 (computers are the future).
Meanwhile, the very different series of transformations that had taken place — the crack epidemic, broken windows-style policing, three strikes policies — in neighborhoods unlike her own barely registered with Karen except as instances of our leaders doing within their own spheres exactly what she had been tasked with: keeping everyone happy and safe. Karen would have been horrified at the thought of being called a racist, something she associated with the sort of lazy, uncouth white people from whom she kept her distance. Besides, she was not a dork; she liked Nelly just as her mother had liked The Supremes, in a decontextualized manner that was as compatible with ignorance of black experience as her husband and (indeed her father's) love of professional sports. Only occasionally, often in somewhat bathetic circumstances (hearing that the only black girl on her daughter's softball team had never been to Taco Bell) would she begin to think about these things, and in response more often than not she would do what she thought was the right thing (taking Erika there after practice). What Newt Gingrich and Joe Biden and virtually every other politician of any significance got wrong cannot be laid at Karen's tired feet.
Let's talk about the manager and why Karen wants to speak with him. Karen has probably worked a terrible job before, or she might, in fact, have one now. She has always done the best she could at her job, not because it meant that she would be paid more or because she would win the esteem of her indifferent colleagues and superiors, but for purely abstract reasons. Karen does not like sloppiness. She is not okay with the old college try. She has been asked to do a great many difficult and not especially rewarding tasks both inside and outside the workplace, and if you ask her now, Karen will in fact disinterestedly apply herself to any tedious project, but she will expect the same from everyone else involved. (I experienced this myself just a few weeks ago, when my mother came by to help us clear brush at our house: when she saw me stepping away after 10 minutes of work with the chainsaw for a cigarette, she told me that I was behaving like a member of her father's generation: "Typical UAW mentality.")
Politically, Karen has been portrayed as everything from a progressive suburban wine mom of the "privilege dinner" variety to a MAGA enthusiast. There is probably some truth to both of these, but how Karen votes seems to me less important than how she arrives at her views, which are less a function of ideology than of whether she identifies the president or his critics with the feckless whining she has always despised.
This is why I do not fault Karen for not initially sharing my skepticism of the frequently absurd and contradictory advice given by public health authorities during the pandemic, much less for assuming that people half her age, who have grown up with advantages she never dreamed of for herself but which she has given her life to realizing for her own children, should complain less. Least of all do I blame her for bristling at the notion that instead of browbeating the customer service people, she should make do with dog yoga and "self care" and social media preening.
It would be a great mistake to identify Karen with Lean In archetypes or clichés about well-behaved women seldom making history. Karen is not particularly interested in history. Instead, to the extent that she reflects upon her life and conduct (a luxury rarely if ever afforded), she sees herself as an unremarkable person: not a passive personality (she believes very firmly in individual agency), but someone who with quiet dignity does what she thinks best according to her station in life and does so without making any unnecessary fuss, at least so long as others are willing to do the same. Women like Karen do not, in fact, make history. But they do allow civilization to continue just a while longer, on the backs of those like themselves whose reward is all too often omnidirectional spite.
I, for one, would rather live in a world ruled by Karens than endure one more dreary minute of millennial self-righteousness or boomer incompetence.
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