How Karen rose through the internet to become an insult

Various women have been dubed "Karens" in recent weeks.
Various women have been dubed "Karens" in recent weeks. Photo credit: Twitter/Knowyourmeme.

If you spend any time on the internet you may have noticed a rising trend of one woman's name - Karen. In recent years the name Karen has become synonymous with aggressive pettiness, self-entitlement and middle-class arrogance.

Most commonly used to describe white middle-aged women, a Karen is someone who becomes confrontational when they do not get their way.  

According to Twitter users, Karens have short blonde hair, a love of wine and no sense of humour. They demand endlessly, probably don't vaccinate their children, and call the police on black people for doing nothing wrong.

But where did it come from? 

According to Vox, one of the first mentions of the negative connotations of Karen was in a 2005 Dane Cook comedy sketch called "the friend that nobody likes".

"Every group has a Karen and she is always a bag of douche," said Cook. 

However the better known rise of Karen comes from social media site Reddit. One user became well-known for posting bitter anecdotes about his ex-wife - these posts became so well known they inspired a subreddit called r/F**kYouKaren.

It now has more than 648,000 subscribers. 

Why Karen?

Names as insults is not a new concept - think back to Scrooge from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol becoming synonymous with a person who is stingy with money. Or even further back Judas - the apostle who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver which has come to mean a traitor or deceitful person.

But Karen never did anything truly awful - so why the sudden surge? 

First of all, Karens are often recognisable for their white privilege and Karen is a generic white-person name. 

The stereotype of a Karen is someone middle-aged and according to behindthename.com, the name peaked in popularity around 1956 - meaning the majority of real life Karens are between 40 and 65 years old - it's a stereotypically middle-aged name -  a gendered version of the "OK Boomer" meme which has also sky-rocketed to popularity. Which brings us to another facet of the Karen stereotype.

Is it problematic?

Some ill-informed commenters on social media have compared Karen to the n-word.

These people are categorically wrong, as comedian John Mulaney pointed out when he said "if you're comparing the badness of two words, and you can't even say one of them - that's the worse word".

However - while it is definitely not racist, there is an argument that the term Karen is sexist. 

There is no real male equivalent for Karen - some have posited that Chad is the male version but a Chad and a Karen have many more differences than similarities.

Both conjure an image of an entitled white person - but while Karens are shrill and demanding, pathetic in their need for superiority, Chads are sexually active alpha males.  

Both are derogatory but the characteristics of a Chad are typically more positive.

The term Chad seems to stem from jealous incels - involuntary celibates.

According to an introduction thread on the now suspended incels.me a Chad is "Charismatic, tall, good-looking, confident, muscular. [They] can be perceived as good or bad. It's a meme mostly." 

Compare that to the dictionary.com description of a Karen - "mocking slang term for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman."

One writer has described Karen as a "fingertrap" insult whereby struggling against it only makes it tighter - by denying you are a Karen, you become even more Karen-like as Karens famously have no sense of humour. 

The term Karen can be seen as a reflection of the way society resents women who put their foot down, similar to the gendered conversation around the term "bossy".

However other people argue context is key -  The term Karen has been adopted by people who bear the brunt of Karen-like behaviour. Her white privilege, entitlement and petty rage are frequently unleashed on young people, people of colour, and those in blue collar jobs. 

Karen is not encountered in serious situations where women step up and demand the treatment they deserve. Karen yells at baristas because her coffee is cold. Karen demands a refund for a meal she's already eaten. 

Karen expects special treatment for no reason other than she wants it.