Once a sick burn used to describe a specific type of person, ‘Karen’ has become meaningless. As part of an IRL miniseries on how the internet shapes our use of language, Madeleine Holden tracks the lifecycle of a once-great meme.
My first inkling that “Karen” was on life support came early last year, when I walked the Northern Circuit in late summer. Arriving at sunset to the Oturere Hut, my hiking partner and I found ourselves bunking with 12 strangers, most of whom were middle-aged white women. Huddled around an indoor picnic bench, cradling hot chocolates, I listened as they chatted merrily among themselves.
“I guess I’m a Karen,” one said cheerfully, before another chimed in that they “all were”. They didn’t sound unaware of the negative connotations of the term, but seemed to assume, with good-natured resignation, that it was simply their fate.
There were no obvious signs of Karenhood among the group, though: no inverted bobs with jarring blonde highlights, no telltale weirdness around the hut’s nonwhite residents, no “I know it when I see it” vibes-based clues. Some signs suggested they were, in fact, Kims – less than an hour earlier, for example, they’d been offering around precious chocolate rations and hot drinks to total strangers.
To be clear, I didn’t actually know these women: I had no idea how often they’d call the police on a neighbour for the crime of being brown, say, or demand the manager’s ear the second a service worker stopped catering to their every whim. But my hunch was they were wrongly conceding Karen status because the term had already become diluted through overuse, meaning they thought it was more about who you were (ie a middle-aged white woman) than how you behaved (ie like a nasty nark, who also happens to be a middle-aged white woman).
At any rate, I took good note of how far “Karen” had come. A niche meme emerging from the bowels of the mid-2010s internet in the US had exploded in popularity to the point that it was familiar, just a few years later, in the most offline space imaginable: a DOC hut with no wifi or electricity, teeming with Boomers, in a picturesque mountain wilderness in Aotearoa.
By my reckoning, “Karen” died later that year, deep into the Coronavirus pandemic. The term died with Covid rather than from Covid, but a few months after my Northern Circuit hike, when I first noticed the insult’s reduced potency, it was clear it had become totally meaningless, and that the virus helped speed up its death.
Here and overseas, government restrictions had become a serious point of contention among different factions of the electorate, and disagreement was heated, especially online. The Karen insult was immediately repurposed: while some degree of racism and/or bullying of service workers had always been a critical component of Karenhood, suddenly you could be a “Covid Karen” without these key ingredients. The quintessential Karen, at least according to proponents of lockdowns and social distancing mandates, was now someone who loudly opposed the (pandemic) rules, rather than demand the police or a manager enforce them.
This meant that pretty much anyone could be accused of Karenhood: the insult became less about an essential set of noxious behaviours from a clearly identifiable character and more about having the wrong politics and vibes.
Not that it was always very clear which politics or vibes, though. Locally, both vociferous opponents of the government’s policies, and their most evangelical enforcers and cheerleaders, described the other side as “Karens”: it was Karen to write an op-ed critical of the government’s approach, protest lockdowns in the streets of Whangārei or be a Grounded Kiwi; it was also Karen to call 105 on Level 3 rulebreakers and insist the Pfizer vaccine isn’t gene therapy. New Zealanders wholeheartedly embraced the insult, even tweaking it to “Kiwi Karen”, but the term became little more than generic shit to fling at the political enemy; as precise as calling someone a “communist”, “fascist”, “dickhead” or “little bitch”.
Dr Andreea Calude, a senior lecturer linguistics at the University of Waikato, points out that it’s totally normal for slang to shift meaning in this way. The Karen meme “represents a societal dissatisfaction with things we don’t like,” she says. “It started out as a racist thing, [but] at the moment there’s a big dissatisfaction with non-experts trying to dish out advice and say what we should be doing. This is really important and salient, so now Karen’s become that.”
In time, she adds, there’ll be new behaviours to disapprove of, “and it’s convenient once you have a person [to blame].”
Still, insults need to be targeted to be truly cutting, and “Karen” has fast lost this quality. In its early days, “Karen” was an insult par excellence because it was so surgical: it lasered in on a uniquely awful character with a famously naff aesthetic – “right down to the haircut,” Calude says – which had, until that point, completely avoided scrutiny.
Not just anyone could be a Karen; it wasn’t mere shorthand for “someone with a different opinion on vaccine mandates than me” or “someone I find obnoxious online”. A Karen was a relatively powerful person who feigned victimhood to win interpersonal disputes, knowing all along the cards were really in her hands; that cops and managers would automatically take her side over a service worker, say, or an eight-year-old Black girl selling bottled water. The way a Karen leveraged her status over her target was core to what made her hateable; the stripey highlights, chandelier earrings and wraparound sunglasses were what made her mockable.
“Karen” was a sick burn once. It meant something. And now it’s carked it.
Looking back a few years, it’s no wonder “Karen” blew up beyond recognition. The quintessential Karen was a racist, after all, and between 2015 and 2020, the antiracism movement boomed: while it had been gaining attention and approval since at least the Ferguson unrest in 2014, after George Floyd was killed in May 2020, it exploded into the mainstream. Black Lives Matter went from a Twitter hashtag to a foundation grossing more than 90 million USD in donations; consultants like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo became celebrities with lucrative careers; and corporations rolled out antiracist business strategies and public pledges of allegiance to the cause. On social media, videos capturing Karens in the wild regularly went mega-viral; the subjects were often identified and fired.
In short, it was suddenly a very bad time to be a Karen. Her relative power levels had nosedived, and she’d never been more exposed.
The term exploded in popularity, reaching its zenith in June 2020. And sure enough, it began plummeting immediately after. Nothing bleeds life from a trend like sustained mainstream attention, and “Karen” had reached saturation point. Dusty media outlets were running explainers, local politicians were weaponising the term and pizza chains were trialling gimmicky promos. You could even watch a whole movie based on the meme.
Pundits also began earnestly arguing about whether ‘Karen’ was misogynistic, another death knell for the term. “Memes are all about shared humour,” Calude points out; it’s a core part of what makes them memorable and punchy. Setting aside the question of whether “Karen” is misogynistic, nothing drains humour from a meme (or insult) like endless pontificating about whether it’s sensitive enough.
Does anyone else think the ‘Karen’ slur is woman hating and based on class prejudice?
— Julie Bindel (@bindelj) April 5, 2020
Slang has always had a “niche → popular → overused” lifecycle, but there’s no denying that the internet has drastically intensified this process; both in the sense that terms become more popular than ever before, and get run into the ground much faster.
The internet is a “super spreader” of information, Calude says, meaning “language changes really fast”. Because we share memes and slang in “networked communities” – social media spaces like Facebook and Twitter full of people from all spheres of our lives, from coworkers to childhood friends to strangers – slang escapes the subcultures and localities where it originates, and spreads to a huge and diverse audience, immediately.
Calude points out that linguists used to study the evolution of language over the course of months or years; in the digital age, they’ve had to narrow their time frames to days or even hours. The edgiest slang becomes cringeworthy in a fraction of the time it used to; memes have shorter lifecycles than mayflies.
It’s no surprise, then, that “Karen” has become a zombie; a lumbering, half-dead version of its former self. Now, halfheartedly trying to retrieve a sandwich from a thieving seagull is Karen, arguing that Elon Musk should pay more tax is Karen, having expensive taste in joinery is Karen, and loving celebrity drama is Karen. Being unprepared to talk about menstruation with a 9-year-old boy is Karen; telling a far-right reporter he’s a “fucking low-life” (while also being a man) is Karen, too. Obnoxious Formula One guys are Karens, cheeky babies are Karens, cats are Karens.
But the classic version of the insult will live on in our memory. You were only with us a short time, “Karen”, but you were once a truly devastating burn, and you had a huge impact on us all. RIP.