By Alec Pruchnicki
A new expression or meme has come into the English language. A “Karen” (sometimes described as a “karen” to turn it into an adjective from a proper noun) is an entitled, obnoxious, spoiled, often middle-aged white woman who believes she has the right to special treatment. She is the type of person who will call the store manager for what she perceives as a lack of recognition of the treatment she believes she is entitled to. It is also a racist, sexist, and possibly ageist stereotype which should be avoided like any other similar stereotype against any other group.
I’ve never used this phrase in my writings but I recognized the term and the ease with which it is used. Like many stereotypes, it is convenient and immediately recognized and I didn’t think much of it. Often, it is a snap accusation people make on Facebook or Twitter after seeing a short video of some women acting this way. But my eyes were opened to the toxic nature of this term by a letter to the New York Daily News by a Karen Temple who complained about the racial and sexual aspects of this phrase. It became immediately clear to me that she was right. If an obnoxious black woman were described as an Oprah, or a histrionic black male were described as a Kanye, there would be universal condemnation.
A Karen Martin in a letter to the Los Angeles Times bemoaned the fact that she would never have her name back without having a negative tinge to it. Misogyny and the desire to suppress women, and women in particular, made this phrase particularly unacceptable to her.
We’ve been through this before. When I first entered high school in The Bronx, I met many Jewish boys who used the phrase JAP, to describe a “Jewish American Princess” stereotype. Like all generalizations, it was often used aggressively and inaccurately, but widely used nonetheless. Eventually it was used to describe other women who were “JAPy” or sometimes even used against a similarly spoiled “Jewish American Prince”. It eventually disappeared from common usage, maybe because its obvious anti-Semitism, even coming from other Jews, was unacceptable. I haven’t seen or heard it in decades.
Recently, a much more profane phrase used to stereotype women was graphically described by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the floor of Congress.
Whether a woman is described as a karen, a JAP, or a fucking bitch, they do have certain things in common. They describe behaviors in a woman that were they to occur in a man might be considered admirable. Aggressive, assertive, taking control, forceful, decisive, etc., male behavior can easily overlap with similar female behavior but without the negative implications. Criticizing the female version of this behavior, but not the male, can sometimes be used as a common, simple cultural tool to keep women quiet. The threshold for unacceptable obnoxious male behavior just seems a little higher than for similar female behavior. No more karens, please.