I was recently contacted by a lifestyle reporter at HuffPost. “Hope you’re hanging in there! I’m reaching out because I’m working on a lighthearted story next week: xx Women Named Karen Talk About Well, Being An Actual Karen.” As a bonafide Karen and a journalist, I had a choice: Karensplain my moniker or hide and hope all these Karen memes run their course. I decided to examine the current cultural obsession with my name.
As a child of Generation X, I always thought of my name as “vanilla” and faulted my parents for their lack of creativity. The upside to such a ubiquitous name growing up in the 70s was that I could always find a Karen nameplate for my bike and my book bag, Karen keychains, jewelry and other assorted personalized trinkets unlike my best friend Margaret, whose name was too long to mass-produce on paraphernalia and not quite as popular in the 70s. Today, I bet Margaret is glad she is a Margaret.
Because Karen was such a popular name in the 1970s, I can understand how it has become synonymous with a middle-aged woman. It’s the self-entitled, privileged descriptors attached to the name that I struggle with as a bonafide Karen. I am none of those. I work hard. I’m self-made. I did not marry into privilege nor do I feel entitled to anything in life. I’m a first-generation college graduate from a hard-working middle-class family who put herself through school on scholarships and part-time jobs. So, of course I think this Karen is getting a bad rap.
If I could play armchair psychologist with our cultural psyche, I would say that Karen is a nostalgic signifier of the high school “mean girl,” the cliquey social striver, Alpha Dog who wielded power over her minions by convincing them of her fabulousness. The Karen Meme is a middle-aged version of the mean girl with a chip on her shoulder, pent-up anger and zero patience, hell-bent on preserving the mean girl social order in adulthood. Today, the Karen Meme is channeling her pent up frustration and anxiety at anyone who crosses her path.
What is unfortunate for this Karen is that I don’t have a Kate Gosselin hair cut and I don’t spend my energy trying to get managers fired or yell at people who took my parking spot or skipped the line. Now I have to Karensplain myself and overcompensate in my public behavior just to disprove that all Karens are alike.
I first learned about the Karen Meme from my 15-year-old son. This is not my first rodeo being a meme; there is a popular one circulating with my image, a stock photo shot years ago that’s made its way into memedom.
Every month or so, a good-natured friend discovers it and posts it on my social media feed or messages me. I can laugh off the meme using my image but I can’t dismiss the current Karen memes. I feel compelled to voice my thoughts. The Karen meme that first caught my attention from my son’s social media feed was a montage of women with bad Kate Gosslin hair cuts that read: “The Karenovirus is responsible for 3 managers being fired this month alone.” I thought wow, my name not only connotes a social pariah; it’s associated with the pandemic. This Karen thing has become a social obsession and then I panicked. I’m on TV, in the media, this Karen is out there in a very public way, an easy target for Karen-bashing, so I’m extra careful these days. I overcompensate in social situations as if apologizing for all the kind Karens out there who don’t deserve to be socially skewered.
I think “Karen” is a cultural scapegoat in very polarizing times. As a society, we are anxious, restless, and scared. All that negative energy is manifesting in the way we treat others. It’s as if humanity is taking a step backward. Now, more than ever, we need compassion, empathy and understanding as the salve to get us through uncertain times, yet we lack those important human traits. Instead, we are equal opportunity annoyed with and intolerant of each other.
I hope we can return to basic human decency. If the Karen meme makes us laugh, I consider that my public service. If the Karen meme calls out ugly behavior, intolerance and entitlement then I say good! If the Karen meme returns us back to a kinder, gentler way of being, Say my name. Say my name!
Karen LeBlanc is the host of GenXtra, a lifestyle show for Generation X, and The Design Tourist Travel Series. She is also a professional journalist and spokesperson. Learn more at www.GenXtra.tv and https://karenleblanc.net/