It’s an awkward time to be Karen right now.
Thanks to a recently popular meme, the name has become a label for a privileged, entitled, rude, demanding, insufferable person, typically white and middle-aged, sometimes racist.
According to online sources like the “Karen (pejorative)” entry on Wikipedia, the Karen definition in the Urban Dictionary, the Karen explanation on Know Your Meme or a host of viral videos, Karen is the person who calls the cops on a Black bird-watcher. Karen complains about a kid selling water on the street without a permit. Karen goes ballistic when you ask her to wear a mask. Karen is an anti-vaxxer. And Karen demands to speak to the manager.
Origins of the Karen meme have been attributed to sources as varied as a Reddit thread started by a guy complaining about his ex-wife, a scene from the movie “Mean Girls” or a Dane Cook stand-up comedy routine about “The Friend Nobody Likes,” named, of course, Karen.
The ubiquitousness of the Karen meme has led to pushback from some pundits questioning whether it is “sexist, ageist and classist,” or investigating whether calling someone Karen is a slur or merely an insult.
It has inspired the proposed “CAREN Act” (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) that would make it illegal to make racially biased 911 calls in San Francisco.
It’s gotten to the point that for people sniping at each other on social media, Karen has morphed into a general-purpose epithet you can hurl at someone, male or female, for complaining about something that doesn’t bother you.
Got a problem with having to wear a mask? Someone might call you a Karen. Got a problem with people who don’t wear masks? Someone might call you a Karen, too.
What does Karen think about all this? She’s trying to have a sense of humor about it.
That would be Karen Hernandez, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota Rochester admissions counselor.
“When I first saw [the meme], I was taken aback a bit,” Hernandez said. “Like, ‘What the heck?’ ”
Now she’s being tagged by friends who find Karen memes on Facebook. When she’s introduced to others, they sometimes react, “Ooh, that’s an unfortunate name.”
“I sometimes make the joke, ‘Oh, my name is Karen. Like the meme,’ ” Hernandez said. “That’s when I get told by people, ‘You’re nothing like the meme. You’re nothing like the Karens. You’re a nice Karen.’ ”
The Rev. Karen Hutt, vice president at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and a minister at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, also sees herself as a good Karen.
“It is this moment where a name is being associated with a particularly bad behavior,” she said. “It’s disappointing, but I feel like I always have to raise my hand and go ‘That’s not me. I’m a Black Karen.’ ”
Karen Chen, a Carleton College student, said she doesn’t “fit the stereotype at all. I’m not middle-aged. I’m not white. I would never be combative in the least with anyone in customer service.”
Some local Karens, however, embrace aspects of the meme.
“I do tend to inform people against their will,” said 77-year-old Karen Schott of Excelsior, adding that she wouldn’t be afraid to call the manager “if the manager can make a difference.”
Schott, who describes herself as the only Karen in her Italian/Czechoslovakian family, said she “uses her ‘Karen’ ” to be assertive in situations like accompanying Hispanic co-workers at the bank to help them apply for mortgages.
“There was no funny stuff while I was around,” Schott said. “If I’m a Karen, it’s about fairness.”
Even Hutt admitted to channeling her inner Karen for the right cause.
“It’s not about being assertive. It’s about what you’re assertive about,” she said. “I’m a nice person, but when I want things done, and I expect a certain amount of courtesy and efficiency in things, then I am that Karen.”
Ordinary and out of fashion
Karen once was one of the most popular girl’s name in the country, according to Social Security Administration baby name records. It was among the top 25 female names for more than 30 years from 1940s through the 1970s, reaching a peak of popularity as the third most common newborn girl’s name in the country in 1965.
But in recent decades, the name has fallen far out of fashion. It sank to lowly 635th place in popularity for female baby names in 2018, a year when Emma was No 1.
In Minnesota, only six babies born in 2018 were named Karen, according to Social Security data.
Despite the meme, many Karens say they’re fine with being Karen. The name is rarely misspelled or mispronounced or turned into a nickname, they say. It’s sort of ordinary, but in a good way, according to Karen.
“I like my name in that it’s easy to remember. Easy to spell. People rarely mess it up,” Hutt said.
People don’t forget your name, especially if you happen to marry someone named Carpenter and take his name, said Karen Carpenter, a Fergus Falls resident.
“I’ve had comments like, ‘Oh, do you sing?’ ” said Carpenter, who works as a reporter for the Barnesville Record-Review.
If Karens have a complaint about their name, it might be that until now, it was a bit ho-hum.
Carpenter said when she grew up all the popular girls had first names that ended in “y” or “ie,” like Susie, Cindy or Sandy.
“Those were cute names, and Karen was sort of nondescript,” she said.
“I didn’t like writing it because it wasn’t very pretty to write. It seemed ordinary,” said Chen. “My sister’s name is Angela. That’s more fun to write. It kind of rolls off the tongue. Angelah.”
Surprisingly, a lot of Karens are OK with the Karen meme, especially when it’s used to call out bad behavior.
“I don’t feel attacked at all,” said Chen. “It’s not about the name. It’s about the person that ‘Karens’ are.”
“I think we all need to be OK if someone calls us a Karen,” said Hernandez. “Maybe we’re being not very nice to people or over-exaggerating. That’s a cool way to put someone in their place, I think.”
Hutt sees the meme as a descendant of a shorthand used by Black Americans to describe privileged, troublesome, demanding white women. In the Jim Crow era and earlier, that person was “Miss Ann.”
“So the Southern belle is Miss Ann. And she was always seen in relationship, particularly to African American women, to some kind of boss or overseer,” Hutt said. In the 1990s, the name Becky was used as slang for a clueless white woman. Karen is the new Becky. Becky is the new Miss Ann,” Hutt said.
While Hutt doesn’t endorse stereotyping people because of a name, she admits that “we all do it. I do it. It’s awkward when you’re named that person.”
But Karen is OK with it.
“It’s my name. It’s the only thing I’ve been called in the past 23 years,” Hernandez said.
“I wouldn’t change it,” Schott said. “I wouldn’t know who I would be.”
Star Tribune data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this article.
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775