The archetypical Karen has ruined countless cookouts and lemonade stands, and she’s made a mess of a few telltale accessories. Close your eyes and think of the kind of privileged woman who might call the cops on any slight, perceived inconvenience: spiky bob haircut, chunky highlights, oversized sunglasses from Nordstrom Rack propped upon her head to communicate a self-bestowed authority.
The idea of a woman gleefully rifling through her discount Coach bag in search of a cellphone, ready to tattle on Black people just trying to eat, or celebrate, or birdwatch in peace, is a well-trodden cliché.
Thanks to visual culture, we know Karen when we see her, often before she even opens her mouth.
Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis lawyer and neighbor from hell who stood alongside her armed husband and pointed a gun at protesters, was quickly likened to the Hamburgler in her black-and-white striped top and matching capri shorts, a typical outfit of leisure for the rich and unstylish.
Lena Hernandez, the Torrence, California, woman whose two racist rants against Asian-Americans went viral last month, wore identical ensembles on both instances which were cartoonishly suburban—bucket hat with chin strap, a brightly dyed scarf, and loose floral shirt.
No one wants to see themselves as a caricature. Memes, like all stereotypes, stay relevant when they’re rooted in truth, but until recently it has been relatively easy for most white women to write off the Karen-est Karen as a distant problem. She’s a cranky neighbor you roll your eyes at, not the friend you know.
Until, of course, she is. This year’s abundance of Karens, documented on Twitter and Instagram accounts like KarensGoingWilds and KarensGoneCrazy, show that a torch has been passed. Spend a few minutes browsing the videos taken by people from sea to shining sea who have been accosted by angry, entitled, whiny white women, and you will notice some changes.
In April, The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany reported on Karen as a “coronavirus villain.” As she traced the meme’s origin on Reddit, Tiffany noted that “among Black women, the shorthand of a ‘Karen’—a white woman to be wary of because she won’t hesitate to wield privilege at the expense of others—has existed for years.” The media researcher Meredith Clark added that “Back in the ‘90s, when ‘Baby Got Back’ came out, it was Becky. There will be another name [in the future].”
And another look, too. The brassy blonde Kate Gosselin-esque highlights are no longer; instead you’ll find professional-looking balayage dye jobs. Svitlana Flom, a socialite and restaurateur in New York City, called the cops on a Black woman in the Upper West Side looking as if she just stepped out of an influencer photoshoot in an off-the-shoulder floral dress, straw fedora hat, and layers of necklaces.
Matronly clam-digger pants are out; increasingly, leggings are in. Amy Cooper, the dog walker who called the police shrieking that an “African American man” was “threatening [her] life,” looked like every other urbanite running early morning errands in their pricey athleisure.
For millennial women, sportswear has long been a flex. It’s not just a way to flaunt financial success—look, these leggings I bought solely to sweat in cost $98—but a reminder that white people can go about their R&R with ease, unaware that BIPOC will never know such comfort.
So it makes sense that the new, fashionable Karen, would weaponize their femininity in the dress code of the off-duty 1 percent. Lisa Alexander, the San Francisco skin care CEO who accosted a man chalking “Black Lives Matter” onto his own home, wore running shorts and jauntily tied a white pullover across her hips.
Lauren Balsamo, the woman who coughed, mask-less, on a patron at a Queens bagel shop, did so in zebra-striped leggings and a tank top, the regalia of an on-the-go Karen. The archetype has always seemingly prioritized their mobility or convenience over those they confront. If you consider yourself a very busy, important person, there is no quicker way to communicate this than by fashioning yourself as such.
In Montclair, New Jersey, a white woman identified as Susan called the police on a Black couple, both lawyers installing a stone patio on their home. More neighbors—mostly white—came out on the street to dispute the woman's false claim that she had been assaulted.
Wearing black flip-flops, shorts perfect for a day spent outside, and a tangerine T-shirt, her outfit had all the trappings of a suburban summer day. Overall, she came off a little granola, and very liberal. She spoke with a slow, confident cadence—not the rambling garbling of a Confederate Flag-wielding aggressor. And yet here she was, another white woman calling the police on a Black family for doing nothing.
James N. Cohen, an assistant professor of New Media at Molloy College who studies digital culture and memes, told me that “the entire ‘Karen’ meme is coming from a space of existential threats recorded on video.” He’s not quite sure why the Karen uniform has changed of late, but noted that as the coronavirus moved most leisure outdoors, any offending party would be dressed to match their setting.
“Perhaps the style change is because the ‘Karens’ are no longer being recorded indoors,” Professor Cohen wrote in an email. “I think the ‘Karen’ opportunism maybe just changed locales.”
Or Karens are revealing their banality. Rather than appearing as comic apparitions, these videos force white women to once again recognize their own potential racism. Anyone can be a Karen, no matter their haircut, where they shop, or whether they wear a face mask.
Is the token Karen typecast sexist, capitalizing on the need to label loud women as shrews? Sure. The term has been subject to criticism, and until recently there was no “male Karen.” (A similarly crotchety “Kevin” or “Ken” figure has emerged since then.)
But watch enough videos where the cliché is stripped of its tired styling, and you’ll notice that these women look someone you know, or maybe love. Maybe you own the same white puffer vest as Amy Cooper or go for runs in sneakers similar to the ones Lisa Alexander wore.
At some point, you might have shopped at the same stores as an infamous Karen. When the cameras are off, have you talked the same way, too?