“Certain persons are malicious solely through a necessity for talking”
Victor Hugo. Les Miserables
This essay was first published in PoliQuads Magazine in May 2020
I met my first Karen when I was 11 years old. Her name was Hayley. I had recently moved to a new town and was attending my first day at middle school. Hayley was top girl in my class. She was popular with both boys and girls for different reasons. It was a small school and kids changed for PE in the classroom. Most were pre-pubescent so this wasn’t an issue. Hayley was peripubescent, and was well beyond the “budding” stage. She would prance around the classroom half naked during these class transitions driving the boys crazy and embarrassing the teacher who would tell her repeatedly to put some clothes on. On that first day, she recognised me as a rival, cornered me in the girls bathroom and said the following immortal words, “I’ve got the biggest boobs in this school and nobody is going to take over me!” Unluckily for her, and judging by the trouble she was having reaching my face with her finger, I already had. She never forgave me and we were enemies throughout our early teens.
For those of you who don’t know, “Karen” is a broad term used in memes (internet snapshots of ideas) to represent a certain kind of entitled woman who is uncritical of her own opinions but highly censorious of others’. Caryn cares a lot about abstract things like poor people and animals but has an intense, negative reaction to actual people who contradict her, or don’t show the right amount of enthusiasm for her personal choices. Karin bristles. Your slights are never forgiven or forgotten. They are chalked up. For later. Just you wait.
The Karen meme has been around for over 20 years but recently became mainstream and politicised as various sects feminisms did battle for ownership of the meme. Radical feminists thought it classicist, white intersectional feminists thought it misogynistic, black intersectional feminists objected to white intersectional feminists culturally appropriating their favorite privileged white woman drag. In truth, no group owns Karen but, in the intersectional scramble created by radical feminist Julie Bindel’s tweet, they all succeeded in embodying her.
Contrary to popular belief however, Karen is not necessarily a woman. Jussie Smollett wins my personal prize for being Uber Karen of 2019. My odds on favorite for 2020 are any of the #MeToo acolytes who jumped on the #BelieveWomen bandwagon only to bounce off voluntarily when the cart hit a Biden sized bump in the road. Nor is Karen middle aged, white, or any other useful stereotype. Karen is a facet of human nature, in all of us. She can be a passing mood or an enduring personality trait. Her actions can be benign or malign, can have little impact or catastrophic consequences. But Karen will most always mistake the triviality of her actions with the weight of their possible consequences, which she usually remains ignorant of.
In the meme, Karen often wants to “speak to the manager” when out in the messy world of other humans, reality doesn’t square with the picture in her imagination. At work, Karen often is THE manager.
I’m reminded of a news broadcast I saw after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The country followed South Africa with a policy of setting up “truth and reconciliation commissions” in an attempt to heal communities torn apart by inter-ethnic violence. In the broadcast a Hutu man was confessing his crimes, not to a priest, but to a western journalist. He had done so before in a Gacaca Community Court so his testimony came out in a matter-of-fact, well rehearsed way. He had murdered his Tutsi neighbours, people he had lived alongside for many years, but their son, aged about 10 had escaped. The child had nowhere else to go so hung around his former home as the man lay in wait. Who knows what was going through the child’s mind. Part of the innocence of youth is to believe people to be inherently good which is why the young and naive are so easily enraptured by utopian ideologies. I too wish it was so. If socialism worked, I would be a socialist. I’m not because it doesn’t. The man eventually caught the child and murdered him. He said that finishing the job had become his obsession. For his confession and genuine attrition – and because the county’s prison infrastructure could simply not cope with the sheer amount of willing executioners – he was given community service. These killers were not psychopaths but normal men and women which, given the right conditions, allowed political ideology, tribalism and authoritarianism to consume them.
This anecdote has a function, in that humans – for all the fashionable talk today of “empathy” – are able to compartmentalise conflicting emotions to silence cognitive dissonance when objectifying others. And not just some humans. All humans.
Right now, during coronavirus lockdown, law enforcement authorities in supposed liberal democracies have been swamped by neighbours snitching on neighbours for having one too many jogs or visitors a day. I’ve seen it myself in community online forums. Communist China must be having a sly smirk to itself. You may not be interested in Karen, but Karen is interested in you.
Of course, Karen would outwardly balk at the thought she objectifies people, but she does. For instance, she doesn’t call the manager on the single mother who works in Starbucks appreciating the multidimensional, complex individual behind the Barista uniform and the friendly greeting scripted by the marketing team. No, she calls the manager on the unskilled oink who has one job to do, but serves her morning cappuccino with too much froth – twice! Karen has a busy life, performs many roles (including exhausting amounts of unpaid emotional labour, be that childcare, household chores or explaining racism to white people), has a career (not a job) and works extremely hard. She is entitled to a decent cup of coffee and service with a smile!
And really, what harm does a little outburst here and there matter? Once the tension is released she moves on. No harm done.
I said Karen doesn’t have to be female but I must now proffer one caveat in that she often is. And by female, I explicitly mean the sex with the big gametes not the small ones. Not female gendered, the female biological sex. I know things are crazy right now and there are clearly a lot of perks to being female which is why I totally get the trans thing, but the passive aggressive element of Karen emerges first and foremost in female biology, specifically in the different selection pressures that have shaped the sexes over millions of years. For instance, a trans woman will be just as traumatised by rape as a woman, but they never have to worry about getting pregnant and the myriad consequenses of that.
The profound consequences of a K sized trivial ego boost can be observed in classic literature. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, in a chapter entitled, “Madame Victurnien Expends Thirty Francs on Morality” Fantine is beginning to do well in spite of her previous naivety and misfortune.
“When Fantine saw that she was making her living, she felt joyful for a moment. To live honestly by her own labor, what mercy from heaven! The taste for work had really returned to her. She bought a looking-glass, took pleasure in surveying in it her youth, her beautiful hair, her fine teeth; she forgot many things; she thought only of Cosette and of the possible future, and was almost happy. She hired a little room and furnished on credit on the strength of her future work—a lingering trace of her improvident ways. As she was not able to say that she was married she took good care, as we have seen, not to mention her little girl.”
As most of us know, within four short chapters, Fantine is a hairless, toothless prostitute dying of tuberculosis. What went wrong? Fantine met a Karen, that’s what, the aforementioned Madame Victurien, who took a disliking to her “ways” and made it her business to find out her secret.
After discovering that she has an illegitimate child, Madame Karen must have shortly gone to see Fantine’s floor manager, another Karen “a truly respectable person, firm, equitable, upright, full of the charity which consists in giving, but not having in the same degree that charity which consists in understanding and in forgiving”, who “judged, condemned, and executed Fantine.”
And executed she was. These women, two bastions of the community, emboldened by the insular piety of group-think, might as well have sewn rocks into Fantine’s petticoat and kicked her into a canal. That would have been more merciful.
There are two chambers of misery Hugo tells us, “the first is dark, the second is black.”
Unable to pay her bills and creditors, Fantine falls into debt with the people caring for her child, the profligate Thénardiers, a right old couple of malign Karens, played for laughs in the 2012 movie by Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen. Fantine is living on fumes when they write demanding 12 francs for winter clothes for the child or she will freeze. In desperation Fantine sells her beautiful long blonde hair for ten francs. Soon after they demand 40 francs for medicine as her baby is deathly ill. Fantine promptly sells her two magnificent front teeth and sends the money to save her child, who is in fact, not ill at all. Tragically, in her black misery Fantine ruminates on the person she believes responsible for her downfall is the man who gave her the job but has failed to save her. He, in fact, knows nothing of her situation. Of the stalking and the systematic destruction of one woman by other women. But her life is to get darker yet.
Hugo echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear when he writes, “it is an error to imagine that fate can be exhausted, and that one has reached the bottom of anything whatever.” Yet, in spite of Shakespeare, Hugo, Buddah, the Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, Sophocles and countless other historical texts written by the wisest minds from the oldest literate cultures, this is an error we in the West, in our state of unprecedented ecological release, commit countless times every day.
Makes me wonder, in the absence of selection pressures, do we create our own?
With each of us headed for our own personal extinction, as the dark approaches and in order to leave a lasting legacy, it’s as if many of us don’t care that we take the whole world down with us trying.
Shunned and shamed, toothless and tufty haired, Fantine is fast running out of natural resources to sell to keep her child alive. Then, the Thénardiers trivially demand another 100 francs for a trumped up emergency and inevitably, Fantine sells all that is left to sell. She becomes a prostitute and then, mercifully, dies of tuberculosis – that other epidemic that was consuming France during the plague of progressive revolutions.
A further example of the casual caprice of a Karen destroying lives is given to us by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It might be said that Fantine “got herself into trouble” of her own accord, she wasn’t raped after all. Tess unfortunately is.
Walking home after some celebrations, Tess makes the mistake of giggling along with the crowd at the expense of a Karen queen bee named “dark Car”. Dark Car can take a joke and is known for her good humour, so this is laughter she can take from her in-group who implicitly know her and their place in the fixed female hierarchy, but not the hoity toity attention whore. Hell hath no fury like a Karen finding a new girl who steps out of lane. She must be put in place.
The buxom dark Car lays into the hapless Tess and the local lasses unite with the former into a formidable Harpy of Karens against their common enemy. She is excluded from the safety of the group which leaves her vulnerable. In rides the dastardly Alec d’Urberville dressed in ravishing strides, ready to ‘save’ her from the mob.
“Ho-ho-ho!” laughed dark Car.
“Hee-hee-hee!” laughed the tippling bride, as she steadied herself on the arm of her fond husband.”
The village Karens know exactly what is about to occur and do not intervene because the ultimate female passive aggressive solution to ousting a rival has presented itself.
“Heu-heu-heu!” laughed dark Car’s mother, stroking her moustache as she explained laconically: “Out of the frying-pan into the fire!
Remember, this isn’t Mean Girls. There are no Hollywood Save The Cat beats in these tragedies. As with Fantine, Tess is toast. And Karen is both catalyst and willing passive executioner.
These examples illustrate a brute evolutionary fact about female relationships. Fitting in, having the protection of the group was, until very recently, a matter of life or death. That has left a profound mark on female psychology and female strategies of cooperation and conflict, strategies we see erupting everywhere today and especially in contemporary “cancel culture”. If it isn’t clear yet, “Karen” is the personification of human hypocrisy, self deception and self interest with specific bias towards female strategies of conflict. It’s all fine and dandy lionising supposedly benign female traits, like “empathy” and “equality” but the evidence is right before our eyes that the female of the species can be just as deadly as the male, if by sleight of hand and not yet recorded in official statistics.
As more women enter politics and managerial positions; as workplace policies become shaped by the invisible hand of female strategies of competition, whilst at the same time we remain both ignorant and in denial about them – this is why we must talk about Karen. She is the pink elephant in the feminist room, otherwise known as, female intrasexual competition.