The ‘Karen’ meme has proliferated on social media platforms since it emerged on Reddit in 2017. The meme satirizes Generation X-aged white female entitlement. It is often paired with the “soccer mom” or “Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) Mom” title, resulting in the proliferation of related memes such as “Can I speak to your manager?” that have spread across the internet in recent years (Lang, 6 July 2020). In 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the death of George Floyd, sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter Movement that clarified the political implications of the ‘Karen’ meme. In an article from the BBC published in 2020, journalist Ashitha Nagesh shows how the meme evolved to mean more as COVID-19 and mask-wearing became politicized. Nagesh writes:
“Since the coronavirus arrived in the country, videos have periodically gone viral on social media of people refusing to wear face coverings in stores and restaurants, often berating service staff. In the US, as in the UK, Covid-19 has become a racially charged issue as well. The pandemic disproportionately affects people from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds. The refusal of some people to acknowledge the risks associated with the virus, and to be shielded from these risks by their white privilege, has also been seen as "Karen" behavior” (Nagesh, 30 July 2020).
Many examinations of this caricature was found in all types of literature, with scholars, laypeople, and journalists alike eager to understand what enables these entitled, and at times racist behaviors. Black Twitter used this caricature of entitled white women to document microaggressions and acts of racist behavior in the everyday lives of Black people and other people of color, documenting white women who use their race for power plays over people of color, for their behavior in consumer spaces, and their general presence in the public lives of others.
A podcast from NPR describes the ‘Karen’ as a modern instance of this persona that has been present since the Jim Crow Era. The caricature of “Miss Ann” was used as a code by the Black community to talk about the power, entitlement, and place of white women in society without their knowledge (Bates, 15 July 2020). Ideas of preserving the “purity” of the white woman were popular after the Civil War and into the 1900s, with films such as Birth of a Nation and the lynching of Emmett Till shaping the racial and cultural framework of America at the time. Dr. Andre Brock, associate professor of Black digital culture at Georgia Tech, says, “One of the things that have worked throughout American history is finding a way to project whiteness in need of defense or protection” (Lang, 6 July 2020). However, these examples show how white women have used their privilege to cement their power through their race against shortcomings in their sex in a patriarchal society, and the ‘Karen’ meme is considered by some to be a continuation of this phenomenon.
This online dynamic of shaming racist, entitled, middle-aged white women brings another layered social issue concerning the value and identity of ‘Karen.’ Being labeled as a ‘Karen’ in 2023 has to do much less with elements of racism and more commonly with American consumer identity, as well as generational differences in places of work and service expectations. The target of her anger is, “more commonly found directed at a service worker or working-class person of some kind” regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class, and these interactions are often documented by others and posted online for others to make fun of (Lewis, 19 Aug. 2020). These instances of entitled white woman behavior found in T.J. Maxx or Starbucks, for example, are often in the form of videos with the context of the argument taken out of them. This subgroup of ‘Karen’ is significantly different from the racist persona mentioned before, and highlights how methods of work in capitalism in service industries have changed in modernity. The consumer identity, not the racist identity, is the specific kind of ‘Karen’ that will be focused on in this analysis. I argue that the Generation X woman, who once believed herself to be a feminist, has evolved into being misunderstood as ‘Karen’ due to the modern understanding of feminism, consumerism, and social media in the modern day. The children of ‘Karen’ have turned on them as something to be reviled, and the meme is a backward yet commonly accepted label for a large population of women who, in reality, are just women trying to make sense of a new, isolating, and confusing technological world.
Generations X and Z: Characteristics, Work, and Feminism
Understanding how white women from Generation X have been given their ‘Karen’ persona first comes with breaking down who exactly they are. Generation X includes people in America who were born between the early to middle years of 1960 to exactly 1980 (Currier, 26 Jan. 2018). They have been marked as the “neglected middle child” by Pew Research Center writers Paul Taylor and George Gao, who highlight that Generation X’s 65 million members are located between the 76.4 million Baby Boomers and 83 million Millennials, whose generation populations are distinct in character traits, size, and attention they receive from the media (Taylor & Gao, 5 June 2014). Today, these people are currently between or around the ages of 42 through 57 years old. This generation would later become the parents of Generation z, who are now the most diverse and largest generational group (Tanner, 4 June 2022). Generation X is also known as the “latchkey” generation: kids who were raised by working parents who came home for the day later than their school-aged children. Researchers are learning how this has led to fundamental differences between this generation and others in how they developed and raise their kids (Blakemore, 9 Nov. 2015). This generation also has the highest number of divorced parents (West Midland Family Center Generational Differences Chart).
Continuing the understanding of what makes up Generation X includes impacts from influential events in their developmental years, such as the rise of the personal computer, the end of the Cold War, the Energy Crisis, the Watergate Scandal, the stock market decline, and recession in the early 1980s, the Challenger Disaster, and the Gulf War, for example. As a result of these varied yet extreme events, the characteristics of the members of this generation are “independent, highly educated, pragmatic, self-reliant, balanced, and show greater aim for a work-life balance” (West Midland Family Center). A 1994 study from the journal Psychological Reports conducted on college-educated Generation X members states that they are “significantly different” than the generations before them:
“This group worries about a balanced life even before having a job. They think about the environment, materialism, the divorce rate, and commitment to organizations and relationships. More members of this group, compared to previous generations, are likely to be children of divorced parents or latch-key children” (Burke, p.556).
The women of Generation X are set apart from the men of their generation, however. The same 1994 study states: “Women exhibited stronger Generation X values than men” in terms of emphasis on the environment, high ethical standards, and social equality, and that “quality of working life and quality of life, a balanced investment in work and family, are important to them” (Burke, p.556). These events and experiences help bring definition to this specific group of people for this analysis in terms of what their life looked like in their developmental period. From this information, one could conclude that members of this generation would seek a better work-life balance in their adult lives.
Work and career play a large role in understanding the ‘Karen’ phenomenon. The middle-aged working mother of today grew up influenced by an environment of progressive change for women in work stemming from a series of feminist movements and legislative changes. A Harvard University paper from May 2006 described the evolution and revolution of women in the workplace from the late nineteenth century to the present, showing that the biggest changes result from the creation of anti-discrimination legislation and the contraceptive pill, leading to a later median marriage age. This led to time for women to invest in human capital in higher education and move from temporary job focus to career focus starting from the late 1960s post-Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation movements (Goldin, p.2). The time from the 1970s through the 1980s, girls took more college preparation classes, showed increased aptitude scores in math and reading, and greatly increased college attendance and graduation rates relative to men, as well as enrolling in majors outside of the traditional female “consumption” concentrations to more “investment” concentrations (Goldin, p.10). These actions that women took in their careers heavily impacted their identities. One example includes their attempts to “make a name” for themselves by keeping their surname constant after marriage, as the Harvard lecture states:
“Most perceive their work as a fundamental aspect of their satisfaction in life and view their place of work as an integral part of their social world,” and “Leaving the workplace involves a loss in identity for a woman, just as being unemployed or retired has commonly involved a loss of prestige and social belonging to most men” (Goldin, p.12).
Work for Generation X is sought to be balanced by most members and is something that the generation strives for, which sets them apart from previous generations who were working through wartime and an era of mass production. Women from this group became of working age around the mid-1980s and onward. However, as these women have aged, generation research experts are finding that these women are experiencing the largest generational gender wage gap with a percentage of 3.6%, according to a PayScale database. A part of the reason why this disparity is largest to this generation of women could be because women in the United States tend to take a break from their careers to manage their personal lives more so than men, but a large factor could also be that “salaries for men kept rising until they are 50 to 55 years old, while earnings for women hit a plateau between the ages of 35 and 40” (Dishman, 11 May 2015). This disparity is palpable to these women and is a likely source of frustration, especially for the women who were raised through feminist movements and “paved the way for work-life balance” including maternity leave, nursing rooms at work, and flexible hours (Roepe, 14 Dec. 2015). These women are the caretakers of both young and older generations of people during this moment in time and are finding their work-life balance strained.
Amid this success and frustration in gender and work for Generation X women, their acquisition of human capital through their time also comes as a result of their definition of feminism. The period of Second-wave feminism started in the 1960s and ended in the 1990s when the emphasis was put on equality: this period was also dominated by what scholars call “equality feminism” (Mohajan, p.4). Women during this period understood feminism as “equality for men and women in society and believes that biological differences between men and women are inconsequential” (Murphy, Dec. 2021). This activist wave focused on equal education and employment opportunities, maternity leave, birth control, abortion rights, fights against domestic violence issues, equal access to economic and political positions, change in custody and divorce law, marital rape issues, and sexual harassment, all focusing on empowering women on reproductive rights and sexuality (Mohajan, p.4). Second-wave and equality feminists had a stronger focus on the inclusion of all women across ethnic and class borders to present themselves in “solidarity and sisterhood” with each other, as compared with First-wave feminism which was mainly exclusive to Western, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking middle-class women (Mohajan, p.4).
Understanding equality feminism is important for the ‘Karen’ topic and Generation X women because it shows how these women are ideologically different from feminist ideologies of younger generations such as Millennials and Generation Z. Working Generation X women tried to champion equality rights because they believe that women and men are equal regardless of biological sex. This understanding of feminism led to the generational idolization of the “Super-mom” which was considered the “epitome of women’s liberation” in the 1970s and 1980s due to her ability to both work a full-time job and command the work in the domestic sphere (Cusick, 12 May 2015). This persona of the working mother implies that a woman’s worth is placed on her service to both her family and her career, which could be considered extremely difficult to find balance in as she navigates other areas of her life. They are expected to fulfill a large role of being a benefactor and caretaker of a family, a role that is disproportionate to their male counterparts’ roles and other roles designated to their surrounding generations.
Now that the characteristics, life, work experiences, feminism, and ideologies of Generation X women have been stated, this information proves relevant to understanding the misogynistic creation of and misunderstood nature of the ‘Karen’ meme when compared to the characteristics, life and work experiences, feminism, and ideologies of Generation Z. Generation Z are the offspring of the women from Generation X, and are defined as different from other generations due to their births into the digital age and complete immersion into advanced technology and the internet. Pew Research defines the beginning of Generation Z as starting in the year 1997 with an “unknown end date” to the generation (Dimock, 17 Jan. 2019). They cannot remember a time when there was no internet or portable cell phone, and with the creation of accessible technology with iPhone products and portable computers with internet access, their lives have revolved around the fast acquisition of and exposure to knowledge and outer-community issues through social media (Tanner, 4 June 2022).
Terrorism and war, social networking, smartphones, climate change, the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Great Recession in 2008, gun violence, and state and worldwide activism through media, are all generation-defining events attributed to the character make-up of Generation Z. They are defined as:
“A self-driver who deeply cares about others, strives for a diverse community, is highly collaborative and social, values flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership, and, while dismayed about inherited issues like climate change, has a pragmatic attitude about the work that has to be done to address those issues” (De Witte, 3 Jan. 2022).
In addition to this, they are used to “expressing themselves, commenting on reality, evaluating what they buy and use,” and both give and expect feedback on themselves and their actions (Dolot, p.44-50). They are recognized for their active participation in global issues that tackle issues on equality in gender, sexuality, and race, as well as call attention to issues with climate change, sexual violence, gun violence, and oppression experienced in other countries with extremist political regimes due to their interconnectedness with the world through their social media.
Due to Generation Z’s interaction with issues both domestically and globally, the generation has found solidarity with each other online as they are considered a liberal, progressive group of young people. They are also the most diverse and educated generation ever (Tanner, 4 June 2022). They express concern and pessimism about the state of the world with post-industrialism worsening climate change, and difficult experiences with growing up through a state of incredible economic instability from the financial crisis of 2008, which brings a collective sense of anxiety and doom. With their firm grip on radical new technology, the digital natives have been looked to by older generations as the ones who will “turn things around” for humanity as the people before them have made mistakes that impact the livelihoods of Generation Z and those who will come after them.
The overwhelming exposure to intense worldwide events, frustrations with regressive generational ideologies found in politics, and pressure put on their shoulders to fix the world from older generations’ mistakes, one of the ways Generation Z has coped with these situations is through absurdist, ironic humor online in the format of memes. A description of a meme style that has been popularized in the late 2010s to the early 2020s states:
“This content often includes an ironic statement, for example joking about their mental health or self-deprecating jokes. Some may argue that this is the way people from this generation cope with their situation and mental health,” and “This absurdist humor is not the only meme that defines Generation Z. There is mental illness or just how they perceive the outside world as a cruel and dying world. It can be perceived that this generation uses humor to cope with how bad reality is” (Pallawarukka, p.6).
As Generation Z looks for ways to cope with the state of the world around them, they direct their frustrations at the older generations through creating and sharing memes with others. This social media and meme culture is an undeniable part of ‘Karen’s’ virality online.
With the understanding of the characteristics and events that have influenced the makeup of Generation Z, knowing where they stand in the workforce is the next step to understanding this layered cultural issue. They are currently at the age of 25 and younger, with the oldest of the generation entering the professional workforce. However, other older members are currently going through school, higher education, internships, and entry-level jobs that include both minimum wage pay and “gig jobs.” This young worker is “overrepresented in service industries like restaurant and travel industries, but are facing major unemployment rates at almost two times more than other generations” due to fallout from the COVID-19 Pandemic, global economic influences, and general lack of work experience (Koop, 26 Mar. 2021). In a study done in 2018, 40% of the research population from Generation Z reported concern about finding a job (Dolot, p.44-50). Additionally, this generation of workers “do not care about stability at work; they easily change their workplace, looking for versatility and escape from routine” (Dolot, p.44-50). Their attitudes when facing work are starkly different in comparison to generations before them. Despite these facts, Generation Z workers see the demand for workers in minimum wage positions, and older generations view the young people taking these jobs as temporary but a rite of passage before going into professional careers. However, they are “significantly less willing to work for minimum wage—or slightly above it—than other generations” (Freedman, 2 Nov. 2022).
The last point to elaborate on in terms of the differences between Generation X and Generation Z as it contributes to the ‘Karen’ meme is in the younger generation’s definition of feminism. Generation Z grew up in a time of heightened social media use, where “hashtag activism” has become a primary way for people to connect and call attention to sociocultural and political issues happening worldwide. They believe that “embracing feminism as a positive thing” by “demonstrating confidence in the power of activism through social media,” inspired by young activists such as Pakistani women’s empowerment activist Malala Yousafzai, and X González, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting who advocates for gun control, for example (Spiers, 8 Apr. 2019). For Generation Z feminists, the era of feminism that they are in is called Fourth-wave feminism, which started around 2012. Fourth-wave feminism is described as:
“Dependent on online social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube,” where “social media becomes the real catalyst to fight against women’s harassment, professional discrimination, media sexism, and gender shaming. It tries to empower men, women, and transgender people, promoting the acceptance of all possible bodies” (Mohajan, p.5).
Within the development of the Fourth-wave, and Generation Z’s proficiency in social media usage, as well as their generation’s accepting attitudes towards personal differences and diversity, young people have come to understand that equality feminism is not as applicable to new goals of the future in the same ways as it was for feminists of the past.
The opposite of equality feminism is called difference feminism, a newer understanding of feminism that has taken popularity amongst younger populations and social media users in the Fourth-wave. Difference feminism in comparison to equality feminism is explained as follows:
“Equality feminists have limited aspirations. They seek equality for women in all spheres. Most of these feminists describe themselves as liberals. Difference feminism is more complex. From this perspective men and women have fundamental differences and these should be recognized in society. Most difference feminists do not accept that one gender is superior to another, arguing simply that they are different and that those differences should be embraced but not fought against. For them, the search for equality is fruitless” (Murphy, Dec. 2021).
Those who embrace difference feminism acknowledge that men and women are fundamentally different at a psycho-biological level. This means there has been an attitude shift in young women who are not willing to adapt to the traditionally “masculine” roles of work and are embracing the nature of their biological differences as they were born into them. As a result, difference feminism is supported in activism with a conversation on “women’s crafts, art, and literature, and on experiences that are unique to women and promote a sense of ‘sisterhood,’ such as childbirth, motherhood and menstruation” (Murphy, Dec. 2021). This is different for the women of Generation X who grew up with equality feminism, which expected them to tamper down their femininity for greater access to the public and professional work sphere that was dominated by masculine influences, as they viewed themselves as exactly equal to men regardless of sex. Difference feminism being embraced by women as they engage with the world from a political standpoint will show major changes in how work is conducted and performed, especially after the COVID-19 Pandemic. Demand for flexibility and change in work expectations is already being seen with the shift from five to four-day work weeks and shift to remote work. Women are an essential part of the workforce, and the adoption of this feminist mentality gives voice to women who are “putting their foot down” against the toxic yet encouraged capitalistic female role model of the overworked “Super-mom” in the home and workplace.
Within the context of Generation X and Second-wave feminism comes elaboration on the “Super-mom” character, and the expectations placed on her as a middle-aged woman. With the surge of career women starting in the 1970s and 1980s and Second-wave feminism proving cultural expectations wrong meant that the ideal woman could take on both jobs as a caretaker and a worker, began the idolization of the ‘Super-mom.” The article “The Challenges of Midlife Women” from Biomed Central published in 2018, states that midlife women struggle to cope with “multiple co-occurring stressors” and that midlife is marked by women who “are overworked with multiple roles and responsibilities” (Thomas, Mitchell, & Woods, 15 June 2018). Common intersecting stressors that midlife women report include “challenges in a woman’s job, being married/partnered, being a parent, and taking care of elderly parents,” and also managing their households without help (Thomas, Mitchell, & Woods, 15 June 2018).
The Generation X feminist that grew up working in the world from the mid-1970s to late 1990s shifted sights to embodying this persona by straddling cultural expectations of patriarchy while working towards a personal and empowering career. The previously stated study shows that Generation X women, now the ones to manage both the youth and the elderly, on top of their original duties to themselves, show how much stress the middle-aged woman has on her plate from day-to-day life. A report from the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner states, “They are often expected to continue carrying out caregiving roles while neglecting their well-being, and then are perceived as unproductive and a burden when requiring care themselves” (Mahler, 30 Sept. 2021). This role of the “Super-mom” is not encouraged, nor seen as sustainable or fair by Generation Z difference feminists, and has caused a rift in the understanding of womanhood between the two generations.
Another aspect of difference feminism and the characteristics of Generation Z that set them apart from Generation X feminists is that Generation Z embraces concepts of intersectionality. Sexuality and gender expression are incorporated into the public identity of the younger generation as they bring themselves to their public work and life experiences. They have an emphasis on individual expression, as modeled by interactions with themselves and others on social media. A study done by Tallo on Generation Z’s positions on diversity and inclusion, reported that “88% of participants found it important that recruiters or potential employers ask about their preferred gender pronouns,” and this highlights the importance of the inclusion of all people (Freedman, 2 Nov. 2022). They have an emphasis on embracing individuality, inclusivity, gender fluidity, and gender nonconformity, and they expect their identities to be considered and taken seriously in the workplace. This is a different dynamic when compared to previous generations’ characteristics and workplace expectations, as it highlights the change from a focus on gendered activism to gender-less activism and the new encouragement for people to present exactly as they are in the public sphere. Social media has given voice, solidarity, and strength to communities of women, and gender non-conforming/gender fluid people in this sense, similar to how social media brings solidarity to people of color, people with disabilities, the LBGTQIA+ community, and other historically marginalized groups. Young Generation Z workers in service sector jobs often bear the brunt of ‘Karen’s’ anger, and these dynamics of personal identity play a role in the conflict shaping the ‘Karen’ meme.
The overarching conflict that aims to be addressed is that ‘Karen’ is frustrated and confused because she does not see herself reflected in the actions of other feminist women as she did in her youth. Equality feminism and difference feminism are solid points to address the two different ideologies between young people and middle-aged white women who are often given the ‘Karen’ label. Understanding that the freedom young workers have in expressing themselves in the public sphere, albeit from an internal standpoint such as femininity, sexuality, or gender, or on an external standpoint such as appearance, may be a point of conflict for the misunderstood ‘Karen’ as she interacts with young service workers.
A personal life example demonstrates the frustration that middle-aged white women experience with new ideological shifts in womanhood, identity, and appearance. My mother, a white woman who is a member of Generation X, says that when she was working in a professional setting in the early 1990s, the expected dress code included items such as “hose, heels, big hair, pantsuits, make-up, and shoulder pads in suit jackets” (Cooper, 15 Nov. 2022). All of these dress expectations aimed to combine female sex appeal with the professional masculine-dominated corporate work dress as it was expected during that time. Now, ‘Karen’ sees young people working in their former place, dressed freely in their choice of style, with the general workplace acceptance of facial piercings, colored hair, and tattoos, for example. In the professional work environment, ‘Karen’ is confronted with a feeling of confusion, as she was restricted to a specific look to keep her job and to be considered professional by her peers and coworkers. This dress standard also excluded the public display of body modification. They were also able to visibly distinguish the gender of the person whom they interact with. There is no set dress code under the patriarchy like there used to be, and Generation Z workers have demonstrated agency in broadcasting their identity.
These ideas of dress were most likely encouraged by the era of Second-wave feminism and equality feminism, and are now facing change with the emergence of difference feminism and Fourth-wave feminism. The freedom in individual expression that young, working-class Generation Z people have now in comparison to the working periods for Generation X has increased greatly and can be considered a frustration that ‘Karen’ comes to grips with when interacting with young workers in consumer spaces, hence another possibility for her adverse behavior that gives others cause to call her by the meme. She may aim to support these working young people as a feminist herself, but she does not easily recognize women based on their appearances like she used to, due to the younger generations’ embracing of unique identities, appearances, and gender fluidity. She struggles with addressing a service worker in a way that respects their individuality and her understanding of social expectations. It is a social dilemma that the white women from Generation X must tread carefully because she risks being socially ridiculed for being insulting or politically incorrect in a ‘Karen’ fashion.
Changes in consumerism and capitalism
Introducing another aspect of the understanding of the ‘Karen’ phenomenon is seen in consumerism and capitalism. Capitalist consumer culture has changed with the times, and the role of women who did not grow up in this new era has been thrown into question. Corporations have adopted technology to their business models by eliminating the go-between worker that sells the product to the customer. Historically, the role of the customer in consumer spaces was a revered one by companies due to the era of mass production. Attracting the customer to their product instead of the other competing product was done by hiring service workers adopting the “customer is always right” mentality:
“Service workers weren’t there just to ring up orders, as store clerks had done in the past. Instead, they were there to fuss and fawn, to bolster egos, to reassure wavering buyers, to make dreams come true” (Mull, 3 Aug. 2021).
This was the expectation and the personal work experience for many Generation X white women until modern technology and capitalism changed the way customers receive their goods. E-commerce and self-checkout, for example, strip the niceties from the service worker to the customer, and the adoption of server-less tables in restaurants during the COVID-19 Pandemic requires the customer to order food through their mobile phones eliminates the experience of being “waited on.” The decline in quality of service relates directly to the frustration ‘Karen’ exemplifies in viral videos because she is not addressed with the respect nor consideration she hoped to earn with her age and increased work experience. She worked in service with the expectation to treat others with kindness and respect as a young woman, and with technology replacing human interaction, she has been denied her rite of passage to respect and admiration as an aging career woman with status.
For older generations, this technological change has not been well-received, and ‘Karen’ is now considered among those older generations. Mull describes the transformed nature of American shoppers:
“For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all but broken political system, the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory. Being corrected by a salesperson, forgotten by a bartender, or brushed off by a flight attendant isn’t just an annoyance—for many people, it is an existential threat to their self-understanding” (Mull, 3 Aug. 2021).
Capitalist culture knows that women often deemed ‘Karen’ have played a dominant role in creating consumer culture. As Negra and Leyda note:
“Less frequently noticed, however, may be her role in conservatively reinforcing prohibitions on white female agency in an arena in which that agency has historically been significant – that of goods and services/shopping. As a caricature of consumer entitlement, Karen is frustrated by diminished/poor service but, lacking access to any recourse in the contemporary retail environment, her dissatisfaction is staged as a racist rant and spectacle of entitlement” (Negra & Leyda, 18 Aug. 2020).
‘Karen,’ and middle-aged white women in general, have been prime targets of capitalist consumer culture for centuries since the Industrial Revolution because of their multifaceted roles in society. The changes in this culture have happened too quickly to allow for adjustment to this newness, resulting in the outbursts of women who simply want to purchase something they need, and are not able to do so in the easy way they used to.
The changed nature of the service economy requires older generations to work harder to buy things. For example, business models have switched to automated service calls when customers run into an issue, along with using customer chat service and emails, which show how older people are put at a disadvantage with their lack of technological savvy to navigate simple customer concerns. This algorithmic, computerized service economy affects every consumer regardless of age or technological savvy, but the middle-aged white woman is the one who gets publicly scrutinized for her frustration despite her just being confused on how to proceed through a difficult situation, explained with this quote from a published article titled “Querying Karen: The Rise of the Angry White Woman”:
“The beleaguered (white, female) customer arises from a pre-existing sphere of increasingly combative micro social relations in commercial sites. Demanding to speak to a supervisor from whom she is highly unlikely to receive redress, she displays her lack of awareness of the shifts in commercial power roles” (Negra & Leyda, 18 Aug. 2020).
This scrutiny of ‘Karen’ is an unfair judgment to place on this specific woman, as everyone else is also attempting to navigate this new sphere of consumerism in their ways. Having grace and patience for others who are learning new technology in both personal and public spaces is something that younger generations noticeably lack, perhaps due to the fast-paced, instant-feedback nature of life found through technology.
When a ‘Karen’ speaks up after receiving bad or frustrating customer service in a public consumer space, she is often criticized for her outburst, choice of words, or attitude. Many people use the meme online as a cathartic way to take out internal anger and frustration with generational differences, however, they forget the equality feminist perspective that these middle-aged women take when speaking up when something is not right. Patriarchal expectations of working women state, “at the turn of the century, “ladies” were still expected to stay home, marry as soon as possible, tend to the household, raise children, and be a helpmeet to their husbands” (Kelly, p.1). Women understand that patriarchal culture expects them to act gently and quietly, discouraging them from advocating on their own sex’s behalf. Recognizing this, women have found a voice over the past 120 years since suffragists began acting. However, studies described in an article titled “The Power and Shame of Women’s Anger” by Allison Abrams (LCSW-R) from Psychology Today states:
“Anger among men is perceived as strong, decisive, credible, and, of course, powerful, while women who express that same emotion are perceived as ‘difficult’ or ‘shrill.’ Anger and rage clash with our feminine ideal and as such must be suppressed, the cultural narrative tells us” (Abrams, 23 Feb 2020).
Women have always been caught in this Catch-22 of being unable to win against patriarchal cultural framing and speaking up for themselves despite expectations in personality from society. ‘Karen’ breaks this patriarchal cultural expectation and is demonstrating her resistance through her anger in public spaces.
The women who are called by this meme grew up in the era of Second-wave feminism that brings in an entirely different set of beliefs and standards concerning the place and role of women in the world. She worked hard with other women for the rights and benefits that other women enjoy now. For example, many of these women experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, as the term “sexual harassment” was a claim that was first used as recently as the 1970s and found this violence to be a typical aspect of life for a working woman (MacKinnon & Siegel, p.3-11). Generation X women are among many of the women who spoke up amid the “#MeToo” movement in 2017, including actresses such as Alyssa Milano and Ashley Judd, and activist Tarana Burke (Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, 6 Dec. 2017). This wave of women’s empowerment is rooted in feminist belief against patriarchal norms of the emotional yet quiet gentility of women. Women of this generation were supported by many people online during this movement of speaking up against gender-based violence, yet cannot find that same support in real-life situations where ‘Karen’s’ agency in her life is being stifled by toxic judgment from others.
Use of social media and technology
Generation Z and their prowess with technology and social media allows for another power imbalance in taking away the chance for rebuttal or response for ‘Karen,’ because of her generation’s lack of representation and understanding of social media trends, meanings, and usage. ‘Karen’ was not raised on social media unlike Generation Z people. This is not to say older women do not know how to use social media at all, but it could be argued that ‘Karen’ truly dominates only one social media platform, Facebook, which is an app that has lost popularity amongst Generation Z users. A survey conducted in 2020 from AudienceProject shows that of the sample of Generation X social media users, 76% of them use Facebook in comparison with only 47% using Instagram and 39% using Twitter, whereas only 41% of Generation Z social media users use Facebook (Dixon, 1 Apr. 2022). Therefore, she has less influence, solidarity, and power with other members of her cohort on other social media platforms as the toxic narrative from the meme spreads.
People enjoy the spectacle of the ‘Karen’ meme because mocking middle-aged women is a socially acceptable prejudice, and this stereotype has only expanded with the use of social media. With racial minority groups inadvertently giving the approving “thumbs up” for others to make fun because of the minority groups’ participation in the trend, the meme carries weight in new ways. Making fun of ‘Karen’ is an enjoyable activity for many people online because people love to watch a spectacle. There is an intangible social safety net in banding up against an outlier such as a ‘Karen’ getting angry or frustrated, because her behavior highlights a deviation from cultural norm behaviors from her place in society in ways that alienate her from areas of social belonging. The outburst or complaint from this woman refers to past societal influences from the patriarchy and cultural role of women, and when people watch the spectacle of her anger, they are witnessing a woman who is breaking the boundaries of her cultural expectations. This should not be a reason to negatively mock this behavior, but instead admire it.
‘Karen’ is breaking the borders of the patriarchy in a highly impersonal, digitized capitalist society, by showing others that she is angry with the lack of respect and help she needs to take care of herself and others that society has deemed her to be responsible for. She unconsciously comments on omnipresent issues that not many have been willing to address on the strangeness of our new isolating and technological society. As the Baby Boomer generation dies, Generation X will be the only remaining cohort of people who remember a time where face-to-face human interaction was the prime way to function with others. Her ‘Karen’ behavior confronts the disappearance of true connection with others in consumer spaces, and forces us to think about the value of the isolated direction we are moving in. With her multiple domestic jobs and career causing stressors in her midlife age, she is rightly frustrated by the change in the outside world, and her reasons for complaint should be reconsidered before a person chooses to spread the video of her outburst online.
The ‘Karen’ meme presents us with a new aspect of cultural work, as we now can identify challenges with social change from the meme that has not been worked through. As society progresses through continual and inevitable change, being kind and cognizant of the differences, struggles, and unique circumstances of others is the best way to persevere through difficulty and confusion. Older generations not knowing the best way to adapt to change, and younger generations not allowing others the time and learning period to adjust to that change, makes peace in reality and online harder to achieve. Frustrations over differences between youth ideologies, cultural identity, and technology funnel to create this awkward and confusing experience for middle-aged Generation X white women. Many of them are attempting to figure out their place in a new world while demanding respect through a humbling learning curve, as they once paved the way for young women to have equality and benefits from their activism in today's time. The struggles in adaptation to changes in technological advancements and progressive ideology should not be only stuck to women but to aging men as well. Addressing this double standard on women, who have worked to navigate both societal expectations and their own feminist goals, is a part of this cultural work that needs to be considered.
There is hope for change in the meaning of this meme that comes from a Generation Z voice. In an interview with a 20-year-old, college-educated service worker, upon asking her about the meme, she states:
“It’s not like we're trying to change the behavior of the person. When people post 'Karen' videos, they're not asking the question, "how do we help this lady not be a 'Karen' anymore?" it's fully, "oh, she's a 'Karen,' let's laugh at her" (Cooper, 1 Nov. 2022).
This shows how young people are waking up to the historical complexities of the meme, and realizing how it can be harmful to the livelihoods of these women. As all social media trends ebb and flow, the hope is that Fourth-wave feminist women will come to the defense of their kind online, striking down the toxic nature of labeling midlife Generation X white women with the ‘Karen’ name in the pursuit of solidarity and progress against patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic ideas that permeate the fabric of our culture.
I would like to thank my professor, Dr. Brian Britt, who created this assignment and encouraged me to challenge myself as a scholar. I would also like to thank my mother, Ann Cooper, for sharing her experiences as a white woman of Generation X with me. Getting into an argument with her for calling her ‘Karen’ a long time ago was the true inspiration that led me to defend her in this paper.
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