Still from video showing Amy Cooper with her dog calling police at Central Park in New York

Who’s Karen?

A New Archetype for the 21st Century

Artillery Row

In an almost forgotten prelude to the race riots consuming Minneapolis — a Midwestern American city heretofore known for its unsettling abundance of friendliness, – the world was briefly outraged by Amy Cooper, a 41 year-old Canadian woman living in New York who, when challenged by an African-American man for flouting Central Park’s dog leash rules, was filmed by him calling the police to report a false claim that he was threatening her and her unleashed dog. The offended man posted the video on Facebook, whence it went viral and attracted tens of millions of viewers. Cooper was swiftly identified, summarily fired from her job, and forced to relinquish said dog over concerns that she had mishandled it during the incident.

Before Cooper’s identity became known, however, the offended man identified her by another proper name. “I didn’t even get a chance to toss any treats to the pooch before Karen scrambled to grab the dog,” he wrote in his post, which continued with him recalling the unhappy moment when Cooper’s “inner Karen fully emerged and took a dark turn.” The man’s sister opened her Twitter repost of the video lamenting, “Oh, when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash.” A spoof cover of Time magazine published a few days later mockingly named a generic Karen its “Person of the Year.”

Why “Karen?” Consistently ranking among the most popular names for American girls born in the 1960s and 1970s but now virtually never bestowed, “Karen” has become a synonym for “annoying, entitled middle-aged white woman,” precisely the type who might flout a park’s leash rules, get testy with a stranger who calls her out on it, and then, should the altercation escalate, threaten to report him to the authorities in an especially nasty way. Karen is generally, though not necessarily, a mother, bears an unsmiling no-nonsense mien, complains with disproportionate insistence about life’s minor disappointments, voices unwarranted or unsolicited concern for other people’s safety, and wields petty forms of middle class “privilege” to get her way in life. Karens manifest across the political spectrum. Their only ideology is Karen; their only enemy is what gets in Karen’s way. Often blonde (natural or not), Karen even has a distinctive hairstyle, a prim and easily managed bob that has become known as the “speak-to-the-manager,” in honour of a common Karen request.

Karens are a primed posse of self-serving Princess Leias ready to conquer the world and, indeed, the galaxy

We live in an age of entitlement, a concept on which fussy middle-aged white women by no means hold a monopoly. Karens, however, are a special breed, defined by nuances that readily distinguish them from other entitled groups of Americans. Products of peak Generation X, Karens have learned to duck the crossfire in the vituperative cold war between Baby Boomers and millennials, larger generations hardly known for their self-effacing humility. Having grown up around women’s liberation and come of age amid Reaganite prosperity, Karens emerged within the first generation of American women to be told that they could be whoever they wanted to be, a primed posse of self-serving Princess Leias ready to conquer the world and, indeed, the galaxy.

Even the name “Karen,” virtually unknown in America until the height of the Space Age, suggests a kind of bold modernity. Taken from the Danish at a time when Americans began to hear in large numbers about Scandinavian social democracy and drive Volvos, it is a diminutive of Katherine, the Nordic appellation of numerous Christian saints of the same name spelled with a “C.” In later decades, this consonant shift inflicted upon us “Kara,” “Katelyn,” “Kristine,” and other familiar-sounding but oddly spelled names for a rising generation of girls raised to break with tradition. Emitting the hard consonant with which “Karen” begins requires a wide, open mouth deployed for outspokenness. In American English, its two vowels are susceptible to a nasal pronunciation that evokes a capacity for being remarkably irritating.

Why are Karens so sour? The normal explanation of simple entitlement is unsatisfactory. Unlike other more familiar entitled groups of Americans (“Karen” as a pejorative has only entered the lexicon in the last year or two), Karens have struggled along an unusually sad trajectory. Culturally, their only notable role model was the naïve Karen Richards, Celeste Holm’s character in All About Eve, who, the film tells us, married her Radcliffe theatre professor (back when no one minded that sort of thing) and was then outsmarted by a narcissistic ingénue who tried to steal her ageing actress best friend’s life and career. From that unpromising antecedent, the freedom proclaimed to modern Karens qualified their choice to be whatever they wanted to be with the caveat that they should want to be successful white-collar professionals prudently married to men of equal or greater earning potential. To fail in that ambition was to squander their newly available opportunities, sag in a rising sea of prosperity, and betray the bold strides of feminism itself. Despite this immense pressure to overachieve, their prescribed goals were poorly served by economic reality, which greeted Karens entering adulthood with the early 1990s recession, arrested their thirty-something recoveries with the turn of the millennium’s tech bubble-induced downturn, wrecked them again at mid-career in the Great Recession, and now, with the prospect of a new Great Depression on the horizon, menaces them with a future in which their only certainty is that they have long since surpassed the age at which any man could look upon them with desire. Their social media posts include a large number of memes about “peace” and “serenity” precisely because those desirable existential states of mind so catastrophically elude them.

Bereft of beauty, devoid of serious accomplishment, envious but never envied, and generally unpleasant to be around, Karens tend to end up divorced, perpetually single, or unhappily married to unprepossessing beta males willing to tolerate their deepening neuroses. They are acutely aware that they failed to have it all in the limited time available to them, and resent that a slightly younger female cohort defined by another proper name, “Becky,” turned out to be less burdened by expectations, more emotionally stable, better attuned to wellness, and able to mature effortlessly into the posh “Rebeccas” who ensnared hedge fund managers, entrepreneurial titans, aristocrats, and other alpha male types who had no need to put up with Karen’s bullshit. The “Becky” who is enjoined in the lead up to the old school Sir Mix-a-Lot hip-hop anthem to “look at that girl’s [huge] butt” probably turned her gaze upon the ample posterior of a hapless Karen whose marriage prospects never rose above middle management and now yells at non-compliant pedestrians from the window of her Subaru.

Karens know full well that a pushing attitude is the only remaining attribute that allows them to have any meaningful say in a society in which they are otherwise powerless. No longer able even to act like the pretty girls without utterly humiliating themselves, their only other option is to coast toward a quiet old age invisibility that would cap their lives’ true meaninglessness. Even their Star Wars avatar offers no hope. After all, while playing only a minor role in the rebellion, Princess Leia managed to get captured four times, was rescued on each occasion by abler males, married down with a man whom she despised, raised a weak and angst-ridden son who very nearly restored the rule of the dark side, and spent her final years relying on passive aggression to sabotage male initiative. Her son, who rejects his debased heritage under the name “Kylo,” is remarkably similar in affect to a readily identifiable Xennnial male type identified by the similar proper name “Kyle,” a synonym for alienated and emotionally troubled teenagers who often entertain violent fantasies of unrealisable power. A great many of them probably have mothers named Karen.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover