It’s a new epithet. It stars in YouTube videos. Even Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot has used it as an insult. It’s the name Karen.
Karen is a now code for an angry, entitled, racist white woman. There is even a disdained Karen haircut.
After the new White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Mayor Lightfoot “the derelict mayor of Chicago,” the mayor retorted “Hey, Karen. Watch your mouth.”
According to a recent piece in the Atlantic, Karen is “the kind of woman who asks to speak to the manager,” who polices others’ behavior and is dripping in white privilege.
The Other Karens
But there was a time when Karen denoted just the opposite: women with luck so shockingly bad they were practically “dis-entitled.”
In 1974, labor union activist and radiation whistleblower Karen Silkwood was killed in a suspicious car accident on her way to show a reporter a binder of evidence about safety lapses at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma where she worked. Silkwood’s family received an out-of-court settlement from Kerr-McGee who admitted no liability. The plant closed in 1975.
The next year, Karen Ann Quinlan was an early Terri Schiavo, provoking a right-to-die controversy after she lapsed into a coma caused by alcohol and benzos. For months her headshot was plastered across newspapers, symbolizing to adults the ethics surrounding euthanasia and to young people … the importance of not partying too hard. She lingered in a coma for nine years.
Then there was Karen Carpenter, who vaulted to the top of pop music in the 1970s which was still dominated by men, playing the “unladylike” drums no less. Officially, her 1983 death was caused by heart complications of the barely-recognized disease of anorexia leading to early discussion of “body image” and the pressure to be thin. But according to her brother, her real problem was less anorexia than emotional pain from a string of devastating romantic disappointments.
Another Karen casualty was Karen Pendleton the only “Mouseketeer” to remain on the ABC television Mickey Mouse Club the entire time it aired and one of the two youngest members of the club. In 1983, Pendleton became a paraplegic after a car accident and threw herself into working for battered women and disability rights until her death last year.
Finally, there was the almost-Karen “Carrie,” in the 1976 horror thriller movie of the same name, adapted from a Stephen King book. Tricked into becoming prom queen by her peers only to be doused in pig blood (hah!) Carrie, played by Sissy Spacek, is also bullied at home by her mother who never tells her the facts of life so when she gets her first period she thinks she is dying.
After her prom ordeal, Carrie goes home to clean up only to be stabbed in the back by her mother with a chopping knife. Retaliating against her mother, Carrie then starts a fire and immolates both herself and her mother.
What’s in a Name?
Of course names follow trends. In the late 1970s and early 1980’s there was the gem name craze for girls (Tiffany, Crystal, Amber), followed by the gothic novel name craze (Emma, Abigail and Emily) and the Great Britain/Ireland-inspired names like Kaitlynn, Kailyn and yes Kayleigh which we are now seeing. For boys the Justin and Jason craze was followed by the Kyle and Ryan craze.
So it is no surprise there’s currently a bivouac of pushy Karens since Karen was the third-most-popular U.S. girls name for babies in 1965 and those women are now in their 50’s. Being in their 50’s doesn’t make someone a pushy policeperson, but if they were leaning in that direction …
In addition to the “dis-entitled” Karens no one remembers, it is important to note that not all Karens are white. In addition to writer Karen Attiah and Karen Lewis Chicago Teachers Union leader, there’s Karen Bass U.S. Representative of California’s 37th district since 2013.
Forty years ago, Karens gave us an early introduction to drug overdoses, eating disorders, bullying, parental abuse and political martyrdom due to whistleblowing. They did not reach their 50s but no doubt would not have asked to “speak to the manager” if they had.