The Age of the Karens
by Elle Berry | 10 December 2020 |
It’s come to my attention that we live in the age of Karen.
Some of you may not be familiar with what a Karen is, so if you have not yet encountered this archetype please allow me to acquaint you with the basics. Over the last few years, Karen has become the name of a widespread meme referencing a specific type of individual (generally a white woman) who acts either obnoxiously entitled or demanding.
On some level, I have to admit I feel a little bit bad for anyone actually named Karen. Life can’t be easy when your name becomes a human prototype. In fact, before writing this I went down a BuzzFeed rabbit hole to see how the actual Karens feel, and as one Karen put it when she found out about the Karen meme, part of her did think, “Who could I complain to about this?” However, another Karen noted, her only concern was that it would fail to progress into any kind of meaningful action.
Of course for it to result in action it has to move beyond satire and caricature, and into the realm of something more reflective and personal. Which got me to asking some questions. What’s actually going on with Karens? Is this only a lesson for white women? Or is there a parable that the Karens can teach us all?
My Karen story
When I was in my early twenties there was this boy. Oh, my goodness. Need I say more? And as fate might have it, on one magical evening I managed to get myself invited over to his family’s house for dinner. I was mostly elated, and I say mostly because regrettably I was not alone. Along with a few other boys there was also another girl a few years younger than me, who I suspected had similar motivations for being there that night.
Nonetheless, as the evening progressed I found myself easily able to engage in conversation with the people there, sharing stories and laughter, and almost able to forget that someone else was there playing for my position. This was probably due to the fact that the other girl was struggling to find a way into the conversation. Of course no one was intentionally leaving her out, but she was younger than everyone there by several years and so it put her at a bit of a social disadvantage. And the truth is, if I hadn’t been so selfishly committed to outshine her as though we were on some episode of The Bachelor, I might have actually found a way to help bridge her into the evening. But alas, I was young and selfish, and as the night progressed we soon discovered that she was not at the table anymore.
I honestly hadn’t noticed because I was really enjoying talking with everyone else, but one of the boys got up from the table to look for her, which made me start to feel like a jerk for not really caring that she wasn’t there. He soon found her curled in a ball in the next room over. Everyone immediately became very concerned for her, and I couldn’t help noticing how enthusiastically she received their attention. She told them that her stomach hurt… “like really bad.”
Did I mention that I started to feel like a jerk? And the feeling was compounded by the fact that her claim felt kinda inauthentic. It felt like a ploy for attention, like an underhanded grab at social power. Nonetheless, for the next twenty or so minutes we all became absorbed in making sure she was OK. I pretended to care, while inwardly doubting, and also judging myself a little bit for not being nicer. The boys coddled her and like magic, twenty minutes later we were all eating ice cream, the stomachache nowhere to be seen.
Some of you may not immediately see how the above scenario is related to Karen. However, I tend to think they’re pretty close cousins with a similar etiology. While my young Bachelor-costar was disadvantaged in many ways, she knew a trick that women have known for years. You see, unfortunately as women, we often do not stand on equal footing with men, and the fastest way to shift your social standing isn’t to rely on your own agency or intellect. The fastest way to alter your power or position (be it somewhat illegitimate) is to find someone who has more power than you, and to present a plight of woe to that person. Perhaps as a damsel in distress, or maybe a demand to speak to the manager, the police, the teacher, or any other person you perceive to be the parent figure of society. The only catch is, you have to be the child.
A particularly infamous example of a Karen using a more insidious rendition of this behavior happened just last summer, with the Central Park dog-walker Amy Cooper. This Karen was asked by a bird watcher (who also happened to be a black man) to put her dog on a leash. While there were a number of ways she could have responded, she instead called on an authority figure (in this case, the police) to rescue her from her alleged victimhood, an action that could have very easily put the man’s life at risk, as evidenced by the events we all saw that week with George Floyd. So why would a capable and grown woman pretend to be disadvantaged and victimized? And why would she call on the police without legitimate cause? Because Karens understand how power works.
On some level, I actually feel a little bad for Karens. I mean, not specifically for Amy Cooper, but what I do pity is the realization that this is a crisis of our own making. Part of the problem with creating a hierarchical structure in society means that for some people, there is no legitimate or easy path to owning your own power; instead of embodying your own autonomy, authority, and agency, you get power by playing the system.
Of course we’d all like to think in an equal society that hard work and intellect will get you where you deserve to be. However, most of us also know this is not the case for women. What’s the evidence? Well, for instance, there have been forty-five presidents of the United States, and all of them are men. You either have to believe that there has never been a woman as qualified as those forty-five men, or you have to start seeing that there is a structure here that hinders women from social position. If a woman wants to change the world, maybe she can. But (as of yet) she has not been able to do so as president of the United States (albeit that is now a closer possibility than ever before.)
The church has similar problems, although arguably worse. A woman is allowed to do pastoral ministry if that’s her calling. She just can’t be socially or financially compensated in the way that men are, for doing the exact same work. The way patriarchy works is that it sustains and preserves a hierarchy where women are systematically denied power. However, just because the system works against women doesn’t mean women haven’t learned how to acquire power by other means, some of which are quite regrettable.
Patriarchy and Karens
The truth is, Karens are the natural sequelae to the patriarchal wound.
Unfortunately, this is so systematically ingrained that despite our best efforts, far too many of us have absorbed these lessons on at least a micro level. Even I catch myself in these traps. Dating books often still advise women to let a man teach them, or to be the expert. We tell history stories to the young, noting that “behind every great man is an even greater woman!” while failing to mention why Karen had to stand behind the man in the first place. And on some level, we still encourage women that it is better to be “the neck that turns the head” than it is to hold your own head on your own shoulders.
But worst of all, we send these messages most effectively by means of the pushback we give when a woman actually tries to own her authority. We say she’s being shrill, nasty, aggressive, wearing the pants, or worst of all, angry. But the truth is, what we’re actually doing is training women to be codependent and manipulative. We’re training women to access power by playing the victim and calling on a rescuer (be it the police, the manager, the pastor, the boys at the table, or the conference president.) And when necessary, it shouldn’t be surprising that women become demanding or entitled in that pursuit. The truth is our society trains and manufactures Karens, and the church does so right alongside the rest of the world, oftentimes even leading the charge.
And not surprisingly, Karens become Karens because it works. There will always be that one girl willing to abandon herself to the drama of her own tragedy because she knows a damsel in distress will always lure a rescuer. Thus she will always be willing to feign bad luck, a stomachache, poor service, and so on… because Karen knows what most of us know. Karens know there is a passive path to accessing power that comes at the price of abandoning one’s own agency, yet it often works. But let’s be real; no one should have to feign a stomach ache to acquire access.
Karen power plays
So is this only a problem for white women? While on the surface you might say yes, it is about white women, but it’s also about how humans access power when they begin to feel insecure about where they stand and what the future holds. I don’t think women are the only ones who know this trick, so much as they are the ones who’ve frequently found themselves in positions where they sought it out of necessity. Yet, as we see an ever-widening gap between the most powerful and the least among these, the temptation to abandon oneself to the drama of your own tragedy can easily become the ambient drug of our age, with the most common symptom of withdrawal resulting in our demanding and entitled outrage. The politics of victimhood is not limited to white women, or any women, and lends itself all too easily to the enablement of the authoritarian and strong-man rescuers.
We trade our own authentic power for mere access to power that is not our own—yet in the process we forfeit our autonomy for the façade of attachment, safety, and belonging. And the sad truth is many of us will continue to do so no matter how insecure, paternalistic, or even abusive that acquisition turns out to be. We do so because we want access, and because we fear we cannot acquire it any other way.
This is an interesting conundrum for Christians, and in particular for Protestants. It’s interesting because I see evidence of women and men contending for positions that we already have. One of the guarantees of our faith is that we have power. We are made strong by the one who makes a home in our hearts. Not only are we told that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and God’s special possession, but we’re also told that we’re no longer to be considered servants but friends. These aren’t promises written only for powerful men. These promises are written for a people—regardless of race, gender, or other status—who have already been rescued. Our only job now is to embody the kingdom life we are called to live.
There will always be grabs at power, but you can’t be who you’re called to be while surrendering to the age of Karen. It’s long past time that the church began helping people live that calling, rather than hindering it.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.