Name: Rebekah Cohen
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Rebecca Lee
Class: LING 2400: Language, Gender, & Sexuality
Semester: Spring 2022
Starting around 2018, the term “Karen” had taken the internet by storm. At that time, Karen was used across internet platforms to call out middle aged white women who use their white privilege in order to get their way in society. “Karen” was first spotted on Reddit in 2014, but the first pejorative definition appeared for Karen on UrbanDictionary.com in 2018: “A blonde woman with an ombre cascade hairstyle who wants to speak to the manager.” As Karen continued to grow in popularity, the term evolved to encapsulate all middle aged white women who take on the role of victim in order to be prioritized in society over minority populations. For example, by 2021, the Urban Dictionary.com definition changed to “A Karen will go out of her way to impose their belief structures on any unwitting or unsuspecting individual... possibly involving an authority figure if the victim is of minority descent.” Finally having a word to call out these women’s problematic behavior, the internet boomed with Karen content. From the various viral “exposing Karen”' videos on Twitter, to the Subreddit r/FuckYouKaren with over 1.5 Million followers, internet users around the world consume content exposing and criticizing women for their controversial and racist behaviors.
However, as the word continues to spread around the internet, I have seen the term “Karen” be used towards people whose characteristics deviate quite extensively from this original socio-historical framework. This speculation has led me to this question: who is currently being identified as a Karen, and do they align with the original framing?
This question is what inspired me to create my video essay for my LING 2400 Language, Gender, and Sexuality course, linked here. In my research video, I highlight examples of Twitter interactions where the label Karen is being thrown at people who do not seem to align with the stereotype. From my research, I have found online users labeling angry women of any race, age, or background as a Karen. Considering these women do not align with the original characteristics associated with the term Karen, why are they being identified as such?
One hypothesis is that women expressing anger does not align with society’s language ideologies for women. According to Robin Lakoff’s (1975) dominance model theory, women speak differently than men due to men’s social power and women’s lack of it. In this model, women’s language is more quiet and polite than men’s speech. For example, if a woman was expressing her anger online, some individuals may find it out of bounds of womanly behavior, and label her as a Karen. However, just being an angry woman does not meet all the original characteristics of a Karen.
A word’s category label changing is not atypical. According to Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2013), “once category labels are launched, their future is uncertain and it is by no means always controlled by the launcher.” In my data from Twitter interactions, I found that the term Karen is evolving from its original definition. Instead of the term being used to call out middle-aged white women for weaponizing their white privilege to get what they want, we see Karen being used to insult any woman who is expressing her anger (no matter the situation). In such cases, we can see Bucholtz and Hall’s (2005) positionality principle in regards to identity and language. In the context of this principle, when individuals use the term Karen in this way, they are positioning the term to encompass all angry women, instead of women who are angry for the typical racist or entitled reason of an originally defined “Karen.”
After seeing the term Karen used in this way, I am wondering if in time, Karen will be thrown at any woman for showing an emotion someone does not want to see. This hypothesis does not seem far-fetched, considering that many terms referring to women have historically undergone pejoration. For example, we have seen similar evolution of the word gossip, which originally was a positive term describing a gathering of women, or the word hussy, which is derived from the Old English word for housewife. Although Karen’s original definition sparked as a way to call-out and critique the problematic behavior of older white women, the term may fall down this similar path, as another way to degrade and shame women for speaking up.
https://cheezburger.com/9482440192/classic-karen author: Ada Elder from Memebase
https://hyperallergic.com/714124/the-karen-meme-social-media/ sourced from Knowyourmeme, author Justine Smith
- Bucholtz, Mary, and Kira Hall. “Identity and Interaction: A Sociocultural Linguistic Approach.” Discourse Studies, vol. 7, no. 4-5, 2005, pp. 585–614., https://doi.org/10.1177/1461445605054407.
- Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Lakoff, Robin T. Language and Woman's Place. Harper & Row, 1975.