How ‘Karen’ Became a Coronavirus Villain

In the ongoing, tense conversation over how long America has to remain locked down during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the more absurd moments came two weeks ago: Carolyn Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, called for the immediate reopening of her city’s casinos, offering her constituents up as a “control group” to test whether stay-at-home measures are actually effective. The notion baffled public-health experts, who maintain that a rigorous adherence to social distancing is essential to overcoming the outbreak. It drew swift condemnation from other Las Vegas officials, who referred to Goodman as “reckless” and “an embarrassment.” And, as is so often the case in public blunders, it received its harshest criticism online. Goodman was called “an idiot,” “an actual monster,” and, maybe most damning, “a real Karen’s Karen.”
On the internet, a Karen is not always named Karen. The title has been used to decry a woman named Diane who attended a protest of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order carrying an American flag and announcing, “What do I say to your science? I don’t believe in your science.” It’s been thrown at a woman in a local Facebook group demanding private medical information about a person in her neighborhood, and a woman in Tennessee carrying a handmade sign that read Sacrifice the weak, re-open TN . Becky Ames, the mayor of Beaumont, Texas, was declared a Karen after she was photographed breaking the state’s stay-at-home order at a nail salon.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “Karen” has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme. In The New York Times last year , the writer Sarah Miller described Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” using the example of a suburban white woman who calls the cops on kids’ pool parties. Karens have been mocked for being anti-vaccine and pro–“Can I speak to your manager?” They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.
Their defining essence is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,” according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University. A Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.”
[ Read: The social-distancing culture war has begun ]
Karens have gained notoriety in this crisis in part because the joke can be bitingly funny, but also because no meme better captures the fraught feelings of the moment. With inconsistent guidance from political leaders and conflicting social-distancing mandates among states, Americans are navigating how and when to police one another’s behavior. Mocking...