A mocking slang term for an entitled, obnoxious, middle-aged white woman. Especially as featured in memes, Karen is generally stereotyped as having a blonde bob haircut, asking to speak to retail and restaurant managers to voice complaints or make demands, and being a nagging, often divorced mother from Generation X.
Karen joins a trend on the internet in the 2010s of using a first name to make fun of certain kinds of people. A Becky, for example, is a stereotype for a “basic” young, white woman, while a Chad, in other corners of the internet, stands in for a cocky, young “dudebro.”
But, why the name Karen? One suggestion is that it comes from a 2007 bit by Dane Cook called “The Friend Nobody Likes.” (The friend was named Karen.) Another explanation is that it comes from the character Karen in the 2004 film Mean Girls, who’s the subject of the popular quote: “Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” It’s even been put forth that Karen comes the even earlier 1990 film Goodfellas, one of whose characters is named Karen.
Whatever the origin of the slang, the name Karen, apparently, is popularly thought of as a generic-seeming name for a middle-aged white woman of certain generation.
On August 7th, 2015, comedian Jay Pharoah released the standup special Can I Be Me? In the special, he refers to an annoying woman named Karen. “It’s always a ‘Karen,‘” he said. Years later, on October 23rd, 2020 in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said of the joke, “I’m the one who started, ‘There’s always a white woman named Karen.”
Karen appeared as early as September 2016 on the internet when a Tumblr user, joematar, made fun a promo for Nintendo Switch in which a white woman (appearing to be in her late 20s or early 30s) brings the gaming device to a party. The user refers to this supposed kill-joy as Karen: “Oh shit, Karen brought her stupid Nintendo thing to the party again. We’re DRINKING, Karen. We’re having CONVERSATIONS.”
The character was further developed in December 2017 thanks to a subreddit dedicated to mocking the imagined Karen (somewhat like Cook’s “The Friend Nobody Likes” bit). Tropes that developed about Karen here were that she is an annoying (and always annoyed) middle-aged, suburban, minivan-driving white, divorced mother of poorly behaved boys (of whom she has custody) who has a so-called “speak to the manager” haircut.
This haircut is a short, angled blonde bob, sometimes called a “mom haircut.” “Speak to the manager” refers to escalating complaints or demands from retail or restaurant workers to their managers—a stereotypical behavior of Karen. The “Speak to the Manager” haircut meme has been around since 2014. In September 2018, the “Speak to the Manager” haircut meme merged with Karen when it was uploaded to the Karen subreddit by user vidoardes.
Beginning in at least 2017, Karens have been closely associated with baby boomers. Some millennials and members of Generation Z have called out boomers being close-minded and behind-the-times, especially when it comes to unprogressive views on such things as gender, sexuality, and youth culture more generally (such as the viral “Kidz Bop Karen” woman video videotaped in a road confrontation.).
Spreading online in early November 2019 was a joke that Generation X is the Karen Generation (the name begin associated with people born between 1964–85). This came on the heels of OK boomer, a slang phrase (and viral phenomenon) dismissing opinions and attitudes associated with baby boomers (especially white male members of this generation). This prompted some reporters to investigate intergenerational conflict on social media further. BuzzFeed ran a piece on November 14, called “Gen Z is Calling Gen X ‘The Karen Generation’,” citing some activity on Twitter and TikTok.
WHO USES KAREN?
Karen, with her “speak to the manager” haircut often prominently figured, is used in memes and on social media when complaining about an obnoxious, ignorant, or difficult woman or the stereotype of such a woman.
‘Don’t you have a problem with your boyfriend constantly talking about anime characters?’
No, Karen. We both like anime and it’s really cute when he fanboys. Thanks
— Finley (@Soudapop_1) November 20, 2019
Example targets have included: women who complain to retail staff or waiters, women who are always surprised when it gets dark earlier in the winter months, or women who call anywhere they work (like the beach) their “office.”
Karen is often used as a stand-in name in an imagined dialogue. For example: “Mind your own business, Karen” or “No, Karen, we can’t go to Taco Bell.”
Karen may also be used to call out older adults considered to have narrow-minded viewpoints.