Use of the “Karen” Label is Sexist Aggression When Smarter, More Accurate Responses are Possible
Red Diamonds Features is an interview-rich publication with smart sources from different fields and professions that converses on topics related to our professional and personal lives, such as communication, decision-making, behavior, conflict, trust, better problem solving, courage, resilience, reputation and wiser, more successful crisis management.
‘Karen,’ once just a female name is now an insult intended to shame and humiliate. Is the impulse, behavior and satisfaction people derive from it healthy to society or an indication that in our anger, we’ve gone off the rails with our character and decision-making?
It is often expressed by women that being labeled ‘hysterical’ is hurtful and offensive. Somehow, even women are shaming through the label of ‘Karen.’
“If you’ve as a man managed to notice it and want to explore its implications further, imagine how beyond annoying it has become for women who’ve had their criticism, whether valid or not at all, dismissed because we’re deemed unlikable or simply not agreeable,” says Sofija Dakic, a sociologist specializing in intersectional feminism and media studies as well as a freelance writer.
She sees women being judged differently, more harshly and unfairly than men for behavior that is considered out of line or obnoxious.
“Let me show you one meme-able post. It’s from Reddit, by the user nathcun. It’s been circling Tumblr a lot lately. I did verify it and it actually checks out. The user compared the trends of baby names in the past century, and found a male equivalent of Karen,” Dakic says.
“Why is ‘Terry’ immune to criticism, why isn’t he the butt of the joke,” she rhetorically asks. “Misogyny.”
The superiority people appear to be experiencing insulting others, in this case through the quick label of ‘Karen’ to people who annoy or anger them and who they wish to cut down in public, is like a shaming virus. Risks of additional problems could prove likely.
“This particular facet of the issue has several negative byproducts. First, it’s deeply offensive to women in particular since all the minor disagreements are now a reason enough to call us ‘Karen.’ And an actual popular name has been ruined,” Dakic says. “But another huge issue is that the initial use of the term, has been rendered useless. If a black kid in high school, who got a part time job at the grocery store, complains about having interacted with a ‘Karen’ who ruined their day, we no longer know if it was an entitled, racist, rude customer who had to get their way and threatened the worker or if the kid is labeling every mildly annoying customer that way?”
The behavior that apparently earns or attracts the unflattering or shameful label is becoming confusing. Society might not fully realize exactly what will earn them the insult and humiliation.
“We clearly don’t and I’m afraid we won’t,” Dakic says. “Soon I believe, men will also be called ‘Karen,’ but we must remember that it still had a misogynistic origin. Just look at the word ‘bitch.’ Everyone uses it now. We use it so much that we forgot that it’s in fact a sexist slur; literally means a female dog.”
This type of name calling and shaming could well trickle down to be used by children against children, girls and boys, calling them ‘Karen.’
“School yards will most certainly be solid grounds for this to spread. The phrase peaked in popularity in a time where, for unfortunate reasons, many kids didn’t attend schools but as soon as they start doing it en masse, the popularity of ‘Karen’ will rise dramatically,” Dakic says. “Kids can be mean even if it’s completely harmless fun, much less bullies that genuinely enjoy putting their peers down.”
The popularity and enjoyment of such behavior as the ‘Karen’ labeling and shaming is revealing to her.
“Society at large is misogynistic, no matter what we delude ourselves with, with our ‘feminist’ celebrities wearing empty girl power slogans on t-shirts made by 7-year old Malaysian girls in sweatshops,” Dakic says.
Insults are part of the human experience yet we are often blind to the intent and harmful impact and often rationalize why we do it.
“Both men and women love putting other women down. Once this term gets too tame and nonsensical or labeled actually misogynistic in society at large, which I doubt will happen, the internet culture will come up with a new ‘Karen,’” Dakic says, “and it will most likely do it in precisely the insidious way this has been done. It will use its legitimate origins as a leverage to absolve it of all the guilt once it starts being rampantly misused. There is already a name for young ‘Karen’s.’ It’s ‘Becky.’ Started out as a racist teen, ended up as any girl ever. Susan is the old Karen. Gertrude a really old one”
Society could instead choose a better show of its command of the language and express dissatisfaction with behavior it disagrees or hates with more self control, respect, civility and character.
“We have many precise adjectives, an entire language at our disposal and we absolutely don’t need a single word for anything and everything annoying. Actually, we already do have just that — ‘annoying,’” Dakic says.
Focusing on the behavior would show greater character and humanity and could prove to be more effective communication.
“I believe that if we mean to criticize with no ill intent, it’s important to point out the specific things we disagree with; otherwise the criticism isn’t meaningful and tangible in any type of way nor will it make any change, which I believe is the most important part of constructive criticism,” Dakic says. “If someone is being dismissive, we call them ‘dismissive.’ Arrogant? ‘Arrogant.’ Petulant, conceited, unclear, threatening, hypocritical, threatening, pompous, smug, disdainful, insolent; the list goes on and on.”
This approach is more reflective of who we can be as people and also offers another societal improvement, Dakic says.
“And the great thing? None of these are gender specific.”
Michael Toebe authors and publishes the weekly Red Diamonds Newsletter, Red Diamonds Features and Red Diamonds Essays (all on Medium) and hosts the Red Diamonds Podcast. He is a specialist for reputation, professional relationships communication and wiser crisis management.