Perspective | It’s time to drop the Karen stereotype

By Laura Catherine Hanby Hudgens

It was funny at first. Who among us hasn’t embarrassed our children by returning a botched order, complaining about the talkative kids in the movie theater, or, horror of horrors, asking to see the manager. My own family has had a running joke for years about my mother who, as my younger daughter once put it, has awesome “powers of complaining.” While traveling with my two daughters and me, my mother has unleashed her powers to rectify a clogged hotel shower drain, a mayonnaise on a hamburger fiasco, and an overly strong margarita.

In each instance, my daughters saw their grandmother as polite, direct, and unapologetic. Even if they were a little embarrassed at the time, I’m glad they got to see their grandmother being assertive. I thought she set a good example. Now, just a few years later, women like my mother and me and other women over the age of 40 are often dismissed as Karens when we dare assert ourselves.

I’ve seen Karen defined and shared as someone who, among other things:

  • Carpools her kids to soccer practice in an oversized SUV (How dare she!)
  • Uses Instagram to post selfies of her work out (Because no men or younger women ever do that)
  • After a long day of asking to speak to managers and driving her kids around she sits down with her mom friends at book club and drinks lots and lots of wine (The nerve!)
  • Gives raisins on Halloween (Okay, that’s pretty crappy)

More recently the term Karen has come to be associated with racist white women who use their privilege to get what they want. That type of woman is certainly abhorrent and deserves to be called out on social media and in person. But to apply the name broadly to women over 40, women who speak their minds, women of little social consequence and diminishing sex appeal, is an over-generalization and a low key form of ageism and misogyny.

Karen is turning every 40- or 50-something-year-old woman who asks to speak to the manager into a condescending meme. But the truth is, sometimes someone does need to speak to the manager. Apparently, it just shouldn’t be a woman over 40.

Maybe one reason middle-aged women are more apt to complain is that because after years of being caregivers and looking out for everyone in our family, we see things men and younger people don’t see—safety issues, unsanitary conditions, the dangers of undercooked meat. We’ve spent the better part of our adult lives making sure everything was okay. Now, if what it takes to makes things okay means speaking with someone in charge, we are mocked and dismissed.

It isn’t just the way the term is used to dismiss women of a certain age. It’s that there is no male counterpart like a Kevin or Jeff. Of course I’m not suggesting we encourage the younger generation to start mocking middle-age men too. But Karen is the internet equivalent to the age-old double standard that a man who is vocal and has high expectations is assertive but when it’s a woman she’s a shrew.

Still, the worst thing about the Karen craze isn’t just that it’s dismissive, ageist, and sexist. The worst thing is the way so many women are using it as a means to put down or shut up other women. Sadly, it seems that we live in a world where rational, intelligent disagreement is  rare. Instead of discussing, we react. We call names. We dismiss. But women, particularly women with years of experience negotiating everything from who gets the blue sippy cup to a higher salary, should be setting the tone for rational discussion—not being knocked out of it with a snarky, “Oh, is that right, Karen?”

Calling another woman a Karen during a discussion (in person or online) is a surefire way to put her in her place (And really, ladies, haven’t we had enough of that!) because it is one of those insults that gets worse the more you deny it. After all, as everyone knows, when you complain about being called a Karen, you are being super Kareny.

Listen, as a rule, I’m a good sport, and I am often the first one to laugh at my own over-the-top mom moments. That’s why when Karens first became a thing and I sometimes saw myself in Karen stereotypes, I thought it was pretty funny. But as is so often the case with stereotypes, what started out as funny has become mean—and a way to shove an entire category of people into one unflattering box. Worse, the Karen trope has become a trendy, socially acceptable way to tell women over 40 to pipe down.

Ladies, for our own sakes and more importantly as an example for our daughters, let’s not pipe down. Let’s, when the situation warrants, keep politely, assertively, and unapologetically speaking our  piece. If the internet doesn’t like it, it can just ask to speak to the manager.

Currently taking some time off from her career as a middle and high school ELA teacher, Laura enjoys writing from her home in Arkansas and taking care of her garden and her little flock of chickens. Her little flock of children have all grown or are mostly grown, but she still enjoys taking care of them too.

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