In high school, my friend Karen and I had a ritual: We would try to find the worst possible restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C. area and pretend we were enjoying fine dining. These trips to zero-star establishments such as the Dixie Pig and Hillbilly Heaven weren’t dates, per se. I had a crush on Karen’s best friend and she mostly listened patiently to my lovelorn wailing as the gum-snapping waitresses poured gravy on our French fries.
When Karen finally graduated (a year ahead of me, for some reason, despite being a year younger than me), she went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a university professor. A progressive in good standing, her life’s work has been to improve health outcomes through research.
I, on the other hand, turned out to be a conservative writer intent on ruining his own health through excessive burrito ingestion (having apparently learned nothing at Hillbilly Heaven). Yet my old friend now faces opprobrium that I never will:
In recent months, the name “Karen” has become a descriptor for a basic white lady of a certain age who is insufficiently clued in to the sensitive cultural mores of the moment. A recent New York Times column by Sarah Miller called “My So-Karen Life” described “Karens” thusly:
While everyone is complaining about boomers, Gen Z doesn’t want you to forget to complain about Generation X, the other generation that’s significantly older than them that also sucks. This sucking is embodied by the name Karen, the young people have noticed—middle-aged white moms who are always asking for the manager and calling the police on perfectly fine pool parties and wondering why kids are so obsessed with their identities.
I am a Gen Xer, but I can only say to the Gen Zs, I feel you on the Karen thing so hard. Having a Karen as a mom must suck, but also, just imagine having thousands of Karens as your constant nemeses, for your whole life.
Miller’s piece is, of course, just virtue signaling. It exists only to let people know she is not one of them. In this case, “them” being white women who grew up, matured, and either raised families, or conformed to workplace culture to advance in their careers. Or worse: both.
There are “good” middle-aged, middle-class white ladies. And “bad” middle-aged, middle-class white ladies. And the surest way to tell them apart is for the Good ones to come up with a label for the Bad ones and then shout and gesticulate as wildly as possible in their general direction.
Because when you’re the one doing the pointing, you must be Good.
And so white women become “Karens,” men who respond to women’s tweets become “Reply Guys,” any music with a guitar in it becomes “Dad Rock.” And so on and so forth. Because othering is only problematic when the Karens do it.
The desire of younger people to label their Gen X elders as basic and out-of-touch emanates from the need to feel that they are more culturally in tune with today’s zeitgeist. Which, by the by, is what the Boomers spent literally their entire lives doing.
I began to notice the anti-Karen sentiment a few months ago when an African-American security guard at a local high school was fired from his job after telling a student not to call him the “n-word.” The guard actually used the slur when telling the student not to say it, but Madison West Principal Karen Boran fired him for saying it out loud.
At the time, I tweeted about the episode and received dozens of responses along the lines of “of course she’s a Karen” from people outraged that an older white lady would fire a black security guard for defending himself. No one seemed to understand that this Karen was merely trying to follow the rules of the road created by society’s heightened racial sensitivities. Boran was actually enforcing a zero-tolerance attitude towards racial slurs. And zero-tolerance is kind of thing that the kids these days usually love. You might even say that, ackshually, Karen Boran was doing the anti-Karen thing.
Labeling “Karens” as a monolithic entity based on race and age is exactly the type of stereotyping that today’s hyper-sensitives abhor when it gets applied to any other group. I happen to walk around in life surrounded by a diverse group of wonderful Karens: In addition to my high school friend Karen, there’s my sister Karen, who upended her life to move to Australia, where she now has three children. Another Gen X friend, is a brilliant writer and professor named Karyn. She recently won a contest for being able to make a sound like a Star Wars TIE fighter. (The prize: free movie popcorn for a year.) This is maybe not the type of thing that would cause people on Twitter to roll their eyes and say, “of course she’s a Karen.”
As a typical Karen would probably say, some of my best friends are Karens.
Further, it’s not even clear why “Karen” would be the name of choice to other white Gen X women. In the middle of the generation’s time frame for births, 1973, the top three names were “Jennifer,” “Amy,” and “Michelle.” The name “Karen” drops in at number 23, well behind “Tammy” and “Dawn,” both of which have all but disappeared. (To meet girls at bars, my college friends and I had a game where we would try to guess a girl’s name, then go ask her to see who was right. But in the early ’90s, the game was pretty much rigged, because there was almost a 30 percent chance she’d be an “Amy.”)
Every generation wants to believe it’s special: That the random assortment of people born around the same time faces challenges never seen by the loafers and troglodytes and simpletons who came before them. We are told we need to save Millennials from the terrible challenges the Karens never faced. Such as student loan debt and cyber-bullying.
Of course, previous generations had to worry about contracting typhoid. And the Great Depression. And the Germans. And being drafted. And AIDS. And the epidemic of divorce, which created the first generation of American kids raised, more or less, by themselves.
Unlike the Gen Zers, I don’t think my generation had it especially hard, unless you count having to listen to the insufferable generations immediately before and after us who never, for a minute, stop trying to point out how unique and unprecedented and amazing they are.
There are basically no lengths that either the Boomers, or the Millennials, won’t go to if it affords them a moment of moral preening. Even if it’s as dopey as trying to malign a million or so women who happen to have been named “Karen” by their parents.
Come to think of it, maybe Gen X does face a challenge that other cohort ever has: Being book-ended by a pair of grandiose, self-righteous generations who never stop talking about how special they are and how awful everyone else is.
I mean, it’s not settling the frontier, or saving the Union, or facing down the Soviets. But it’s not nothing, either.
Just ask Karen.