The other day on Facebook, where all life happens now, a friend asked for the definition of a Karen. She was confused because she thought that previously “Karens” were the women lecturing others about face masks and calling the police about non-socially-distancing groups of teens. But now, it seemed liked people were using “Karen” to describe women refusing to wear their masks and throwing fits in the grocery store.
Women chimed in with various definitions and explanations of Karen. Then, a woman I don’t know commented that she had “checked with her daughters who are in their 20s and in the know on these things” and gave their definition. She also went through everyone else’s comments and told them that they were wrong and that they should look at her definition below.
It was all very Karen and very meta. I was left wondering, where are the Steves? In my 20s I worked at a company that had so many Steves we began renaming them as a condition of employment. Yes, looking back, that’s a pretty problematic employment practice, even as a joke, but it was the 90s. Somewhere in Northern California is a programmer in his 50s who still goes by the name “Mick,” because that’s the name he was given by his coworkers in Chicago.
When the kids were in preschool we had a family Hanukkah party with four or five other families. The only men not named Steve were my husband and his father. My point is that there are clearly as many Steves among middle-aged white men as there are middle-age white women named Karen. As a group, middle-aged white men probably demand special treatment and ask to speak to the manager easily as often as women. But no one has ever dismissed the concern of a middle-aged man by telling him “You’re such a Steve.”
When men behave badly we deal with them as individuals. We call them out as individuals. When women behave badly, we dismiss them as women. It happens with “mean girls” and “bridezillas,” too. Are there girls who are mean? Yes. Is every girl mean? No. Are there brides who demand their bridesmaids change their hair or lose weight, who feel entitled to yell at wedding planners and make demands? Yes. Are their grooms who do that? Also, yes.
The problem with reducing bad behavior to a dismissive gender-based word is two-fold. One, it allows us to dismiss valid complaints and requests that women make. Years ago when I worked for wedding websites I had an advice column (which also explains the name of this blog). I’d get letters all the time from women who had various reasonable requests about their wedding but were afraid to state them because they didn’t want to be labeled “a bridezilla.” Worse, were the women whose own families called them a “bridezilla” every time they mentioned their wedding or stated an opinion.
Sometimes, something is wrong and you need to speak to the manager. Why is it a problem only when women ask to have something fixed?
The other problem with this kind of reductive language is that it supports the idea that women can’t help their behavior. Calling the cops because you see a black man isn’t a product of being a white woman, it’s a product of being a racist white woman. Dismissing women’s bad behavior as “Karen” is just another way of letting primarily white women off the hook for that behavior.
When you reduce bad behavior to a stereotype it becomes easy to dismiss. On another Facebook thread (seriously people, we’re in a pandemic I don’t have any other social outlet), this one in a mom’s group, a woman called another woman a neglectful and unfit mother because her child walked out of the house without shoes. When a third woman referred to her as a Karen, she replied that she couldn’t be a Karen, because she’s black. If the third woman had simply called her judgemental and unkind, or even a judgemental bitch, that criticism would have been a little harder to dismiss. Bitch is a gendered insult, but it’s not an insult that assumes behaving badly is part of being a woman.
When Karen took off in force, there was an overblown backlash claiming that the term was “as bad as the N word.” Clearly, it is not. There is not a history of oppression or hatred behind the term Karen. It is not used as a prelude to murder. If we stop using Karen to dismiss women we’ll just go back to using Soccer Mom or the clunkier, but more direct, “White Suburban Mom” as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did when dismissing valid concerns about Common Core curriculum.
Not using Karen to dismiss them isn’t going to suddenly make people listen to middle-aged women. But also, using it is still kind of a Steve move.