We Need to Talk About Karen

William Costello
12 min readJun 25, 2020

What started off as a harmless internet meme to poke fun at a stereotype that we all recognise has turned into something a lot darker.

I now simply must take it upon myself to mansplain the Karen phenomenon to you all.

This essay aims to explore the following,

  • Who is Karen and does she have a dark side?
  • What has been the backlash to the Karen phenomenon?
  • Why are people keen to engineer Karen incidents?
  • Why is Karen held in such disdain?
  • Who should speak about Karen?

Who is ‘Karen’?

You’d recognize Karen.

There’s even an iconic ‘Karen’ aesthetic with the classic short cropped hairstyle. She’s a middle aged, dissatisfied, white woman with a sassy attitude. She’s ready to speak to the manager and she knows she’s entitled to complain.

In many ways I am the opposite of Karen. I’m the guy crawling under the dinner table when someone complains about their food at dinner. But I know Karen. Karen could be my auntie. I’m certainly Karen adjacent.

However, when seen through the reductive prisms of race and identity politics, ‘Karen’ represents something more sinister. She is the privileged white woman who is ready to weaponise her femininity. She is ready to strategically deploy “crocodile tears” to garner sympathy and get (typically black) men in trouble.

This has an element of truth to this, we generally have an empathy gap that means we acknowledge women’s suffering more than men’s. There is also an argument to be made that much of society is held up by a romantic gynocentrism that puts women (white women in particular perhaps) up on a pedestal.

The extremes of this phenomenon, when played out in the real world, lead to dark ends indeed. We need only remember the tragic case of Emmett Till, who at age 14, was lynched in the streets by vigilantes because of an accusation made by a white woman, who claimed that Till had made lewd remarks to her in a grocery store. The woman in question, Carolyn Bryant Donham, is said to have admitted the lie on her deathbed.

William Costello

Psychology PhD Student University of Texas at Austin. MSc Psychology, Culture and Evolution from Brunel University London 2020/21. Bylines: Areo and Quillette.