To be a “Karen” is to act aggressively entitled in the most trivial moments of consumerist existence. Karens demand their (assumed) privilege in drive-thrus, Starbucks lines, shopping malls, school events, and so on. Although historically a byproduct of the suburban nuclear family ecosystem, Karens manifest throughout all areas of Capitalism’s domination: everywhere and everything. Inherently racialized and gendered along class lines, Karens are typically over thirty, white, and middle to upper-middle class women. Plenty of extra aesthetic qualities exist to flesh out this baseline, but these foundational qualities speak to who, or what, The Karen is.
As such, “Karens” are a damning indictment of middle class white culture. Their behavior, and the archetype that results, twists race, class, and gender into a concussive blast against neoliberal reality, while having the good sense to hide itself as a joke in the process, one with layers. Like an iceberg: the majority of its mass hides beneath the surface, waiting to be unpacked.
Despite being a man while engaging with this concept of “Karen,” I’m going to dismiss implications of “sexism” from this discussion (as many have already done), as it is largely an attempt to excuse the malicious behavior of Karens – and on a whole, consumer culture – regardless of gender.
Karens explicitly focus their attention on the working class. Cashiers, servers, teachers, retail workers, and customer service people are specifically targeted for their required subservient status to the customer, and resultant inability to fight back. As anyone who’s worked in retail or the service industry can testify, the targeted person is trapped. Any abuse that flies their way has to be met with the utmost courtesy and civility. The customer-facing employee is literally paid pennies to be emotionally and verbally abused by ego-tripping customers.
This is the modus operandi of the Karen. It’s why accusations of the moniker being a sexist term fall apart upon deeper inspection. For starters, middle class white men play this game too. Saying they take advantage of the environment created by retail and the service industry is focusing on one tree in a forest. Kyles and Karens are products of the web of class hierarchy and neurotic consumerist identity. This isn’t a sexist trope of “women complaining too much,” but a legend existing within a racialized class system, and individuals gaining privilege by reproducing the legend and thus reinforcing it. Kyles and Karens embody the inherent racism and classism of the reactionary forces held within the middle class.
Firstly, all this talk about class and capitalism should make it obvious the role hierarchies play. As mentioned earlier, Karens take advantage of capitalism’s hierarchies of social class, race, wealth, and the privilege that attaches to each. As competition increases for higher levels of the hierarchy, people act in more and more eccentric and malicious ways to protect and signify their status in the upper echelons, whether or not they actually qualify to be in that position; for the Karen, acting the part creates the privilege, ostension in action. They’ll take any opportunity to partake in the privileges these high positions afford, through demeaning those below them. As #MeToo (and a whole host of feminist text that rarely gets read these days) has acutely shown, hierarchies incentivize those in power to abuse the unempowered. Not only do the powerful show their dominance by abusing others without repercussion, they partake in the spoils of domination no matter who is hurt in the process.
This segues nicely into the second point: the structure of the restaurant and retail industry (and by extension all customer facing sides of the market) where underpaid mostly BIPOC serve the trivial desires of patrons who could have literally done all of this themselves is copied straight from household servants. Both industries are games where the now servantless well-off partake in fantasies of the “good ol’ days” when “other people” did all their errands. Pointed up by obsessions with the workers saying “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am,” having someone serve a need that could have been met without them is an inherently class based activity. To serve is to be lower in the hierarchy than the served. To be served signals class standing: only the rich can have other people make their food, care for their children, and run their errands.
Recently, this class-based interaction within consumer culture has become more accessible to the lower classes. A worker of the capitalist labor system can get off work, walk into an Applebees, and harass a waitress just to feel like “the man” for once.
Doing so however deepens the person’s connection to the unsavory (to white people), and incredibly racist history of the service industry. Even the way servers make their money is steeped in it. They’re paid an incredibly low salary, legally below the minimum wage, assuming tips will make up the rest, relying on a format that originated as a way to pay newly freed African-Americans next to nothing, or nothing at all.
Add to this the racist community policing Karens participate in – policing of white spaces against the encroachment of Black people – and we begin to see the full picture.
Third, the breaking down of Western culture into the nuclear family, from multigenerational families, has done a lot to pervert the roles of the men and women trapped (many times voluntarily) inside its confines. Despite traditionally being the domain of the patriarch, today’s nuclear families involve an interconnected web of power-plays and abuse. The woman, routinely objectified and stripped of autonomy, works to reassert control with the tools of her own oppression. Spouses take egotistical power trips on each other and their children. For many, this seems like their only reason for existing, and only true source of happiness. The nuclear patriarchal family incentivizes interpersonal abuse in various forms, which ends up escaping the family boundaries to take revenge on innocent bystanders.
This all convenes, finally, in the concept of taking pleasure in our displeasure that Robert Pfaller discusses in his book, “On the Pleasure Principle in Culture.” This internal schadenfreude merges the points made above, creating a shared reference between the Karen and our broader social expectations and values that inherently foster abuse.
Robert Pfaller opens by questioning how the neoliberal state can cut back life-improving programs and policies to the collective cheering of its subjects. Why governments curtail and fight back against programs like universal healthcare, affordable housing, and a livable wage is immediately obvious. To the tune of fictitious “budgets,” and in return for financial support of their political power, states force people to live with less while they provide enormous privileges to the corporations that poison, exploit, and fleece the population. The government and their capitalist cronies only care as far as they can drag the citizens for a quick profit. The ready use of violence of the state to enforce this should not cause surprise. What is disturbing is the neurotic obsession by which the states’ subjects defend, argue for, and implement this violence on themselves and others.
This glorified masochism – the delusional belief that “making life easy” is immoral and destructive to life – is a component of the Karen, deriving from the beliefs of broad swaths of society, specifically the reactionary elements that the Karen descends from, and that inflict violence on behalf of the capitalists.
Culturally, we can see it everywhere. Parenting implements mini authoritarian family states with their children as a slave class, carrying out physical and emotional labor. Debate culture now glorifies arguing for the sake of arguing and playing devil’s advocate solely to be contrary, where the only skills learned are how to verbally nag people for their self-masturbatory egotism, and become two-faced sycophants. Hazing should not be forgotten: the implementation of violence in the category of friendships. It’s an extreme representation of what we all implicitly believe: if you want to climb the social/corporate ladder, you’re gonna have to eat some shit. Toxic masculinity takes this and runs with it. Men must suppress their emotions, and cannot express their friendships in any other way except through violence.
Workplace culture and expectations are full of internalized violence. The cultural legend of the worker is one of glorified sadomasochism. Western culture believes that long work hours, pitiful wages, no healthcare, and tyrannical bosses are pathways to satisfaction. Sure, the occasional sexual assault scandal or discrimination case gains attention. People rage briefly, only to turn about and defend the system that regularly produces said instances of abuse, writing off complaints with an explanation that “that’s just how it works”. The sick joke is that it’s never an instance. It’s continuous. People being caught and maybe punished are the exception rather than the rule. Most people would rather see their fellow humans successful and abused, than neither abused or successful. Phrases like “no pain, no gain”, “hard work pays off”, and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” play into this success-through-pain narrative Westerners are raised to believe.
Many times, this acceptance of abuse is used to excuse Karens. Service and retail workers are trained, whether explicitly or not, to accept the verbal and physical abuse of customers as the status quo. Sadly, the abuse of workers by customers is the norm.
Just because something is defined as “normal” doesn’t mean it has to be taken lying down. It takes two to tango. The most direct way to combat Karens is to literally fight back. This requires not only an understanding of the Karen archetype, and strategies to use against them, but an active effort on one’s part to kill the Karen in their own head. The fight against the abuses of capitalism starts at home, in each person’s mind.
In “On the Pleasure Principle in Culture,” Robert Pfaller references the Dutch Philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s take on the “virtuous” and happiness, from his book “Ethics”:
“Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; neither do we rejoice therein, because we control our lusts, but contrariwise, because we rejoice therein, we are able to control our lusts.”
Pfaller references this in regard to what he sees as America’s culture of prohibitions. This culture not only inhibits and controls our behavior and thoughts, but produces its own dominating set of behaviors and thoughts. Playing off of Spinoza: our prohibitive culture doesn’t merely restrict our happiness, but produces its own twisted form of happiness.
Pfaller’s go-to example is smoking. A cultural stigma combines with local bans on smoking, prohibiting where and what people can smoke, to produce irritation and agitation in the non-smoker for even seeing someone smoke. The emotional reaction some people have toward a smoker is so great that although it appears as unhappiness, Pfaller argues it conveys happiness. The righteous anti-smoker takes pleasure in emotionally and verbally railing against the smoker. We can connect this further, into the world of diets, exercise, and “health food”, where its devotees torture themselves and others with list upon list of everchanging do’s and don’ts pulled from a variety of celebrity “experts” who constantly push the latest cure-all routine or supplement. The devotees are never saved. No end game exists except in endless emulation of the celebrity, and death. Their pleasure, and. subsequently, the reason they can control themselves so well, originates in their self-righteousness. The benefits of controlling themselves are secondary to the virtue they experience while exerting this control.
This is where Spinoza’s concept of virtuousness as its own reward comes into play with the Karen.
Karens operate on a field of expectations, assumptions, and rules based on their perceived or desired position within the social hierarchy. When this is challenged, they erupt with force to rival that of a brute cop hell-bent on exercising authority (through physical force such as a baton or gun) over a helpless Black person.
A complex, interweaving, seemingly endless web of do’s and don’ts provide both internal justification and numerous targets for the Karen to attack. Every Karen outburst is firstly a proclamation of defense against some violation of these rules to which the target may or may not subscribe, and secondly a move into victim-mode. The Karen thereby covers themselves in innocence, while fighting a crusade against perceived injustice, throwing a verbal tantrum for self-gratification through expression of their virtuousness and to whip up popular support.
This is just a synopsis of the emotions they experience and behaviors they portray in their quest for virtue. One might think that the Karen’s crusade climaxes when their target succumbs to their demands, but this would be wrong. Having their demands met is a suboptimal finish. Like a vampire, the Karen doesn’t feel satisfied when their victim dies. It’s the blood sucking – the process of the victim dying – that satisfies their craving. The journey is the purpose, not the destination.
The Karen attacks the cogs in the machine. The business is the machine, and the waiter or cashier is the cog. Pulling from a pool of petty bourgeois customs, rules, and expectations of race, class, and gender, the Karen crafts a narrative of personal victimization. “They failed to bring me my drink in time.” “What do you mean I have to wear a mask here?” “What do you mean you don’t know?” Everything is a slight against the Karen, a conspiracy to insult or disrespect them, misbehavior on the part of the assumed servants. The irony is the Karen creates these slights with their own anal outlook on life.
At first glance, it might seem like a constant state of unhappiness. Karens spend their days looking for slights against them. They nitpick the actions of everyone around them, looking for a misstep to pounce on. Although they may experience unhappiness in these made up slights, they extract a perverted happiness from the self-righteousness of defending what they believe are social norms. They see themselves as the enforcers of “how it should be.” Building off of Spinoza: the Karen finds their happiness in the virtue they experience while attacking random people for their supposed failings. They find happiness in the exploitation of others. Once they perceive a violation of said boundaries, they feel threatened. Although they have all the power, their victim status originates in age-old racial and class claims of safety. “I didn’t feel safe” is the rallying cry of racists everywhere.
Through a series of Freudian concepts, Pfaller argues that this pleasure in displeasure/suffering is designed to build up the ego. If someone is constantly unhappy, looking for the next situation to complain about, and charging head-first into each new one, they must be getting something out of it. It must be fueling something inside of them.
Karens are a product of modern Western culture. That they feed off of its intense consumerism demonstrates that. Capitalism and class hierarchy are the originators. Consumerism is the fuel.
Karens are products of multiple overlapping hierarchical power structures. Each structure – patriarchy, capitalism, class, race, fascism – exists in a state of interconnectedness, emphasizing the domination of the weak by the strong, the strong here defined as the physically able, white, hetero male, wealthy, and well connected individuals who extract the majority of resources and labor production thanks to their solidified positions in society.
Putting a boot on someone’s neck wins the capitalist, fascist game. This is where the Karen originates. To dominate is seen as success. Parents are only impressed if their child works in a “respectable” job position, like a manager in a cubicle of corporate hell. The followup question always involves the possibility of advancement up the corporate ladder. Bossing people around is a career goal. To be bossed is to wander aimlessly; no goals, no ambition.
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The Karen considers retail and service workers to be beneath them. The Karen is owed submission and service by virtue of their position (actual or claimed) within the hierarchy. Any sign of defiance on the part of the low-wage laborer is grounds for an assault. “When the servants don’t obey, they get hit,” is the motto of the Karen. This is why the Karen is typically of the middle to upper middle class. The rich have servants of their own to subjugate, or visit luxury shops and restaurants where the service is molded to fit its bourgeoisie clientele. Karens have to make do with Applebee’s servers, retail workers, and the maids that clean their houses once a week.
A significant characteristic of the middle class is the attempted replication of upper class sensibilities. They are wanna-be bourgeoisie, fully invested in moving up the class hierarchy, and most importantly: defending their class position from those below them. They reinforce class values such as manners, civility, work ethic, and respectability politics to instill conformity among themselves, and to gatekeep entry into the middle class for those attempting to rise in the hierarchy. Replicating class consciousness is of paramount importance. Like all caste systems, upper class characteristics are a form of violence, subjugation, exclusion, and control.
To the inductees and inhabitants, this all feels natural and rational. Why wouldn’t you have to adhere to a certain set of rules to be successful, accepted, and respected? It never occurs to them that it could be restrictive and exploitive. And why would it? They subsist off of it! Their adherence not only upholds the caste system, and secures their place within it, but fuels their own narcissistic ego. Pfaller’s connection between asceticism – the fanatical pursuit of prohibitions and limitations on pleasure – and boosts to narcissistic self-esteem help to understand how Karens operate.
Think of each Karen outburst as a feeding frenzy for their narcissism, a reproduction of the class power they’ve not only allied themselves with, but so desperately want to be a part of. The middle class wants to feel like they’re important, that they deserve to be served. A Karen outburst is an outward declaration of class consciousness and eminence, and an inward moment of pleasure for the individual’s authoritarian fantasies, providing a sense of excitement in an otherwise banal world.
Hyper-individualism has centered Westerners around building up their egotistical self-perceptions. Everyone wants to be famous, to have a following, to be remembered by history, to be revered by their peers. It’s what makes people feel guilty for not being “productive”, binding self-worth with this concept of endless production, foisted on the populace by a neoliberal flavor of capitalism that shuns pleasures for a life of sacrifice and misery.
Despite typically being represented as feminine, the Karen is not inherently gendered. Highlighting some characteristics specific to male Karens (sometimes referred to as Kyles) may help combat misconceptions and petty sexist grievances some men may have while reading too much into this essay.
The middle class is a force for the status quo. These people actively support the patriarchal system. Subsequently, a Karen, being an extreme representation of middle class mentality, will act in varying ways based on their position in the hierarchy. A female Karen, then, will have different goals and tactical execution compared to a Kyle. The Karen is consolidating power in an environment where they are usually subordinate, whereas the Kyle exists at the top of the pecking order. Just like all bosses are tyrants, so are all classist tyrants. It matters little who or what someone happens to be if they’re aligned with the ruling class, because the desire to exercise and grab more power exerts more influence on how they live than any other.
Karens are largely worried about service. As managers of the household, they play the game of the genteel manor. They manage the servants. For Kyles, their realm of authority covers ideas like respect, competition, and independence. Where Karens see service workers as employees, Kyles see them as subjects to their power. For example, Karens normally do not explicitly treat service workers differently based on their gender, whereas Kyles do. Kyles objectify female workers, engaging with them in patronizing, playful terms. They perceive women workers as their entertainment. This sexist behavior ranges from annoying flirting to “asking” for a smile, to physical and verbal sexual harassment. Many times, if the female worker pushes back against their sexism, the Kyle will progress into gaslighting, or full blown misogyny.
The Kyle is slighted by denials to what they believe to be their domain of control. This includes the objectification of women, as well as the submissiveness of male service workers. Kyles will threaten violence, whether explicitly or through the tone of their voice and their stance, if they feel their status is being threatened. Where the Karen obsesses about disservice and safety, the Kyle obsesses about rebellion. This mirrors the symbiotic relationship between white women and men in oppressing people of color, specifically Black people, where the white woman’s accusation of offense provides the catalyst for the man’s violence against the other. The white woman who called the cops on a Black man bird watching in Central Park, in May of 2020, is a classic example of this. Although the woman’s dog was unleashed in an area that required one, she ended up positioning herself as the victim, using the power of the state to defend her sense of safety, and reinforce racial superiority.
This catalyst doesn’t always have to be present for the man to revert to accusations of violence to justify their use of violence. They’ll use their body and voice to bully service workers into acquiescing to their demands. They’ll also bring the Karen with them in using violence. In rigid hierarchical gender roles, the female follows the male’s lead. The image of a St Louis couple pointing firearms at a passing Black Lives Matter protest is an explicit example of this.
It’s the quintessential image of the violence inherent in the Karen. Two white, middle aged, upper class lawyers lived in an actual mansion, within a gated community. When a BLM protest marched past their home, they freaked out, worrying that the mostly Black group would harm them and their property in some way. They grabbed guns and walked outside to confront the protestors. Instead of staying in their house, or calmly engaging with the protestors, they decided to use a show of force in an effort to intimidate the crowd. Irrational fear coupled with an over-the-top reaction is a classic Karen move. Not surprisingly, this couple has a history of being Karens:
“The McCloskeys have repeatedly filed suits over small neighborhood issues, accusing neighbors of encroaching on their land or breaking neighborhood rules by allowing unmarried gay couples to live there. When a synagogue on a neighboring property set up beehives to harvest honey for Rosh Hashanah celebrations, Mark McCloskey reportedly threatened litigation and smashed the beehives, making children cry.”
The couple ended up becoming guest speakers at the 2020 RNC convention, a result no one should find surprising as the Republican party welcomes more and more reactionary elements into its halls.
All Karens act on racialized lines, with white female Karens playing a particularly nefarious role against Black men. The joke of a Karen calling the cops on a Black man breaking into his own house, through the front door, with a key, is too accurate to laugh at. Further well-documented instances include viral videos of white women harassing Black kids playing on the basketball court, a white woman calling the cops on an 8 year old Black girl selling bottled water, a white woman who falsely accused a 9 year old Black boy of groping her while she was shopping, and a white woman who called the cops on two Black men grilling in a park.
Karens enforce segregation as a class value. Since their property values and sense of safety – all wrapped up in the phrase “a good neighborhood” – are tied to racial and class segregation, it shouldn’t be surprising that they reinforce it through individual interactions. The Karens, like most middle-to-upper-middle class whites, live racially segregated lives. If they do have Black friends, said friends are always on an equal class standing.
Reactionism opposes social change, opting for a return to what once was (maintaining the status quo, or reifying a legendary “golden era” that may or may not have actually existed). The middle class, like the gun-toting McCloskeys, are primed by the culture they live in and support for reactionism. Gated-communities commodify isolation from the undesirable realities of capitalist society, such as poverty, homelessness, and “unkempt” (read: poor Black) neighborhoods. The rich pay to enjoy a malicious level of privacy.
It takes very little effort to violate that privacy, and incur the wrath of its inhabitants, as the McCloskeys so disturbingly showed. The status quo for them, and many others with similar lifestyles, was (from their point of view) put in jeopardy by a boisterous group of young Black and working class people. Once this status quo is threatened, Karens can easily become militarized with the right amount of propaganda and validation of their animosity.
The isolationism of the suburb, gated community, and gentrified neighborhood comes at the cost of the working and poor classes’ standard of living. The residents subconsciously know (but like true leeches, can’t admit it) that they’re playing a zero-sum game, leading them to push back against policies and reforms that benefit the people they exploit. This can be particularly disastrous for the middle class who, although seeing themselves as following the path of the upper classes, don’t have the financial means and power to isolate themselves from the reduction of benefits the working class subsists on. According to Pfaller, this is an integral part of reactionary politics:
“[A] Blatant characteristic of right-wing politics is its perpetual success in turning disadvantages into advantages, leading precisely those who are damaged by it to become its most fanatical followers…For that reason, oppression is often not only accepted, but even desired.”
This can be seen in the backlash against universal healthcare, free education, mass debt forgiveness, and rent freezes during a pandemic. Right-wing Americans, and many liberals if we’re being honest, would rather cut off their limbs to survive than stop the bloodshed. Many times these people are financially secure enough to never feel the damage they so readily cheer on. Any financial impact is already budgeted for; they’ve set aside money for what they consider as costs of operation, the price of doing business, the cost of their lifestyle. But often they’re closer to the lower classes they spit on than the upper ones they emulate.
I’m sure we can blame the Puritan work ethic for the economic self-immolation all too common in American politics: good things come through self-sacrifice and “hard work” (Arbeit macht frei, but for the middle class). The well-off contingent of miserable reactionaries generally don’t have an idea how bad life really is for most people, and how endemic that suffering is. It’s rare they even know how bad they have it!
The middle class interprets their disadvantages as obstacles they must overcome with hard work and sheer will power. Past abuse and mistreatment before they joined middle-management becomes justification for them doing the same to others. What is unnecessary suffering becomes a necessary hallmark of progressing up the corporate ladder. Karens believe this wholeheartedly. They inflict abuse, and dismiss its damaging effects; upholding a dizzying array of oppressive and repressive expectations, values, and traditions along the way.
Karens are reactionary pieces within a larger fascistic game.
They uphold the status quo by dehumanizing anyone who fails to adhere to their bourgeoisie, entitled master/servant expectations. Workers must be reminded of their subservient position, and bullied into it by the threat of emotional and verbal abuse that could happen at any time from any customer. The worker/consumer relation is inherently impersonal. The Karen operates as a reminder of that.
In a hierarchical world of objectification and commodification, the Karen is a reminder of how implicit the desire is by complicit actors to partake in violence once they delusionally assume they’ve “made it.” Success (which is often a faux-success) in capitalism legitimizes people being cruel to those below. “I took it, so now I get to dish it out.” They internalize their unhappiness and attack others with it, while being the useful-idiot vanguard of the bourgeoisie who’ll sacrifice them the first chance they get (does the ‘08 recession ring a bell?). The Karen exemplifies where middle class values ultimately get you: unhappy bullies in petty power struggles.