The largest of these subreddits, r/FuckYouKaren, was created back in December 2017, in honor of a Reddit poster who had achieved brief internet notoriety by complaining virulently about his vindictive ex-wife, Karen. The subreddit has more than 500,000 subscribers, and its founder, a 17-year-old from Irvine, California, who goes by the username karmacop97, told me that the pandemic has only boosted activity. “It’s been a little bit wild seeing how the Karen archetype is increasing in the wild now,” he said, after requesting anonymity because he doesn’t want the forum to be associated with his future professional life. “COVID-19 is just bringing them more into the spotlight.” At the beginning of the pandemic, the most popular Karens were toilet-paper hoarders and suburban shoppers berating grocery-store workers. Now the subreddit is focused on a new species of Karen: the type of protester who insists that social distancing should end because she needs a haircut.
The posts in these subreddits can be insightful when they acutely criticize entitlement. They get—rudely—at the most destructive logical fallacy of the pandemic, which is any wishful thinking that we won’t personally become a vector for disease, even if we’re breaking rules and taking risks for our own comfort. In some cases, these memes are encouraging awareness of bad health practices and singling out behaviors that health experts agree will legitimately kill people.
But Reddit conversations about Karens, perhaps unsurprisingly, can also cross a line—as with posts mocking a real woman named Karen who expressed doubt about the threat of the coronavirus and later died from it. On Reddit—well known as a home for some of the internet’s more toxic attitudes—motivations behind the meme have been questioned as misogynistic: Is a Karen just a woman who does anything at all that annoys people? If so, what is the male equivalent?
The pre-Reddit history of Karens complicates things further. Among black women, the shorthand of a “Karen”—a white woman to be wary of because she won’t hesitate to wield privilege at the expense of others—has existed for years. “The cultural reference has always been there; it just hasn’t always been so specific to one person’s name,” says Meredith Clark, a media researcher at the University of Virginia. “Karen has gone by different names. Back in the ’90s, when ‘Baby Got Back’ came out, it was Becky. There will be another name.”
During the pandemic, Karen jokes have also helped highlight the urgent racial disparities in infections and deaths that exist partly because, in many places, people of color make up the majority of the essential workforce, but also because of long-standing and dramatic health inequalities in the U.S.