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When Your Name Becomes a Meme

In Defense of Karen

When I was a child in the 1970s, I sometimes watched reruns of the TV show Bewitched. It was a comedy about a modern-day witch named Samantha who, by wrinkling her nose, cast spells on people. She and her husband kept her magical powers secret from friends and work colleagues but one person was utterly convinced dangerous witchcraft was happening in the house: their neighbor, Gladys.

Gladys relentlessly pursued the truth. She witnessed the magic through her living room window and often marched over to Sam’s house and confronted them. She was a middle-aged, thick-waisted woman with a comedic face, nasal voice, and old-fashioned hairdo. She never gave up. The more she witnessed, the more she pursued Sam and her husband, scrunching up her face and waving her finger with a suspicious determination, doubtful of their innocently delivered explanations and at some points even openly despising the young couple.

At the time, I thought Gladys was awful. I was convinced every woman in the world named Gladys was awful. They all were this frumpy shrew, bold and threatening and outdated. And my opinion was confirmed by other shows and book characters. If a TV or movie needed a comedic character, they often named her Gladys. It became the archetypal name for not only the nosy neighbor, but the pushiest, pettiest woman imaginable.

Fast forward 30 years. I’m watching a different kind of show: Facebook. I’m scrolling through my feed when I see I’m tagged by a friend sharing a Nerds With Vaginas post. Curious, I open it and see the meme asking if Karens are born or just appear with three kids demanding to speak to a manager. Woh. I’m rattled, then the self-examination kicks in. I think, My name is Karen. I have three kids. I haven’t spoken to a manager lately but if I was mistreated, I would. I can be strong and speak up for myself. Is that bad now?I worry momentarily but ultimately, I comment lightheartedly on the post and shake it off. 

Months later, I see an earlier meme from a comedian doing a bit about how every group of friends has one friend that everybody in the group hates. In the female version of the group, the person’s name is Karen. Another hit. I can’t help but self-analyze. I don’t have a group of friends per se, but I wonder if the friends I do have secretly dislike me. Have I said anything careless lately? There is that friend that hasn’t called me in months. Am I the idiot who’s clueless about how much everyone dislikes me?Eventually, I conclude I can’t be that annoying person because the friends who really love me do call and want to get together. So again, I brush it off and move on. 

When I ask my husband about it, he confirms the meme and shows me the “Karen haircut” photo online. It’s short, longer in the front, blondish, set on a middle-aged, heavy set woman. I examine the photo, concluding I don’t have that haircut and overall don’t look like the woman, but regardless, I’m now, as a middle-aged woman, feeling oddly self-conscious.

That self-conscious mood balloons out of control when I go searching for information. I discover there’s a whole sub-Reddit just for mean Karen jokes. It’s called Fuck You, Karen and has 57,000 subscribers. They’re vicious. “Karen” meme board populate an Pinterest page. Urban Dictionary even has a definition: 44, mother of three, blonde, owns a Volvo, annoying as hell, wears acrylics 24/7, currently at your workplace speaking to your manager. 

Damn it, I owned a Volvo in college!

The bits of coincidental truth sting. I’m targeted by a myth I never asked for. I feel exposed. I suddenly want to delete my social media profiles and use a pen name for all of my publications. I used to worry that the name Karen simply gave away my age as a Gen Xer. Now, I’m petrified anything I say or do will be used as a means to a cruel, viral joke.

Fear, and moreso, disappointment, gnaw at me. I struggle to process how, by being named a name that my Polish-American mother chose so I could blend into American culture rather than stand out with an ethnic name, has led to this strange new reviled identity. It wasn’t my choice to be born when I was. It wasn’t my choice to be named what I was and yet, I feel as if I’m guilty of being a loser for having the third most common name in America in the late 1960s. 

I begin to feel like Leslie Jones or Lindy West from a handful of years ago. I’m out here in real life land, minding my own business, working toward a successful career, sharing my passions on social media, when suddenly I’m a pariah for existing. As Jones and West were mocked for their statures and strong personalities (not to mention race in Jones’s case), so am I, for a name crowdsourced as repulsive. I’m socially, and in some ways psychologically, handcuffed. If I get upset or truly do need to speak to a manager, I play into the ridiculed framework and fulfill the reductive troll version of a woman named Karen. There’s no good way out.

That this cultural reality was initially created by a male comedian seems sexist. That the generic Karen photo features a heavier woman, seems body sizeist. That she’s also middle-aged, seems of course, ageist. And when women pile on with their own anecdotes or jokes or posts, it reinforces the faux reality that men nailed it because women agree: Karens suck. 

And so, my name has been reduced to a nasty meme. Never mind that it means “pure” in Danish and “valorous man” in Persian. My choices are to leave social media (as Jones and West did), use a fake name on my public profiles, or hang on and weather the storm. Perhaps I should own it full on. I could buy one of the many Karen T-shirts I’ve found online, especially the one that says, “Because I’m Karen, that’s why.” Lately, I’ve told myself I should just continue being the authentic, positive person I am until the trend fades. That might work. But in the meantime, I may change my name to something more ordinary and inconspicuous, like say, Gladys.

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