Karens of literature

Written by Arts

If you are anyone who has been anywhere in the last few years you will have heard the insult ‘Karen’ being thrown about.

On the news, on social media, or maybe you’re a really unlucky part-time waitress just trying to make rent who has been targeted by a ‘Karen’ yourself. In any case, whilst the term ‘Karen’ might be new, the behaviours of the stereotypically white middle-class woman are certainly not, and authors have been writing ‘Karen’ characters into their novels for years.

So what is a Karen?

The BBC defines a ‘Karen’ as “the kind of person who […] belittle[s] service industry workers, is anti-vaccination, and carries out racial micro-aggressions,” however the predominant characteristic of the stereotype is that “they weaponize their relative privilege against people of colour.” It seems there are different levels of ‘Karens,’ from those who demand to “speak to the manager” to those who use their privilege to enact racially charged aggressions. 

Who then, in the literary world, has ‘Karen’ potential?

Beginning with the ‘Mother of All Karens,’ Professor Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), who in the darkest year yet for Harry simply makes his life a living hell with her “horribly honeyed voice” that fails to disguise her truly evil nature. I’m sure every manager and service industry worker has felt a similar surge of hatred as Harry when coming face-to-face with a ‘Karen’: “[he] felt a powerful rush of dislike that he could not explain to himself; all he knew was that he loathed everything about her.”

We might all have also felt such powerful loathing when reading (or watching) Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) and experiencing the disturbing wrath of Denise Sheridan, Marianne’s mother. Turning a blind eye to her son’s abusive ways, Denise’s toxic relationship with her daughter is revealed to be the by-product of her own abuse at the hands of Marianne’s late father. If Denise can be so cold towards her own daughter, imagine her hostility towards a mere supermarket cashier… perhaps a pre-requisite of the ‘Karen’ is past trauma?

Described by Polygon as “basically the epitome of the ‘Karen’ meme,” Elena Richardson from Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017) embodies all the trivial dislikeable traits of a ‘Karen,’ as well as the racially charged attitudes that are attributed to the stereotype. Bent on destroying her tenant, Mia Warren, and siding with her white privileged counterparts in the conflict over May Ling Chow’s parental future, Elena continually neglects her own children, failing to recognise her own parental mishaps whilst determined to “fix” everybody else. Blind to their own privilege (as Lexie Richardson believes, “no one sees race here”) the Richardson family continually engage in racial and cultural biases which challenge the 1990’s heralding of being a “post-racial era.”

Similarly racially prejudicial but certainly not unaware of her power or privilege is Miss Hilly Holbrook in Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help (2009)Portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard in the 2011 film version, Miss Hilly embodies the US South’s damaging views during the Civil Rights Movement. A viciously racist character, Hilly Holbrook’s aggressions range from making snide, racially charged comments, to compelling her friends to support segregation and to practice it in their own homes.

A representation of the worst possible ‘Karen’, Miss Hilly’s prejudiced actions are not unlike those we witness today on viral videos of the white middle-class exploiting their privilege.

Whilst we can apply the infamous ‘Karen’ figure to literary characters of the 20th and 21st century, the current argument debates whether the meme is sexist and/or ageist – is it fair to group all white middle-class women under this bracket? And should we be using ‘Karen’ as a term to reference both the comical ‘can I speak to your manager’ meme as well as to denote instances of active racial discrimination, or does this trivialise the severity of white supremacy? 

Featured image: Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2007) via IMDb

Last modified: 17th November 2020

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