New Brunswick Karens recoil from social media stereotypes
'I’m not going to run away from my name,' says Karen Woolley
At first, it seemed harmless, an internet trend that would surely fade, along the lines of grumpy cat, the ice bucket challenge and that dress that's either black and blue or white and gold.
Instead, it got worse.
The name Karen, which first conjured images of bobbed, angry blonds demanding to speak to the manager, morphed into women having rage-infused meltdowns in grocery stores when asked to wear a face mask.
Somewhere along the way, being a Karen also became shorthand for being a white female racist.
"That is very upsetting to me," said Fredericton photographer Karen Ruet.
She was most disturbed by the viral video that came to be known as "Central Park Karen."
It was taken in May by Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher in Manhattan, who said a woman tried to racially intimidate him after he asked her to put her dog on a leash.
The woman, Amy Cooper, responds by threatening to call the police. "I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life," she says repeatedly.
"Those traits have nothing to do with me at all," said Ruet, recoiling from the memory of the video.
"I asked a friend to describe me and she said I'm a very kind, loving and genuine person. Actually, she said I'm a very kind, loving and genuine Karen.
"And that's a description of a lot of the Karens I know. They're fun-loving, genuine people."
A popular name once
Karen Quinn, 63, said growing up in Moncton, she had three or four Karens in every class. In her birth year, Karen was the fifth-most popular female baby name, according to websites that track Social Security statistics in the U.S. The name would only become more popular in the next decade.
"I have eight Karens on my Facebook friends," said Quinn.
Quinn said the meme was funny "the first 400 times" she heard it but now, not so much.
"If I need to invoke my inner bitch, I can do that, but I don't live there," she said, referring to the early connotation of Karen as the bleached blond who stands up for herself.
"If something doesn't go my way, I'll try to get my point across in a nice manner, and if that doesn't work, well, then I can speak my mind as well as anybody else. It's not an often-used super power, but it is there."
Karen Woolley, who was born in 1974 and whose birth name is Kevin David Woolley, recently changed her legal name after using it, informally, for about two years.
"When I decided to transition into a woman, I wanted to just be normal," she said. "I just wanted to fit in. I didn't want a drag name or a modern name.
"I just wanted to be as if my mum had had a girl and decided to give her a girl name. [Karen] would have been appropriate for the era I was born in."
'A misogynist putdown'
In her view, it's a misogynist putdown, used to shut up women, especially on social media or in mainstream media comment sections.
"They treat me like a woman and unfortunately, being a woman on the internet is not a very pleasant thing," said Woolley. "I find myself monitoring myself and checking myself.
"Because more often than not, there will be some douche-nozzle out there that will totally just be, 'OK, Karen' and dismiss what I have to say.
"And it's getting worse," she said.
Sabine LeBel, an assistant professor at UNB in the department of culture and media studies, said the meme hasn't died because there are ongoing incidents in which white women are using their privilege to put racialized individuals in danger, including that incident in Central Park.
LeBel says the so-called Central Park Karen acted on assumptions about who should or shouldn't be in the park and assumed that black men aren't birdwatchers. Lebel said Black Live Matter has raised awareness about how calling the police on a black man could put his life in danger.
Meme has 'complexity'
"What's interesting about memes," said LeBel, "is that they bring together the visual and often text and sometimes audio, and it becomes this short-hand, and if we think about how we communicate through Twitter and on social media, we want that instant understanding.
"I think the other level of usefulness, which is particular to the Karen meme, is that it has really sharpened our conversations about race so that we're not just talking about racialized folks, but we're talking about white folks and some of the privileges that people with white skin walk around with."
"We used to talk about privilege being the domain of men, and I think that where the complexity is happening with the Karen meme is that we're thinking about the different ways white privilege can function. It can function really differently depending on what your gender is."
What's a 'good Karen' to do?
Woolley said there's no way she's changing her name again.
The process is arduous, expensive and emotional, she said
"I'm not going to abandon it and become a Claire," she said. "I've bonded with the name. So, Karen and I, we're together. We are who we are.
"I'll stay with the name Karen, and it will hurt but I'm not going to run away from my name."
Karen Ruet says she's not changing her name.
"I think a real Karen just tries to be herself and carry on," she said.
"I mean, what else can you do, right?"
Karen Quinn said she's tried to push back on Facebook.
"I've commented, 'Enough Karen bashing, can you deal with the subject?'"
And then somebody commented, "Maybe the good Karens should police the bad Karens."
"And I just responded with humour and said, 'No way, I'm going near those bitches."