I was sitting on the dirty couch on my verandah, rolling a cigarette – the end of another ill-fated attempt to quit smoking. That morning an abrupt, articulate lady had insisted that the sixty-eight-degree soy latte I’d made her was too hot – ‘undrinkable’, even. I didn’t stand up for myself. That’s not what you’re supposed to do with customers. I just apologised profusely until she left, burying my anger until my shift was over and I could go home.
Back on my verandah and part-way through that bitter cigarette, I heard high heels clacking on the pavement. I can distinctly recall shifting to face slightly away from the street, as the last thing I wanted was to interact with a passer-by. But it was out of my hands.
‘No wonder this place is falling apart.’
She didn’t stop walking but turned, looked over and raised an eyebrow: ‘it’s the low-quality tenants.’
Meet Karen. She’s well-dressed, well-spoken and prone to taking a whimsical dump on your self-esteem. Not that I ever learnt this woman’s name. But when I think of the ‘Karen’ memes, about judgy, middle-class, middle-aged white women with an I’d-like-to-speak-with-the-manager haircut, I think of this episode of drive-by disapproval. This woman was as Karen as they come.
Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by writer and historian Julia Baird challenging the Karen trope. In it, Baird argues that the trope is continuous with a system of thought that devalues women’s voices, especially when they are assertive. She rightly points out that men generally make more complaints than women, and male assertiveness goes comparatively unnoticed. Historically, women’s complaints have even been systematically ignored.
Baird is on the money when she says that our society is still too often reluctant ‘to recognise women’s authority’ or ‘appoint them to positions of power’; and that gender inequality is sustained by informal conventions, including through the social expectations attached to tropes, like ‘spinster’, ‘slut’, ‘Mum’ – or, she argues, ‘Karen’.
‘Florence Nightingale was a Karen’, writes Baird. ‘Privileged, annoying to anyone content with the status quo, and insisted on seeing the manager’, or rather ‘government ministers’. She continues: ‘the women’s liberationists had no truck with politeness, with queues and submission. They marched, called for managers, demanded change … The world has spun on Karens who seek to challenge the authority of those more powerful, but less competent than them’. The op ed concludes by noting with satisfaction that, in the words of her teenage daughter, Baird herself totes ‘strong Karen vibes’.
The piece is the work of an accomplished writer and historian of women’s rights movements. But, in my opinion, Baird doesn’t quite get what a Karen really is.
It’s not just me. Darumbal Twitter user @MelindaMann01 wrote:
Imagine writing a whole opinion piece based on an incorrect definition of your subject. Karen is not “a woman who challenges authority”. Karen believes she *is* authority.
Amy McGuire, a millennial, Darumbal academic, retweeted the sentiment, adding the op ed was ‘what a typical Karen would write’. In fairness, Baird is upfront that the Karen trope is a little alien to her – the article draws authority on the term’s definition from ‘millennial colleagues’ and Urban Dictionary. But this misunderstanding has led to a fundamentally class-blind conception of Karen. And with Karen class is the central issue.
If you’re a millennial working in customer service, you don’t need to ask what a Karen is. You can feel it as you enter a bad-faith social exchange.
If you’re like me, sometimes you wake up from a bad dream about a Karen. In the last two Christmas periods, TV ads have aired stating that over 80 percent of retail workers receive abuse from customers. In call centres I’m sure that number is one hundred percent. I’ve worked in several customer service roles, and the two-Karens day in 2013 I recounted above was not even my worst encounter.
There was that evening in 2016, back when I worked at a call centre for a Big Four bank. The call began with an anonymous woman interrupting me as I was in the middle of introducing myself. Without providing me with any details, she insisted that I was simply too junior to be any use. I told her I was sure I could do as good a job as anyone, if she would tell me what the problem was. She started calling me names, ones she could get away with, like ‘cocky’, ‘useless’, ‘ignorant’. She deployed a tone that I can honestly describe as subtly vile. Eventually (and ill-advisedly), I asked her why she was being so needlessly hostile. She demanded to speak with my manager.
I had to stand there, listening to my immediate boss apologise for my lack of professionalism: ‘I don’t know why he’d say that’; ‘I will most certainly let him know that his behaviour is completely unacceptable’. I could hear her attacking my reputation – and it worked. The call came up in my next meeting, in which I had to relive the abuse as it was played back to me. She used her middle-class cultural capital expertly, from start to finish, to slap around a stranger. Well played, Karen. You got me.
Anyone who works in hospitality or customer service knows what a Karen is – the person who deploys the privilege of the customer to establish a sense of superiority, articulated against the worker’s inferiority. Karens do not question the status quo, they abuse it. They align with managers and undermine junior staff, often without a genuine cause for complaint. If a middle-class, middle-aged woman sides with workers against management, nobody is going to call her a Karen.
In fact, punching down is the defining feature of the trope. The relatively newfound stigma attached to acting ‘like a Karen’, then, does not primarily function to keep women disfranchised. After all, most of the people mistreated by Karens are themselves women; according to the Australian government’s Job Outlook factsheets, sixty-eight percent of retail sales assistants, three quarters of cashiers, eighty-one percent of junior café workers and seventy percent of front-line call centre workers are women.
In this moment, stigmatising a complainant as a Karen can give the hospitality, retail or call centre worker – who is the junior party in an uneven space of speech – a language through which they can either make light of or resist unfair treatment. It is a modest vehicle for renegotiating classist mores in the workplace. Although the trope may be gendered, gender is simply not the most relevant frame for analysing the social implications of calling out Karenness.
For this relatively new stereotype to do this work, being called a Karen has to remain undesirable. We can’t have Karens imagining they’re heroically ‘challenging the status quo’, as they, typically a white middle-class Gen X woman, denigrate a typically working-class woman in the service industry.
It is possible that discourses of Karenness will devolve into a kind of universal template deployed to fetter women’s voices, as Baird fears. For now, though, that’s simply not what Karen means and not generally how it is used. There may be a ‘spectrum of Karens’, as Baird’s millennial colleagues suggested, but the legitimate demarcation is still, for now, restricted to people who needlessly defecate on others from small but imperious heights.
As for discouraging men who needlessly complain, Baird is right when she says there’s work to be done. As a simple starting point, I see no reason why we can’t start by calling men who act in this way ‘Karen’ – and (sad though it may be) feminising them is more than likely to make them think twice.
As a successful journalist and academic, Baird may have forgotten what it was like to be on the other side of the counter, but her voice is wasted defending a stigma she has misunderstood – even if she has done so in good faith. Hers is ultimately the defence of those who ruthlessly mobilise and reproduce the informal dominance that our society has afforded the middle-class customer. Most Karens dump on the working class. They do not change society for the better.
Had I been able to reply ‘yeah, right-o Karen’ to the high-heeled drive-byer back in 2013, perhaps she would have felt ashamed of her behaviour, instead of smug and superior. On behalf of our service industries, I implore the Julia Bairds of the world not to glamorise and resignify Karen and, in the process, take this trope away from the working class who need it to navigate an oft-times hostile work environment.