The Misogynistic Core of the Anti-Karen Sentiment

14 min readJul 22, 2020

Humanity has always been uncomfortable with strong, vocal women, and the Internet has found its angle for contempt in this false proxy

Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

Part 1 — Lean In

The world Leaned In a few years ago, albeit briefly

In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and though it was first considered a feminist tome with revolutionary undertones, its message was surprisingly respectful to both genders.

To sum up Lean In in two bullet points―

  • Men do many things right in the workplace. They ask for raises and know their value. Women should emulate that.
  • Women also do many things right in the workplace, or at least refrain from doing the wrong things. They don’t chase false titles of status at the expense of working themselves into disease and alienation from friends, family and themselves. Men should emulate that.

It was indeed a revolution of sorts, or at least a public movement, and it currently claims to have started 44,000 Lean In circles over 170 countries.

But public movements tend to elicit backlashes, and the Lean In movement was no exception.

The criticism and counter ideas to Lean In came quickly — and this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing

Sheryl Sandberg’s message didn’t resonate with everyone. Her book presented a world in which seemingly every woman has a Harvard pedigree, a nanny that can take care of the kids, and a suite of female friends who are all Ivy League-educated, nanny-having tech leaders in their own right.

And the criticism wasn’t unwelcome.

Great people and great ideas deserve a full audit, and Lean In certainly received one.

bell hooks — Wikimedia Commons
The public intellectual bell hooks had issues with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and wrote Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In as a response

Just as the biographies of Steve Jobs showed that the founder of Apple could be a jerk at times, critics like bell hooks wrote that Sandberg’s message wasn’t for every reader, or every woman.

And in the end, some people liked Lean In, some people didn’t, and that was that.

Its unique message of female strength persisted through the backlash, and is still with us today.

And though Sheryl Sandberg hasn’t maintained her popularity in the public sphere, her message hasn’t been the least bit silenced.

That is a rare result indeed.

As evidence for this rarity, we can look at the entirety of human history up until now.

Part 2 — Humanity’s historical antipathy to vocal women

The world has always had a difficult time with vocal women

History knows what to do with strong men―you follow them or fight them, and they become heroes or villains.

If they’re the latter they might meet a bad end, but the world knows what to do with them. Villainy is many things, but it is not a mystery.

But strong women present a strange dilemma indeed.

If the women themselves are fighting, then who are the men fighting for?

The world’s quick answer to this dilemma was to keep women from fighting on the battlefield, and if women chose to engage in a war of words―the world silenced them.

Mary Beard — Wikimedia Commons
The classicist Mary Beard

The classicist Mary Beard showed how in The Odyssey, Homer’s Telemachus shut down his mother Penelope when she voiced a concern, and that moment was Telemachus’s coming of age.

The Romans labelled Cleopatra as a hussy, even though she was anything but that―Cleopatra was a bookish, awkward girl who gathered her power from her intellect, and tended to marry the few men she loved.

That fallacious rumor persists to this day, and instead of remembering Cleopatra for the polymath and innovative administrator that she was, we remember her as the temptress that she was not.

The Berlin Cleopatra — From Wikimedia Commons
Cleopatra was a scholar and an innovator, but the Roman moniker of temptress is still how we think of her today

In short, the Romans silenced Cleopatra, and they did this quite effectively.

Women could have historical voices, of course, but those voices often came with great concessions.

Joan of Arc had to develop a messianic mythos around her endeavors, and of course―she still met a premature end after being accused of heresy.

Queen Elizabeth I had a longer reign than Cleopatra, or Joan of Arc for that matter, but she forwent a marriage to any of her suitors, claiming instead to be bound to the Kingdom of England itself.

A woman’s voice comes with a price, and that is no exception today.

It is a better world for women today, but there is still a price for a woman’s voice

It is no longer 1500s England, let alone Ancient Greece. The plight of women around the world still has its share of inequity , but as a whole the world is improving itself. Female literacy around the world is 82%, the highest it has ever been, and it is rising.

Julia Gillard — Wikimedia Commons
Jullia Gillard certainly received misogynistic abuse during her time as Prime Minister of Australia, but she was also allowed to call her opponent out on it in a now famous speech

Leaders like Angela Merkel do not have to claim marriage to their own kingdom, and when a leader does try to silence a woman, like the Australian former Prime Minister Tony Abbott did on multiple occasions, women like former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at least get to punch back.

But the core of the sentiment remains―the world doesn’t quite understand how to deal with powerful, vocal women.

Sheryl Sandberg herself may have found a way to thread the needle of public understanding.

Sheryl Sandberg — Wikimedia Commons
Sheryl Sandberg is a lot of things, but she’s not exactly threatening, nor is she bombastic

Sandberg is not particularly threatening, let alone bombastic or abrasive, and it’s hard to show contempt for a person whose core message involves asking the world to stop working so late.

But if you get a bit louder, like the Moderate Left and Right politicians Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina found out, the world will eventually give you a defeat.

And if you are a private female citizen, and you are just a bit too loud at just the wrong time, the world will give you more than a defeat.

Because the world right now is represented by a predatory, sociopathic entity called Social Media, and it is waiting for a woman to Lean In just a bit too far, so that it can destroy her completely.

Part 3 — The Invention of the Karen

Social Media goes for what is easy, what is vulnerable, and what can’t hit back.

Hillary Clinton listens to questions from the House Select Committee on Benghazi — Carolyn Kaster/AP
Hillary Clinton during her 11 hours of inquiry on Benghazi

Social Media certainly found a way to strike at Hillary Clinton, but she also found a way to hold serve.

She withstood 11 hours of questions on Benghazi, and the probe found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Then a year later, she lost the US Presidential election.

Then Hillary Clinton conceded defeat, took a hike in Upstate New York, and retired to a mansion somewhere.

Social Media doesn’t like figures that can hold serve, especially for the day-to-day villainy required to make our news cycle.

And when this villainy arrives to satiate humanity’s atavistic desire to silence women, Social Media knows that it can’t go after Sheryl Sandberg, and that any efforts to take down Hillary Clinton a bit further will yield little results.

So Social Media made an entity named Karen, and decided to pour its hate into a new version of her on a weekly basis.

Every time you log on, there is a new Karen caught doing something awful―and she is just waiting for you to anonymously spread her shame with a single tap.

Karen―the woman who Leaned In just a bit too far

Social Media has no shortage of conversation-ending monikers.

There’s Boomer and MAG, Libtard and Snowflake.

These monikers free the insulter from ever having to convey any real insight, let alone an argument.

Just type OK Boomer

There’s a mic-drop, and your opponent is silenced, at least to you.

End of story. You have just expressed that your opponent is misinformed at best, evil at worst, and you win.

Now we have Karens―middle-aged women who demand to see the manager.

They call the cops on kids, and refuse to wear masks in public.

The vast majority of their lives are undefined, and not worthy of attention, but these Karens are known to have a bad Tweet, or a 40 second meltdown caught on an iPhone, either of which is sufficient to define the rest of their lives.

If a woman Leans In by asking for a raise or just being a little loud, it might make us uncomfortable, but there is no angle to destroy them, so we don’t.

But if the woman has a bad day and Leans In over the edge?

She’s ours.

We can’t silence all women in this era of #MeToo, so we choose to silence the ones we can, and we do this thoroughly.

We cancel, we shame, we pour hatred into a person we did not know that morning.

We wish her a lengthy prison sentence, and then send thoughts and prayers that she might meet her demise at a slow and painful disease.

We take away dogs, and then meme, and then laugh at the stains on her shirt.

And then after she is demolished, we look for the next one.

We do not always understand how to deal with vocal women like Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton, but we certainly understand how to deal with Karen.

Karen is bad, out of control, and a disgrace. She is what is wrong with the world.

She is part of an epidemic, even though none of us have ever run into her in real life.

And Karen is getting in the way of our success as a society.

As proof, we have the bad Tweet, or the 40 second meltdown caught on an iPhone.

And we have the power of Social Media, which allows us to attack this stranger without any risk to us.

In fact, we can lead the charge to destroy this person while we are going to the bathroom. We can do it with one hand, and really just with one thumb.

She may be familiar to us, but just in case she isn’t, let’s meet her once more.

The anatomy of a Karen

Here is what a Karen must be―

A Karen must be middle-aged
Humanity has also had a bias against middle-aged and older women since time immemorial, so the Karen must be a bit beyond her normal reproductive years. It might be acceptable if she is older, and the Internet will take down older women just the same, but the sweet spot is middle age. If she is young, her sexuality might throw a curveball into the world of memes, and the world of memes does not like complexity. If she is old, there is a bit of the pity factor, and there is also the fact that this person might be retired, with no job to take away.

But if the Karen is middle-aged, that is the preferred target. Social Media will take her down without having to worry about any attraction, and she will most likely have something―a job, children, a dog or even just a reputation―that can be taken away.

A Karen must have no real institutional power, though she may appear to have this

She can appear to have power, perhaps via the tone of her voice when she is caught on tape, but she cannot have real power.

If she has real power, she ends up like Hillary Clinton―a figure who takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to take down, and still remains a millionaire after her takedown.

So she must have no real power.

It is an added bonus if she resembles those at the top of the hierarchy―it allows anonymous Social Media members to conceal their anonymous bullying in the guise of Social Justice, but the Karen can’t truly have the true protections born of wealth and power.

The Internet wants to shame her, take what little she has away, and then move on to the next villain―and do this all within a single news cycle, if possible.

And in order to do this, the Karen must be someone without real power―someone who cannot fight back.

A Karen must have an irrefutably bad moment that defines the rest of her life

She must have at least one bad Tweet, or a 40 second meltdown caught on an iPhone.

This one moment, whatever it was, must leave no ambiguity about what a wretched human being this is, and how each member of Social Media is virtuous when they spread her shame.

Caveat 1 — This irrefutably bad moment can be edited and or taken out of context―in fact, this is preferred

The original incident, Tweet or video need not be proof of the Karen’s wretchedness. But if certain parts can be taken out of context or edited out and then presented to the Internet as proof, that is acceptable.

In fact, taking this Tweet or video out of context and editing it may be more than acceptable―it may be required.

Caveat 2 — This irrefutably bad moment may have a backstory that explains it all, but this backstory must be overlooked

A Karen can have spent her entire life helping the poor, or at least have spent some time trying to be a good person.

She can have fallen in love, and had her heart broken.

She could have had a childhood filled with abuse, abuse that she has spent her entire life trying to deal with, abuse that brings her nightmares every night, but abuse that she has fortunately refrained from passing on to her own children.

She could have an adult child who is now in the ICU after an opioid overdose.

She could be bipolar, and in the middle of an episode.

She could be having the meltdown because of any of the above.

But whatever the case, the only thing that matters is that this backstory is easily concealed, because the Internet does not like nuance, or truth, or moral complexity.

Above all else, the Karen must be destroyable―so destroyable that it allows the world to forgo any attempt to solve the underlying issue, or help anyone

Destroying strong women is difficult, but actually solving any underlying problems?

You can’t do that with your thumb.

And helping anyone? No way.

So make sure the Karen is destroyable.

Destroy her, and then find the next Karen.

This is all that is needed.

Part 4 — Moving Forward

Before we move forward, let’s address the elephant in the room―there is a victim in the Karen’s video

All right, let’s turn off the sarcasm and get down from the soapbox.

There is one element here that should be addressed straightforwardly―what is happening in these Tweets or iPhone videos.

These Karens are almost always caught―again, with a thin slice of their life, removed of context, and often edited―doing something bad to an innocent person.

They are seen berating a bewildered host at a restaurant, denigrating a BIPOC, or calling the police on a birdwatcher.

Yes, there are victims in these moments, and that aspect needs to be addressed.

And from a societal level, data for Systemic Racism is here everywhere you look, and that needs to be addressed as well.

But destroying a middle-aged woman who was just caught in perhaps the worst moment of her life is not the way to do this.

Because hating on a person does not solve anything, even if that person appears to be hating someone else.

You cannot fight hate with hate.

Unfortunately, if you listen to the Internet, that is what everyone is trying to do, and the action against middle-aged women caught on video is no exception.

So let’s begin moving forward, with three steps.

Step 1 ― We need to realize that the zeitgeist of Karen-destruction is not one of defense for the victim, but of hate for an individual

Whenever a previously anonymous woman is caught on tape doing something scornful, a million voices all chime in moments later.

What do those million voices have in common?

They all have an absence of concern for the victim.

Not one of the voices―or at least very few―have any concern for the alleged victim in the video, let alone a desire to make this world a better place.

There are calls to destroy the Karen, memes that point out the mustard stain on her shirt, and then deep analyses into her background to reveal what other bad things she has done.

There may be some half-hearted calls to open dialogue, but the dialogues inevitably end in an agreement that the perpetrator is worthy of scorn, and that whatever she has in this world should be taken away.

There are victims in each video, but they are an afterthought at best.

In fact, no one ever seems to ask what the alleged victims think.

When they do, like with Christian Cooper, who has been unwilling to condemn the woman who the Internet says did him wrong, the tale often takes a twist.

Maybe the alleged victim doesn’t consider him or herself a victim, and in fact recoils at such a thought.

Let’s say the alleged victim is a child―a middle-aged woman is ranting that the beach is too crowded, and then kicks over the child’s sandcastle, and the child cries.

Does the child want that moment part of their public life?

Whatever the case, anti-Karen sentiment doesn’t ask such questions, nor does it ask What can we do to make this world better?

We need to realize that these Karen videos are not effectively raising any important questions, let alone bringing dialogue that will improve the world.

They are calls to hate on an individual, and nothing more.

Step 2 ― We each need to ignore calls to roast the next Karen du jour

First and foremost, we need to stop shaming Karens, or shaming anyone without institutional power, really.

Destroying Internet strangers might give us a quick sensation of virtue, albeit an insincere one, and might allow us a brief distraction from our daily lives.

And of course, there is always the schadenfreude factor―it feels great when the shame and destruction is not happening to you.

But the above sensations come from humanity’s basest emotions, base emotions that are compounded by misogyny.

Vocal women are threatening, but it is hard to go after the strong ones, so let’s take down the weaker ones, and then pretend that we are noble for doing this.

That’s our selves at our worst.

So it’s an individual choice, really―next time you see the call for a female stranger’s destruction, a female stranger caught on tape doing something wretched, a female stranger that you know nothing about, a female stranger without institutional power―

Ignore the call to destroy the stranger.

That’s it.

Ignore the call to destroy the stranger, and then pat yourself on the back for doing so.

Then pat yourself on the back once again for refusing to attack the weak, and for breaking the history-long tradition of misogyny.

And then―

And then continue to fight for your ideals.

Yes, you can continue to fight for your ideals, but instead of dwelling at the bottom of the Internet, where the targets are easy―aim up.

Step 3 ― Keep up the fight for equality and a better world, but aim up

Think of all the great figures of yesteryear, the ones who changed things, the ones who made us proud to be human―

Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Wikimedia Commons
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

MLK, Gandhi, JFK, RFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mandela.

Can you imagine any of them giving a speech about a woman who had a nervous breakdown in a supermarket?

What about our modern-day leaders, or at least the best of them?

Can you imagine Barack Obama immediately calling for the firing of a woman who was seen kicking over a child’s sandcastle?

No, you can’t.

These leaders all fought, or still fight, for a better world.

But they aim up with their fight.

We can, and you can as well.

Support those who have active plans to combat the ills of society, and if you really feel enraged about something, act like the scholar bell hooks when she wrote a well-thought out counterpoint to Lean In.

You can fight, you can disagree, you can even denounce―but aim up when you are doing this.

And aiming up requires us to refrain from taking the easy way out and destroying a middle-aged female stranger.

Be better, and aim up.

Shed off the last bits of misogyny and be your best, modern self.

Aim up.

The world deserves nothing less from you.