How a quintessential baby boomer name became a slur aimed at Generation X
In 2019, the generation gap came charging back. We’d already seen warning signs of its approach in the form of older people bad-mouthing millennials, but the 2019 version was no longer as simple as old vs. young. Instead, all generational hell broke loose. Age identities were sliced and diced, labeled and laughed at. The clapback “OK Boomer” informed baby boomers that they were out of touch. And as for long-ignored Generation X, it received a new, mocking name:
Gen Z Is Calling Gen X The “Karen Generation” –BuzzFeedNews
That Gen-Z should snipe at Gen-X is no surprise. Gen-Xers, after all, are Gen-Z’s parents. But the choice of the name Karen as the generational target was more surprising, and more than just a joke. The broadside aimed at “Karens” showcased our growing eagerness to draw social dividing lines, and the hostility with which we look across them.
The Generations, and the Name
Once referred to as the “baby bust,” Generation X followed glumly in the wake of the massive 19-year post-war baby boom. Here’s a timeline of the past five American generations, based on consensus media/academic definitions:
Now let’s overlay a graph of the popularity of Karen as an American baby name:
The clear majority of Karens ever born were born during the baby boom, and it was an essential name of the period. If you calculate the distinctive, defining names of the 1950s decade, Karen comes out in the top 10. Yet this is the name now used to sum up the children of the 1970s. Gen X can’t seem to step free of the baby boom’s shadow, even to be insulted.
The roots of this generational mislabeling lie quite innocently in comedy. Karen and Susan reigned for much of the past decade as comic everywomen, the names assigned to render a stock character in a joke amusingly specific. They were the secretaries of “Susan, hold my calls” jokes, and the wives of one-liners like “He died doing what he loved: his wife of 40 years, Karen.” These comedic Karens and Susans weren’t in on the jokes, which were typically presented from a male’s perspective. They were conceptual foils, “straight men” often employed to play up the speaker’s own self-mockery.
The names Karen and Susan fit the bill as everywomen because they were emblems of the 1950s, the era that our culture has accepted as generic. Consider how often a hypothetical child is still referred to by a ’50s diminutive like “Little Timmy” or “Little Susie,” even though those names have been unlikely for decades. Similarly, a hypothetical 40-something woman remained Karen or Susan, even as those baby names hit retirement age.
A Turn for the Worse
For a while, the generic use of Karen and Susan was nearly as benign as Little Timmy. Then around 2016, the Karen references started to change. The middle-aged everywoman role set the name up as a target for people’s frustrations with anyone who fit that description. No longer long-suffering foils, “Karens” were taken to task for entitled and intolerant attitudes. They were disrespectful of service workers and always, always wanted to speak to a manager.
In 2015, Twitter jokes about Karens asking for a manager were virtually nonexistent. In 2016, this trope became so well-established that meta jokes emerged.
At the same time, the Karens became more explicitly white. This shift can be seen among social media posters of all races, despite the abundance of non-white Karens in real life. Soon the very name Karen was enough to signal “middle-aged white lady.”
Sometimes the white-lady mocking was gentle, as in this Saturday Night Live “Black Jeopardy” sketch.
Other Karen references, though, were more pointed and accusatory. Karens were called out for insensitivity. For self-absorption. For abusing their privileges. These references kept accelerating and expanding. The use of Karen, the generic signal for middle-aged, white and female in these accusations neatly implicated all middle-aged white women. (Notably not men, in an echo of 2018’s “BBQ Becky” phenomenon.)
The anti-Karen tide kept building. A Reddit community called “FuckYouKaren” grew hugely popular. Then in 2019, the phenomenon burst wide open. No longer content to complain about retail service, Karens apparently went on a discriminatory rampage. They were condemned as racist, homophobic, and transphobic. As if that weren’t enough, they were tagged as both anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers, despite the fact that those two beliefs tend to cluster in very different communities.
The charges were wide-ranging and increasingly contradictory. One Twitter user came up with this typical Karen pronouncement: “I’m vegan too, dairy free, gluten free, all natural, cruelty free, organic, skinny, anti vacc and 3 atoms thick. And I’m offended.” Meanwhile another offered an opposite cultural critique of the supposed typical Karen, heavy on guns and beer.
The accused sins of Karens didn’t stop there. They put raisins in bagels. They drove only 65 MPH on the highway. They had too many children with red hair. In such random complaints, casually interspersed with grave charges like racism, Karen took its full 2019 form. It had become an all-purpose way to link the population of Gen-X white women to whatever you dislike, simply by using a name.
When a September tropical storm was named Karen, the internet went wild imagining all of the comic failings of a white, 40-something, female storm. Then in December the year in Karens reached its apogee with a first-person essay in the New York Times. The author, herself a Gen-X white woman, chronicled her trials growing up surrounded by Karens. She confirmed our suspicion that they—which is to say, her entire generation—were all alike. Small-minded, entitled, and exactly the same. Not her, mind you, and not even her friends, but everyone she didn’t know very well.
As a pointer for identifying the few good Gen-Xers of her remembered childhood, the essayist explained that each of them owned a single Barbie doll whereas the hordes of Karens had multiple Barbies. If this seems like a flimsy basis for moral adjudication, it goes to show just how toxic the Karen image had become. Middle-aged white women were stretching to position themselves as outsiders to their own demographic in order to call Karens out. Even women named Karen were attacking women named Karen.
The fact that the newly toxic term was a common name mattered. Names have an emotional power beyond ordinary words. The phrase “OK Boomer” may be reductive and dismissive, but it is at least clear in its dismissive point. It says, in classic generation gap fashion, “you’re too old to get this.” The use of a given name as a slur for a demographic group is simultaneously more general and more personal. It invalidates people wholly and indiscriminately.
The subtle viciousness of a name attack lies in its ordinariness. The implicit message is “I don’t have to come up with insults. Your very identity makes it clear that you are contemptible.” Imagine someone treating a different demographic this way—using a familiar name associated with that group as a slur. Try to imagine the casual malice it would convey. In fact, America has served up plenty of real-world examples of such malice. When past generations called Irish people “Micks” or Jews “Hymies,” they were leveraging the power of names as weapons.
It’s a bitter fate for Karen, a name that has been given to almost 900,000 American girls since WWII and helped to shape the sound of female names for generations. For all of the real-life Karens out there, young and old, I can only wish you better times ahead in 2020.
Special thanks to all of the Namerology readers who nominated and discussed candidates for the Name of the Year.
Welcome, Karens! With all our love, the Beckys
I’m a Gen Xer and my wonderful 5th grade teacher—about 15 years older—was named Karen. The popularity graph speaks truth!
I still don’t feel like I understand the whole Karen meme, but maybe that’s just because I’m a clueless Gen Xer. It seems so mean spirited and hateful — and, as you rightly point out, historically inaccurate. I knew very few Karens my own age, but many who were 15 – 20 years older. I think I agree that Karen meets the qualifications for NOTY and feel that it stands to reason that the name for this year would be one steeped in negative stereotypes, since so much of what has characterized this year in the public sphere has involved stereotyping others.
As a name nerd this just irks me. More fake history basically, they should be using Jennifer to describe Gen-Xrs
Yes! While I can get behind this being the NOTY, I wish the name itself were more accurate for Gen X if that’s who it’s aimed at.
Ah, but I think you’ve just explained it. Loads of millenials are named Jennifer. Karen works because it had fallen completely out of favor by the time the generation that uses it as a slur was born.
As an older GenXer who knew some Karens but not vast numbers of them, I first thought they were talking about boomer women, and then I thought “Lisa. It should be Lisa.”
Is anyone else having trouble loading the forum? I know it was temporarily down but I’m wondering if now maybe it’s just me.
The forums won’t load for me either.
The forums are still down, awaiting response from the software provider on the matter of real names being displayed on some accounts (without the person’s permission or ability to remove it). Given how long it has been, I guess everyone at said company is on Christmas break.
Thanks for the update!
Yes, thanks for the update!
Great post! My old friend named his baby Karen recently, and I was shocked at how out-of-the-times is sounds on a modern baby (while Soren, Kaden, Carys, etc. sound similar but don’t carry that Karen baggage). I considered Rebecca for my daughter but ruled it out in part for the “Becky” baggage about a generic white girl.
It’s amusing that a generation of people who supposedly stand against discrimination and generalizing based on race, gender and any other identifier would embrace this goofiness. Makes you wonder who the next target will be, doesn’t it? Brittany, Madison, Jessica, it’s hard to tell. Just remember, ladies, what goes around….. 🙂
I’m a little late to the party, but this is a perfect pick.
The misogyny behind both “Becky” and “Karen” is remarkable. Somehow people have decided that white *women*, specifically, are primarily responsible for racism. White *women* are an insufferably entitled group.
To be clear, no demographic deserves that sort of slur, but it’s especially ridiculous to me that men got entirely skipped over when picking names for the “entitled white person” stereotype.
The whole thing is so toxic, especially when it’s being wielded as a signal of how enlightened and non-racist the user is. Yes, how brave of you to stand up for minorities by putting women down.
Side note: I’ve never actually met anyone who fit the “Karen” stereotype.
My heart goes out to the suffering Karens of the world. It’s literally like people are trying to sound mature and liberal about being judgy and misogynistic. Why don’t we have a name for a racist, sexist, petty Gen-X man? Seriously. Especially non-white Karens. We should have a public apology to them, because they have literally just been completely forgotten about.
Yeah, super mature, enlightened, liberal, whatever.
Karens, I believe in you. You are (mostly) good people, and a Karen might save the world someday!
Many years have passed since this article was posted, and yet the prejudicial hatred and discrimination toward people named or identified as Karen has increased as the misuse of their personal name and ethnic identity as a moniker of hate against them, and against “White middle-aged women” has grown in popularity. The misogyny, racism, agism, and namism associated with the misuse of the name Karen leaves anyone – especially women – vulnerable to abuse.
Unfortunately, the article is correct in that those harmed often do not fit the “targeted” demographic. The very young (as young as 4 years old), the very old, and all ages in between are targets. Every gender and race can be targeted, especially when people falsely assume that any person who is named Karen is automatically a “White woman” and automatically embodies the negative stereotype regardless of the facts or when they want to insult another by classifying them (sometimes falsely so) as fitting into this demographic. Even members of the Karen ethnic group (most in Myanmar) are not immune from harm. The hatred and discrimination have become a global problem.
Many people named Karen report being mocked, bullied, harassed, belittled, and disparaged in online and off-line situations. Children endure school-yard bullying. Adults report hostile work environments, food tampering, delays in or denial of service in restaurants and bars, denial of housing or health care, assault, death threats, and more simply because their name and identity are Karen. Some teens, and adults alike, have attempted or succeeded at suicide, and others are opting to legally change their name to avoid these harms. Karen is a proper name and not a negative stereotype. Owning a specific name does not define who an individual is any more than hair or eye color does. No proper name should ever be misused to spread hate and prejudice.
The International Declaration of Human Rights says that we “should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” [and sisterhood] (United Nations, Article 1). I agree. We need to give up hate and instead find a way to accept one another, and that includes accepting each other as equals without regard to name, race, age, gender, or any other construct we want to use as a tool of separation. No one should be subjected to hate and prejudice, but especially not when the “reasons” are ones not of their own making.
Thank you.. I am a 67 year old grandma, and have experienced being mocked and belittled.. I rarely reply to anything on line anymore because I am laughed at and often told to go kill myself. I just don’t understand a world anymore where people are hated so much just because of their name😢