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.