How That 'Karen' Meme Benefits The Right
Reprinted with permission from Gen.
I am late to the Karens, which probably makes me Karen-ish - that is, white, middle class, middle-aged, female, college-educated, from Midwestern suburbia, and too distracted to notice. So, when I noticed a Tweeted video that called an obnoxious, mask-defying white woman a "Karen" I asked whether there might not be some actual Karens who did not act like that. I was stupefied at the hostile replies, including one that simply stated, "Because you're fucking white."
I shouldn't have been surprised because targeted abuse of white middle class women of a certain age is sort of the last allowable PC taboo. Online, neither male nor female progressives have a problem with a meme that stereotypes white middle-aged women as entitled, whiny, and stupid at best, racist and obscenely privileged at worst.
One would never see, for example, progressives - or even standard issue conservatives - using "Mohammed" in public as a catchall for terrorists. Everyone accepts that there are lots of Mohammeds who are decent law-abiding men.
Similarly, only the most extreme racists would apply a common African American name to signify and trash the group.
Today, we can't even call the most aggressively offensive president in modern American history, who also happens to be obese, "fat" without being called out for fat-shaming.
But it has never been politically incorrect to trash women as women - that is, women who cannot claim to belong to another disadvantaged group by virtue of race, body weight, sexual preference, or disability.
The tendency to divide women into Cool Girls and uncool women has a long history in art, culture and politics. But in the Trump era, this division has been stoked to the great benefit of the regressive, racist, misogynist forces on the right.
Righteous anger at white women in the Trump resistance originates in the exit polls in November 2016, indicating that 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. Only much later did actual vote counts reveal that white women went 47 percent for Trump, 45 percent for Clinton, still outrageous, but closer to a statistical tie, and only reported much later.
The Trump election was first and foremost, a kick in the face to women. The disastrous effects of the regime on women's rights in law, on the job, and in American society have yet to be fully assessed. Because of what came after - governmental chaos, Nazis on the march, brown children in cages - the problem of Trump to 51 percent of the population receded in relative importance.
But women did not forget. Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol's studies into the grassroots Trump resistance communities finds middle aged white females have constituted a wide majority among both activists and leadership in groups they studied in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Building on research begun after the Trump inauguration and into the lead-up to 2018 midterms. Skocpol and a team in early 2019 surveyed resistance networks in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They found (italics mine) "most participants in resistance groups are middle-aged or older white college-educated women," while male members of local groups were "often partners or friends of the female members," and leadership teams were either all-female or (in two instances) include a woman teamed up with one or two men.
"The 'who" of local anti-Trump organizing is very clear and may come as a surprise to some," Skocpol with colleagues Leah Gose and Vanessa Williamson write in a paper published in Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance ( Oxford, 2020). "Although national media outlets and researchers have studied national resistance organizations often suggest that anti-Trump activities are spearhead by young people and Americans from minority backgrounds, the vast majority of grassroots resistance group leaders and members are actually white, middle class, college educated women ranging in age from their thirties and forties to retirement years."
The researchers estimated that "across all states and places we know, from two-thirds to 90 percent of volunteer resistance activists are female, white and college-educated.
Political reporters have generally ignored this fact, except for a blip of interest just before the midterms, like this one from the Pacific Standard.
Misogyny has been a problem for the American progressive movement since women eschewed housekeeping and mothering to join men in the revolutionary Sixties. They signed up to fight for civil rights first, but they joined a movement that treated women so abysmally it belied the goals of social justice at which it claimed to aim.
In the anti-war movement, when women objected to being relegated to service roles like typing, a male Berkeley organizer could reply, "Let them eat cock." And get a roomful of guffaws. Civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael famously said, "What is the position of women in SNCC? The position of women in SNCC is prone." At a 1969 convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Black Panther Rufus Chaka Walls announced that power for women in the Panthers was limited to "pussy power." When some audience members started chanting "fight male chauvinism!" Walls shouted "Superman was a punk because he never tried to fuck Lois Lane!"
The ideological grandmothers to the progressive women in the Democratic Party today were abused worker bees, assigned traditionally female work like typing or administrative duties, subject to sexual harassment, and ridiculed if they asked for more power. The women's liberation movement was born out of this milieu. If women were oppressed, the New Left reasoned, their problems paled against those of disempowered brown people all over the world. Women's demands could be dealt with after the class struggle had been won. In serving this openly sexist movement with docility as a kind of expiation for white privilege, the women of the New Left practiced intersectional feminism before it was cool.
Over the last half century, progressives achieved some – but not enough - change. Women helped elect the first black President. A gay man ran for president in a major party primary. But the failures of Democratic female presidential aspirations and the breadth of the me-too revelations across the political spectrum have exposed just how little has improved in half a century for women of any race.
The Karens meme was first served up on that smorgasbord of woman-hatred, Reddit, home to adherents of the men's movement, egging on an angry ex-husband whining about an ex named Karen. Reddit's "FuckYouKaren" thread is still replenished regularly with cruelly captioned random pictures of white middle aged women and their ugly haircuts.
The Karen meme is the latest iteration of progressives willing to diss middle aged white women. The Karens are, of course, the most uncool in the hierarchy of cool.
But that's only part of it. There is something more political and malignant afoot. Stereotyping all white women over the age of 30 as incapable of possessing the compassionate imagination to side with the poor and brown (see the recent attack on a novel on Latinx immigrants by a white woman), or just being entitled crypto-racists, serves the right's purposes very nicely. It drives a wedge between two demographics that ought to be natural allies in the Trump resistance - African Americans of all genders and progressive white women of all ages, a significant percentage of whom revile Donald Trump.
The Karen meme especially benefits the right in 2020 because the Trump campaign has long been worried about losing suburban women. Trump is not on target to win the white female vote this time out. Fifty-two percent of white women support Biden, 41 percent Trump (compared to 56 percent of white men, Trump's true base) in latest Quinnipiac poll. According to some assessments, Trump has the lowest approval rating among women of any President since polls began tracking it in the Eisenhower era.
How better to get some of them back than to stoke progressive misogyny and drive a wedge in the resistance? Divide and Conquer 101, a tactic that never fails to stump the diverse left.
Through the mid-20th century, the Democratic Party was the home of the white working class male, with all of the toxic masculinity and racism that goes with that demographic, until they bolted for Ronald Reagan. Ever since 1980, a majority of men have voted Republican for president, while Democratic presidential candidates have won the majority of the female vote. In return, the party's presidential nominees have always supported women's reproductive freedom. But the party's attitudes about women in power have genealogical roots in a misogynist recent past.
Progressive women today field misogynistic attacks from their male comrades, in a way that women on the right never do. In 2020, Sanders' supporters meme'd Elizabeth Warren's face into a mask hiding Hillary Clinton. When the Nevada Culinary Workers of America union criticized Sanders' Medicare for All plan, Sanders' supporters called two female union leaders "whore," "bitch," "corrupt," and "fascist," and then doxxed the women, publishing home addresses and phone numbers.
For anyone paying attention to the Hillary-hate from the left in 2016, this was nothing new. After she dropped out, Warren accused Sanders of not controlling the "organized nastiness" among his supporters. "I'm talking about some really ugly stuff that went on," she said. "It's not just about me." To his credit, Sanders denounced the attacks on Warren and her campaign by those claiming to support him, saying he was "aghast" and "disgusted" by them. But it is also likely that Sanders has a blind spot for sexism, having got his start as an activist in the movement that preferred its women, if not prone, then typing and handling the bills.
Why is misogyny on the political left towards its own women so virulent? The right has an outlet for its misogyny through the antics of toxically masculine Trump and his commodified Vegas show-girl-porn star feminine ideal, exemplified by fashion cypher Melania and bleached and botoxed Foxbots.
The left's misogynists channel their anti-feminist instincts into things like the social media funnel of the Karen meme, taking a common woman's name from a certain era - a name that, it must be said, could be either black or white - and transforming it into a pejorative specifically for white suburban women who, in fact, might well be comrades in arms in the fight against Trumpism. The abuse arguably discourages women from speaking out and participating in the resistance, and serves as a sort of online version of the Saudi religious police whose sticks keep women out of the public square.
This is why I believe the first woman President will come from the right. As progressive women fought for civil rights and against the war, conservatives got behind Phyllis Schlafly, who built a power base promoting traditional female roles, and destroying the ERA. Schlafly's political granddaughters are the millennial women of Trump, women like Trump Senior Advisor Ivanka who give lip service to "empowerment" but work to make their own power palatable to threatened men by literally hobbling themselves in spike heels, adhering to the patriarchy and supporting limits on other women's freedom.
The women of the left today have no similarly effective way to entice retrograde men on their side to be comfortable with their power. They continue to be unsung worker bees of the progressive movement, scorned for whiteness, age, ridiculous clothes and laughable haircuts, and still taking it on the chin for the cause.