The Karen meme — TikTok escapism in a time of crisis
There is a short video online that shows an American teenage boy sitting in a car with a T-shirt draped over his head, complaining loudly that his takeaway order is incorrect.
Another video shows a teenager with a towel on his head criticising a café for opening three minutes late. Both boys are pretending to be my favourite internet villain — Karen.
On the video-sharing app TikTok there are 720m views for videos dedicated to Karen jokes. Millions more if you include #karenchallenge, #calmdownkaren and #respectthedripkaren (a joke about middle-aged women not understanding fashion).
There are Karen memes on Instagram and YouTube as well. Wherever American teens congregate online, you will find jokes about Karen.
The idea of using the name as a generic term for obnoxious grown-ups is supposed to have started on Reddit, after a user posted complaints about his ex-wife. It can be used as a shorthand for bigots and, because there is no male equivalent, it can also be used to make sexist jokes.
But most of the time, teens use it to describe an annoying, interfering adult. Karens are moms — pushy ones. They share corny inspirational quotes on Facebook, buy merchandise inscribed with “Live Laugh Love” and love to ruin teenage fun.
What really marks out a Karen, however, is their capacity to complain and get their own way. If you ever worked in a shop or restaurant when you were younger, you will remember who the Karens were — they were the ones who asked to speak to your manager.
The idea of Karens has been around for a while. A few months ago, a woman caught on video in the US shouting and making faces at another driver was dubbed the ultimate Karen.
But the number of jokes seems to have kicked up a gear since the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of American teenagers to leave schools and colleges and return home.
All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, claimed William Wordsworth. The same can be said of memes. In the past few weeks, TikTok has become the most effective black hole for many (and not just teenagers) to disappear into when reality feels overwhelming.
The variety of content makes it by far the most absorbing app I have on my phone. It is also a social network filled with strangers — which feels perfect for this dislocated period of time.
Pristine photographs posted on Instagram are annoying in a crisis while WhatsApp messages can bring bad news. TikTok, though, is just silly. The fact that T-shirts and tea towels are supposed to denote Karen’s long hair, but look nothing like it, is one of thousands of micro visual and audio jokes.
TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance is valued at $75bn — making it the most valuable start-up in the world. The algorithm that dictates the videos you see is ruthlessly efficient.
Glance down at the app and by the time you look up an hour can easily have slipped past. Its chief currency is dance moves, in-jokes and youth. Charli D’Amelio, its first US celebrity, is 15 years old.
Anyone born before the year 2000 seems to feel compelled to make a joke about their age when posting a video. Brands and more established celebrities have joined but none can compete with the wit and editing skills of teenagers.
The app’s Gen Z demographic also means that it is stuffed to the brim with jokes about their mainstream, out-of-touch parents and all the other adults who annoy them — like Karen.
Teenagers forced to spend more time at home with their families need an outlet for their frustration. It’s not surprising that TikTok at the moment has more jokes about how annoying adults can be — or that the jokes can be extremely sharp. I love them anyway. Karens may just be a meme but the longer this crisis lasts, the more I find the idea comforting.
There is something soothing about the idea of a group of people willing to speak up and complain when the rest of us are sitting in stunned silence. When times are uncertain, it is also deeply reassuring to see that teenagers still believe adults have everything under control.
Elaine Moore is the FT’s deputy Lex editor, currently stuck in Dorset
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