They’re loud, fun and proud. A group of Karens fight back against being called a ‘Karen.’
They’re loud, fun and proud. A group of Karens fight back against being called a ‘Karen.’

‘Out of hand’: Queensland Karens fight back

They have kept a low profile for most of their lives. They've worked hard, raised children, paid their taxes, and contributed positively to society.

So when women named Karen found themselves at the centre of a controversial global social phenomenon, they were shocked.

Their name was no longer the generic one they always thought it was but now a symbol of white privilege, racism and hate. Everything they were against.

A "Karen" is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "rude, obnoxious and insufferable middle-aged white women".

The stereotype has become women who are pushy, aggressive, ill-informed, have a bob haircut, complain, and often ask to speak to the manager.

It's fuelled debate on whether the moniker is discriminatory, sexist and encouraging bullying. Social psychology and trends researcher Dr Karen Brooks says she can see the humour but it's been taken too far.

Karryn Wheelans and Karen Dowling are fighting back against the stereotype of a ‘Karen’. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Karryn Wheelans and Karen Dowling are fighting back against the stereotype of a ‘Karen’. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

"We've always done it, it's not new and there's always been names and terms given to explain or derive certain behaviours like 'Nigel No Friends' or 'Negative Nancy'," she says.

"But the downside is this one is particularly malicious and nasty. Some (Karens) aren't coping, they are struggling with it and feel very embarrassed and wishing that wasn't their name."

These are women who grew up with one of the most mainstream names in Australia. Social demographer Mark McCrindle says Karen was one of the most popular girl's names for 37 years from 1950 to 1986 and more than 35,000 Karens were born from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

It's not clear where the term "Karen" started but it's believed Americans have transformed the name into a stereotype over the past decade.

Internet theories suggest it started from characters named Karen in films such as Mean Girls and the 1989 gangster movie, Goodfellas.

But what is certain is how fast the "Karen" movement gained momentum in Australia in recent weeks.

The stereotype went viral in Australia after a woman, now dubbed "Bunnings Karen" was caught on video refusing to wear a mask in a Bunnings store in Melbourne (where it's mandatory to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.)

It follows "Central Park Karen", a woman recorded calling the police on an African American man in Central Park, New York after he asked her to leash her dog.

With neither of these women named Karen, Dr Brooks calls out the gender imbalance.

"It's interesting how, again, it targets women … this is particularly sexist and misogynistic," she says. "It's a way of pulling people into line but the term 'Karen' is already being misused.

What worries me is it will become a silencing machine and women of a certain age and skin colour won't be listened to even though their complaints are legitimate."

Across the world, women named Karen are desperately trying to see the funny side because if they don't, they wonder if that makes them a "Karen"? Meet five Brisbane women named Karen and discover how they're coping with being the butt of an international "joke".

Karen's share their stories:

Karryn Wheelans is one of the many Karens in Queensland fighting back. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Karryn Wheelans is one of the many Karens in Queensland fighting back. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Karryn Wheelans

I want to know why the world decided to pick on Karens? It could've been Sharon, Kathy or Kym. Why Karen?

It's all fun and games now but I'm going to reach my tolerance level very soon if we don't move on from it.

As much as we try and laugh it off, it comes from a nasty place. It's a label people are using for socially unacceptable things and appalling behaviour.

You have to detach yourself from it otherwise it could really get to you. I have five daughters and I don't think any of them will be naming any of their children after me any time soon.

I have a few friends also named Karen and we are all optimistic, confident, self-assured and friendly. None of us is like the non-mask wearing, entitled woman from Bunnings.

If I get upset being called a "Karen", I'm playing into the stereotype, so we must find the humour in it and be the "anti-Karen".

Karen Smith, 51, Gold Coast

I've always hated my name even before the "Karen" thing began. I much prefer nicknames; all my friends and family call me Kaz so I'm definitely using that more now.

I'm nothing like the stereotypical "Karen". I'm a people pleaser, I have to make sure everyone else is OK and getting along. We're all different.

Every Karen has a different personality and people should remember that. I know some Karens are getting cranky about their name being the butt of a bad joke but I'm not bothered by it.

In this ugly world we're living in, you have to have something to laugh at and if that's us, then so be it.

I do, however, think there should be a Karen support group so we can all stick together and blame our parents for blessing us with this name.

Karen Hanna Miller hopes the ‘Karen’ phenomenon will die down. Picture: Peter Wallis
Karen Hanna Miller hopes the ‘Karen’ phenomenon will die down. Picture: Peter Wallis

Karen Hanna Miller, 50, Brisbane

I didn't realise the gravity of the situation until recently. I placed a takeaway order at a food outlet and when asked for my name I replied, "Karen". I didn't give it a second thought.

When my order was ready and they called out my name, everyone started laughing and giggling.

That's when I thought this is getting out of hand. It was funny at first but the more we dive into it, the more dreadfully offensive it is.

The behaviour of these women we're calling "Karen" is disgusting and it's disappointing our name now has a dark side to it. I'm certainly not a "Karen".

I'm absolutely not violent or a racist. I'm one of the good Karens who is a good mother, friend and citizen. I'm not going to succumb to what society has branded a "Karen".

It's not who I am, it's not who we are. But I can't help think when we begin to reflect on the year that was 2020, it will be remembered as the year of COVID-19 and of the "Karen".

Karen Dowling said all womened named Karen should be loud and proud. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Karen Dowling said all womened named Karen should be loud and proud. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Karen Dowling, 50, BRISBANE

How would other people feel if their name was picked at random or if it was a man's name? We should be describing the behaviour of the people not using a woman's name to label it.

We have to rise above it. I'm confident in who I am and I know I'm not a "Karen".

I feel for those women named Karen who might already be struggling during these tough times and, now, this brings them down further. It is petty and it's bullying.

I don't know how this will play out in the future. I work in the travel industry and I'm an artist, my jobs have been impacted during COVID.

I'm hoping potential employers don't think, "Oh here comes a 'Karen', we will put you at the bottom of the pile," and dismiss us because we're of a certain age. It can be hard but I've got a few tips from my husband on how to handle it.

His name is Nigel, he's used to being stereotyped but he's anything but a 'Nigel No Friends'.

The name calling is so trivial, there are more significant things we should be worrying about in the world.

Karen Mangelsdorf is bucking the trend of the stereotypical 'Karen'.
Karen Mangelsdorf is bucking the trend of the stereotypical 'Karen'.

Karen Mangelsdorf, 52, Brisbane

You won't find any Karen under the age of 45 and, I must say, we do tend to be middle-aged white women but I've never met that Karen.

I actually think it's funny, I don't get offended. I am the complete opposite of what a "Karen" is portrayed to be.

I don't have a "Karen" haircut, I definitely don't ask to speak to the manager, I'm easygoing and I have a good sense of humour.

We've flown under the radar for so long so at least we've become famous for something. It's just one of those things like giving redheads a hard time or blondes.

I think people can be too sensitive, you only give something power if you get upset.

Originally published as 'Out of hand': Queensland Karens fight back



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