One meme that has taken over popular culture imagination during the coronavirus lockdown is the Karen meme. On Instagram, a quick search for #Karenmemes throws up more than 18,000 posts, while a subreddit called Fuck You Karen has 538,000 members.
For the uninitiated, Karen, in memeland, is a generic name for a middle-aged, middle-class, entitled white American woman, the kind who thinks she is above the rules, who will buy out the entire toilet paper shelf at a supermarket before lockdown, but will refuse to wear a mask at her neighbourhood park.
America’s Karen is India’s Suresh
The idea of a Karen can easily be transplanted to an Indian context, except it would, of course, be a man. Let’s call him Suresh. Before the men’s rights activists come charging, let’s be honest, the meme works on stereotype and convention, and, forget being strident or demanding, convention wouldn’t allow an Indian woman to feel entitled to much. That’s also why it works with a name like Suresh, because a guy named Vivaan or Ahaan or any of these other new-age names simply wouldn’t be convincing as a trope.
Suresh is a middle-aged, middle-class man who thinks he knows best. He’s your average WhatsApp Uncle. The one who will cheer on the Vande Bharat mission to repatriate Indian nationals stranded abroad in the coronavirus pandemic, but will aggressively question why migrant labourers can’t just stay put in the cities where they have no job and no salary. Suresh will also say it is migrants who are lining up outside alcohol shops and they are, therefore, not poor. One who will roundly abuse the Tablighis as the root cause of coronavirus in India but will dismiss reports of those same Tablighis lining up to donate their plasma for Covid trials as fake news – if at all they read it.
Karen is a racial slur. pic.twitter.com/WFGpWrYzWo
— spread memes not germs (@MemesCentraI) May 5, 2020
Suresh is that family elder who believes, and tried to convince you as well, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calls to clang kitchen utensils and light diyas were rooted in science – that they would kill the virus. He thought the idea of working from home was a joke, the excuse of the lazy 22-year-old, and he still doesn’t believe that he needs to wear a mask when he goes out, but he judges the people standing in line at liquor shops, even the ones following social distancing and hygiene rules.
He’s the president of your RWA who has arbitrarily decided that food delivery executives cannot be allowed to enter the neighbourhood because of course they, catering to the young, Westernised pizza-eaters, carry more infections than the desi vegetable vendor (whom Suresh, by the way, never even sees because his wife and domestic staff handle the kitchen). Never mind that younger people who may not have live-in staff and are working 16-hours a day just so they don’t get laid off don’t have the time to cook those vegetables. Because Suresh doesn’t see that, and what he doesn’t see doesn’t exist.
What is the Indian equivalent of ‘Karen”? pic.twitter.com/tuFKcGCR4z
— Dheepak (@dheeepakg) May 7, 2020
Karen and Suresh are just coping mechanisms
Of course, there is an element of offensiveness to the Karen meme (and not just because it is appropriated from a Black meme) – it is meant to offend, to shame the entitled and the complacent into feeling, and acting on, empathy.
Some Americans have pointed out the sexism and ageism that the Karen memes perpetuate. Karen Han, a writer, said in an interview to Vox, “It’s definitely annoying to see, as a Karen who doesn’t think of herself as that kind of ‘can I speak to the manager’ attitude nor haircut (and also given that it’s usually defaulted to a middle-aged white woman).”
For his part, the creator of the anti-Karen subreddit told Vox, “I don’t think it’s particularly sexist because the general userbase only calls out specific people, not all women. Also, a few male spinoffs have been posted and done pretty well, where a guy is acting like a Karen (typically Kyle). Anyone who takes it too far as to say all women are like this gets downvotes.” And there are some Karens who are flattered by the attention and don’t take it too seriously.
The thing is, social media and memes have never been about nuance, and now, given the pandemic and the lockdown most of the world is struggling with, they have become something to cling to. There’s even a meme doing the rounds lately, about how, in the year 2053, students will be asked to write about the use of memes as a coping mechanism during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.
Every country probably has its own variation of a Karen or Suresh, and it’s not a new phenomenon. But it has gained currency in the last few months while the world is struggling to live with something no one currently alive has had to deal with before. The coronavirus pandemic and varying degrees of lockdown the world over have caused mass confusion and anxiety.
And in India, where there is no real clarity on infection numbers, confusion about which lockdown restrictions have been eased in which zones, fear of losing one’s job and rising public anger at the treatment of the poor, especially migrant workers, people need an outlet. They need a space to speak their mind about issues that bother them, and if they do it in memes, well, so be it.
It also, perhaps, gives people a sense of control when in a difficult situation. Whether it’s jokes about the multiple lockdown extensions or about the lifestyle changes that some are adopting or even taking off on Bollywood celebrities, Indians have something to say about everything, because, perhaps just the presence of a punching bag, even if virtual, is a source of comfort.
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