While everyone is complaining about boomers, Gen Z doesn’t want you to forget to complain about Generation X, the other generation that’s significantly older than them that also sucks. This sucking is embodied by the name Karen, the young people have noticed — middle-aged white moms who are always asking for the manager and calling the police on perfectly fine pool parties and wondering why kids are so obsessed with their identities.
I am a Gen Xer, but I can only say to the Gen Zs, I feel you on the Karen thing so hard. Having a Karen as a mom must suck, but also, just imagine having thousands of Karens as your constant nemeses, for your whole life.
Here is my story.
I was born in 1969 and grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts. I went to local public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and spent 1,600 hours a year with the same 65 to 70 kids. Roughly half of those people were girls. Seventy-five percent of those girls were Karens.
There were Alpha Karens and Beta Karens. Beta Karens mostly held the rope while Alpha Karens jumped. When a Beta got her turn, an Alpha Karen, a disaster capitalist in pigtails, would stand waiting to replace her the moment she tripped. An important feature of intra-Karen relations was that Beta Karens never complained and Alpha Karens never felt guilty. When a Beta Karen cried over poor treatment by an Alpha Karen, the rage was always turned inward.
All Karens of all sorts had Scooby Doo lunchboxes, packed with lunches made by their moms, and entire Barbie drawers. Karens were allowed to watch TV at their houses in subdivisions whenever they wanted. Their dads (Bills, always) built missile guidance systems or invented new kinds of plastic. Sometimes they had pools. Some Karens got As and Bs, some Karens got Cs. Bad grades yielded shrugs, good grades yielded money from grandparents.
“How much money do your grandparents give you?” a Karen asked me once. I said all my grandparents were dead, except for one mean grandmother we never saw. “That’s sad,” said the Karen. “It’s fine,” I said. “No it’s not,” she insisted. “It’s sad. She’s your grandma.”
Friendships came down to this choice: I could have a Beta Karen friend and be bored, and occasionally lectured to, or I could have an Alpha Karen friend and be afraid, and constantly yelled at, though possibly somewhat entertained.
The moms of Karens were almost always Jeans or Lindas, the Boomer Generation equivalents to Karen. (Lindas were just Jeans with a little more sexual agency, and after sexual agency became more common, Linda and Jean became one thing: Karens.)
If I was at a Karen’s house, and said “Oh God,” or “Jesus Christ,” Jean or Linda would say, “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.” Jeans and Lindas cleared the table by themselves and did all the dishes themselves.
All our teachers were Jeans, and the Jeans loved the Karens of course, for their neat, sexy cursive and their indifference to pedagogy. “Why is our state bird the chickadee?” I wanted to know. “Why not the robin, or the blue jay, or the sea gull? Why, in fact, not the mallard duck?”
Karens never asked why we had to memorize all the state birds. They just did it. If Karens were a state, their motto would be “Because.”
One year I finally got a non-Jean teacher (possibly a Susan?). We read “Caddie Woodlawn” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and had a class rat that we could pet. This teacher wore clogs, and taught us the words sexism and racism.
For some reason all the Alpha Karens were with the Jean teacher that year, and without them around, I made a new friend, and then together we made another one. I saw what fun was, and that how, when you talked to a Karen, you would say words, and they would say words, and the words would just pile up around us.
But when I talked to my new friends, the words I said and the words they said would join hands, and then run away together to make space for new words.
Aside from getting along, it was impossible not to notice how much my new friends and I all had in common. Our mothers all worked, and we all lived in freezing old houses where our parents were gone from morning to night and mean older brothers were in charge. We dutifully turned the televisions off after the one show we were allowed because we wanted to read, or listen to the McGarrigle Sisters and cut animal shapes out of felt.
One of my new friends and I were each only allowed one Barbie, she, because Barbies were expensive, me, because my mother said the smell of them gave her a headache. My other friend’s mother was a Catholic Liberation theologist. She was allowed zero Barbies.
Only one of my new friends was named Sarah, too, but it was clear, especially in opposition to the Karens, that we were all Sarahs. I went on in life to meet many more Sarahs named all sorts of things, but it’s rare to meet a Sarah named Karen and vice versa.
But one of the Sarahs moved to Connecticut and the other Sarah’s rich dad sent her to the mediocre girls’ school in Pittsfield, where all the withered aristocracy waiting out death on our colorful hillsides sent their children. So I was in the market for new friends, but figured I would not be able to get a real friend, just maybe some tolerable Karens (oxymoron, I know) to pass the time.
My least favorite Karen was named Karen. Incidentally, her mother was a Linda, and wow, am I glad that Instagram hadn’t been invented yet, because she would have started a war.
Karen had a best friend named Emily. They had matching T-shirts printed with their faces inside a heart and the same favorite animal — the frog — and held joint frog-themed birthday parties. Naturally I thought Emily was a Karen too when I thought about her at all.
Then, one day, we had a sub in gym. She paired me with Emily. There we were, Emily and me, alone together, doing practice rounds of our presidential fitness tests. Emily did twice as many of everything as I did, and I charmed her with my lack of interest in athletic competition and an imitation of our Earth Science teacher doing shots as he loaded up yet another filmstrip.
This was pretty average material for me at 11 but Emily loved it. I wondered: 1. Could Emily, whose receptiveness to my jokes meant she was clearly not a Karen, fill the Sarah-sized hole in my heart? 2. Did I have the courage to fight a Karen — glowering at us from across the gym in her friendship T-shirt — to win her?
As fate would have it, my Episcopal Monday school was having a Christmas party. I invited Emily as my guest. Emily giggled all throughout our first friend date. “That’s right,” I wanted to say. “See how good it is over here, in Sarahland.”
Within weeks, it was clear that I had won. One day, after it was all over, Karen, defiant and teary, confronted me in the hallway. “You’re a terrible person,” I remember her saying. “My mother thinks so too.”
I knew she wasn’t entirely wrong. Yes, I wanted a friendship, companionship, but underneath it all there was a thrill, because Emily was such a beloved object. I could not help feeling good that Karen felt bad. For once, I had been myself and won.
You know how Karens are because we live on Planet Karen. You know what Sarahs are like because a Sarah has been writing this. An Emily is basically a Karen with curiosity, and a Sarah with more stable confidence and the ability to do repetitive tasks.
Something else: while Emilys understand injustice, their relationship to it tends toward the theoretical, while a Sarah’s is more animal, and gets personal more often than is perhaps attractive. (Karens don’t care about injustice in any visceral way unless it’s about women in the workplace.) Emilys are drawn to Sarahs because they crave excitement, they are also drawn to Karens for the same reason everyone is: Karens dispense shame, but also power.
I would have liked to tell you that First Emily and I stayed best friends forever. But then she chose to go to a college that might as well have called itself Karen College. Imagine 2,000 Alpha Karens descending on you with their Psych 101 texts, their favorite song from “The Joshua Tree,” their green and white striped rugby shirts.
Emily stopped returning my calls and disappeared into a sea of Karens. I was devastated, but perhaps this was the only condition under which I would find my first Alexandra.
My own college was teeming with Karens but not overrun with them. There were Sarahs everywhere, and Emilys too, but what I really wanted was a best friend of an entirely new species. I saw them all around me, walking like prized horses, never looking to the side. Only forward, went the Alexandras!
How would I ever get one to see me, especially since I lived in a dorm that could very easily have been called Karen Hall and which smelled of beer, Anais Anais, Paul Mitchell leave-in conditioner, and the sweat of those who did not belong.
The Rich Karens of college amazed me by being pretty much exactly like the not-so-rich Karens of high school. Their handwriting was smaller and less rounded, but of the same font family. They had better versions of the same stuff; Calvin Kleins instead of Jordache Jeans, Clinique instead of Cover Girl, real cashmere instead of the lambs wool-angora-nylon blend. Karen Hall’s Alpha Karen was a sexy, rich, pre-med chipmunk. Every single girl in my dorm was desperate to be friends with her, and had literally no interest in anyone else.
I lived in a single, the only one on my floor. Sometimes I would look out the peephole to see if there was anyone good to talk to. One night I saw a girl with straight light brown hair and light blue eyes, like if Anderson Cooper and a Siberian husky had a daughter. She was the Alexandra of my dreams.
I opened the door.
“You’re tall like me,” she said. “All the guys here are midgets. I’m wasted.”
“Where do you live?”
She named a dorm full of Alexandras and told me she played lacrosse.
“Is it fun being good at sports?” I asked her.
“I like sex better,” she said, “But lacrosse is pretty fun.”
Alexandras didn’t even know Karens existed. Alexandras would plow through them like Karens were a window in a Long Island hair salon and they were deer. If I pointed out a Karen to my Alexandra, she would say, “O.K., I see a tree, a building, and an old Saab. You’re telling me there’s also a person? I don’t see anyone!”
I told her that the Alpha Karen of Karen Hall had gone to her high school! “I’ve never seen her before in my life,” said My Alexandra.
The only problem with being Alexandra’s new best friend is that she already had another friend, another Alexandra. Other Alexandra didn’t like me. One night, I said to her, “Why don’t you like me?” After that, she began to. As we grew close, I discovered that she was an Emily in disguise.
We were inseparable for years. Now, we do not speak. What other possible fate is there for an Emily who wants to be an Alexandra, and a Sarah who wants to be an Emily? I blame our end of our friendship on the Karen world. She could deal with it, but I could neither stop hating it nor ignore it. I was mad at her for being able to inhabit the Karen world. She could deal with it, and I, who could neither stop hating it nor ignore it, was jealous of this. And she was just mad at me for the way I am. Sarahs are entertaining but we are also unbelievable jerks.
After college, I moved to Manhattan. After about a week of seeing lots of other women from around the world, particularly more women who were not white women, I realized that essentially all the women I had so carefully divided were almost identical.
Sure, the Karens wore black overcoats and Emilys wore bright ones and the Sarahs wore shearling denim and the Alexandras were all drowning in scarves. But these were just costumes. We all spoke in a manner that was sort of pre-annoyed, and a way of holding our heads in public that said “this is how you hold your head.”
Aura-wise, we were clones.
But still, we are not Karens, the Karens that have now proudly taken their place in the center of the world stage, the policewomen of all human behavior. All non-Karens of all ages should be on the lookout for Karens — mocking you when you ask for a raise, cutting your best jokes, shaming you for losing your lanyard — and their assaults on our happiness, selfhood and freedom.
Because I know that Karens are going to Karen. They are unstoppable. All they see are open doors. We should blame the Karens, but maybe we should we blame the doors too? Incidentally, all Karens love The Doors, because they were a little rebellious, but not to the extent that they failed to achieve mainstream success.
Sarah Miller is a writer who lives in Nevada City, California.
Rites of Passage is a first-person column from Styles about notable life transitions and events, big, small and absurd.