Once a popular name, “Karen” has become an even more popular viral meme, one that is used online to describe white women who have been recorded demonstrating their entitlement and privilege in social situations, frequently against people of color. This past summer alone saw such notorious Karens as Central Park Karen, Kroger Karen, St. Louis Karen and Permit Karen, all of whom were routinely mocked online for their behavior. While the meme is new, feminist icon Gloria Steinem — whose pioneering life and career provide the basis for the new film The Glorias — says that Karens have been around for generations.
“There’s always been about half of white women who are economically dependent ... on their husbands and are voting their husbands’ interests, not their interests,” Steinem tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And, of course, they also have [their own] racial bias.”
That said, both Steinem and The Glorias director, Julie Taymor, express concern that sexism — rather than social justice — is part of what is fueling the current Karen phenomenon. “It’s kind of annoying that white women get Karen’d,” Steinem says.
“What about their husbands?” Taymor says, referencing the St. Louis case in which Patricia McCloskey and her husband, Mark, were both filmed brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters. (After the footage went viral, the internet promptly dubbed them “Ken & Karen.”) “I find it really annoying that it all gets put on the white woman because of one or two or three incidents ... they show. I definitely think the Karen thing is sexist — to make a big deal out of it is an easy thing to do.”
The fraught historical relationship between privileged white women and women of color is explored in The Glorias, which depicts some of the racial and class fault lines that existed in the 1970s feminist movement, even as its leaders sought to present a united front. “The thing this film shows is women of color were always at the forefront of the feminist movement,” Taymor says. “That is really critical because there’s been misunderstanding there. And Gloria, from a child onward, was always crossing racial and cultural lines.”
In the film, Steinem is portrayed at different ages by multiple actresses — including Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore — while Janelle Monáe and Lorraine Toussaint portray Black feminist activists Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Florynce Kennedy, respectively.
Steinem says that she appreciated Taymor’s approach to representing her many allies in the fight for gender equality. “The movement was way more diverse than it’s ever been portrayed. Women of color, and especially Black women, were way more likely to be feminist than white women, and that continues to be the case. Ninety percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, and more than half of white women voted for Trump [in 2016].”
For her part, Moore similarly sees the film’s past reflected in our present. “One of the things Gloria always says that she learned from Flo Kennedy is that racism and sexism [were linked] — you couldn’t dismantle one without dismantling the other. Hierarchical systems are damaging for all of us, and that’s what these movements were about. We’re seeing that obviously echoed today ... it’s our responsibility as human beings to make things fair and give everyone the same opportunity and dismantle the system that’s harming people.”
The Glorias premieres Sept. 30 on Amazon Prime and digital streaming services
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