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Film and TV

Who’s the most galling, captivating character on our screens this summer? It’s ‘Karen’ - and she’s everywhere

Armed homeowners standing in front their house along Portland Place confront protesters marching to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson's house Sunday, June 28, 2020, in the Central West End of St. Louis. The protesters called for Krewson's resignation for releasing the names and addresses of residents who suggested defunding the police department. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

The most addictive TV show this summer isn’t even an official TV show, but how long before it becomes one? Several times a day, Instagram and Twitter feeds serve up another galling, sad and often intensely satisfying segment of a reality series we can just go ahead and call “Karens,” in which women (almost always white, almost always of a certain demeanor) make the mistake of policing, harassing or discriminating against their fellow human beings in public.

As soon as one Karen flames out across the internet, another apparently more unhinged Karen rises in her place.

One watches the video of the mask-defiant Karen in Dallas who angrily hurls the contents of her grocery cart to the floor, then, only hours later, one sees the terrifying video of a Karen and her husband (the male version of a Karen, sometimes known as a Kevin, has lately been termed a Ken) defiantly guarding their St. Louis manse from passersby marching in a protest on Sunday. This barefooted Karen, wearing a black-and-white striped shirt and the regulation Capri-length Karen pants, is waving a pistol; her husband, in his schlubby pink polo shirt, brandishes an automatic rifle. (In fact, they are attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey, but in today's context there is no mistaking that they are Ken and Karen America.)

It's not the couple's toughness that registers; it's their abject fear. Maybe they too have seen how things usually end these days, as the Karens increasingly get exactly what they've long had coming: resistance, mockery and, in some cases, the loss of their jobs.

It's a sudden reverse of the scenes that viewers used to gobble up in the outdated and justifiably canceled "Cops"and "Live PD," two popular reality shows that thrived by exalting the presumably noble dedication of law enforcement officers while exploiting a lack of sympathy for those who were most typically seen bearing the brunt of that enforcement.

On May 25, the same day George Floyd stopped breathing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, one of the all-time Kareniest Karens - a white, 40-year-old dog-owner named Amy Cooper - was recorded in New York's Central Park verbally harassing Christian Cooper (no relation), a 57-year-old black birdwatcher, after he reminded her that her dog belonged on a leash. We all know how Amy Cooper's tantrum (which included a hysterical call to the cops) turned out for her.We also know how it might have turned out if Christian Cooper hadn't recorded the encounter.

This image made from Monday, May 25, 2020, video provided by Christian Cooper shows Amy Cooper with her dog calling police at Central Park in New York. A video of a verbal dispute between Amy Cooper, walking her dog off a leash and Christian Cooper, a black man bird watching in Central Park, is sparking accusations of racism. (Christian Cooper via AP)

And so, amid a culturally fractious and largely failed attempt to quell a killer pandemic, paired with a stirring surge in support of civil rights and police reform, there’s a strange sort of solace that comes from watching these Karen and Ken videos spring up like summer dandelions across the regulation-green lawn of the fragile, white American psyche.

You never know when Karen is going to show up - or, more importantly, when she's going to snap. The videos are most remarkable for their similarities. Karen points at the camera, Karen gets hostile, Karen is triggered by the audacity that someone would talk back to her, tell her no, tell her to try minding her own business. When cornered - when at last she reckons with the idea that millions might soon be watching - Karen doesn't back off, she doubles down. Out come the weird dance moves, racist slurs or anti-immigration diatribes. Go ahead, film me! How is it that Karens can so often be counted on to fly into these rages of entitlement?

Karen is all but rendered powerless by "Karens Going Wild by Pavel," an Instagram account with more than a half-million followers and rising, which shares particularly egregious Karen videos of the moment, resulting in swift responses. Over the weekend, a Hampton Inn employee in North Carolina called the cops on a black family (registered guests of the hotel) who were using the pool. As of Monday night (a day after Karens Going Wild shared the mother's video), the chain's parent company, Hilton, apologized to the family and said the employee has been fired.

Because that's how it goes in 2020, right? It can be greatly entertaining but just as often unsettling - especially if you happened to be holding out any remaining shred of hope in the social fabric. If you've lost that hope, there is Karen to blame.

She sometimes appears to suffer from mental illness or too much stress. Other times, it appears she's just a mean drunk. There is some fretting about the way viewers comment on Karen's appearance, a side concern about the cruel and sometimes sexist things people say. There is also the worry, now that firearms are part of the picture, that Karen videos have the potential to take a gruesome, violent turn.

The awful beauty of the Karen and Ken videos - their rawness and immediacy - is that we as viewers haven't yet processed how they truly make us feel. Only angry? Only vindicated? Aghast? Sick? It's a show that is very much in progress.

Yet Karen has been around forever. She's hardly new to anyone who recognized her long ago, whether in historical fact or observant fiction: Karen at the neighborhood HOA meetings. Karen as the perennial bigot in John Waters's movies. Karen in the shared revulsion of reality-star Kate Gosselin's infamous"I need to speak to your manager" hairstyle.

More than one clever Twitter user has posted a photo of Margaret Hamilton as the mean Miss Gulch in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," by way of Karen comparison. Miss Gulch was the Wicked Witch's Kansas analogue, who took Toto away in her bicycle basket - a total Karen move. Was it ever in doubt whom the audience was supposed to root against? And on a more existential level, does a Karen ever know she's a Karen?

This streaming supply of Karens is at its best and most brilliant when the person doing the filming just stands their ground, no matter how ugly the words get, and lets Karen reveal her true nature. Let her twist and gesticulate and scream her head off. After all, she’s melting, she’s melting.