Ms. Meyers is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early learning and societal problems such as Karens.
Karens in Action
We’ve all seen Karens in action on youtube and our TV’s. There was the one who phoned the police on two black men for having a barbecue at a lake. There was the one who reported a little black girl for selling bottled water on the street so she could earn money and go to Disneyland. There was the one who lied to the police, saying a black man was threatening her when, in fact, she was violating park rules by having her dog off leash. There were dozens of them who screamed at restaurant servers, flight attendants, and store employees when told to wear a mask.
Characteristics of a Karen
The media dubs Karens as entitled, unhinged, privileged, and racist. Yet, there are also other glaring similarities among them. In addition to being white women between the ages of 30 and 40, many share the following characteristics:
- An angry and indignant overreaction toward life’s normal daily irritants
- A hostile, combative, and inflexible communication style
- An overbearing personality with a compulsion to state their rights, needs, and desires as if they just left an assertiveness training seminar
- A lack of compassion and an inability to see things from another person’s point of view
- A need to not only be seen but to be seen as special and deserving of special treatment
Preschool Princesses All Grown Up
While watching videos of Karens, they seemed strangely familiar to me. I wondered: Were they the preschoolers I taught thirty years ago? Were they the girls whose dads called “my little princess,” took on “dates,” and made the very center of their universes? Were they the girls whose dads insisted were “unusually bright, gifted, and perceptive” when they were only 4 and eating play-dough like all the other kids? Were they the girls whose dads told them the sky was the limit and they could do and be whatever they desired as if they were superhuman and didn’t have limitations like the rest of us mere mortals?
The video below features a well-known Karen in Central Park. She phoned police and lied that a black man was threatening her when he asked her to leash her dog.
A Step Backward
Before I had kids of my own, I taught preschool to students who were white, wealthy, and privileged in an Oregon town with a population that was largely the same. It was an eye-opening experience for me, having grown up in Oakland, California, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the country. This preschool was also a place where many fathers referred to their daughters as princesses.
Having come of age in the 1970’s when folks marched for the Equal Rights Amendment and sang Helen Reddy’s anthem “I am woman, hear me roar,” I found the princess moniker quite jarring whenever I heard it. After all, women had struggled for decades to get equal pay for equal work, to make inroads on sports teams in high school and college, and to gain some political muscle. Fathers designating their daughters as princesses seemed like a huge step backward.
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A Prelude to Disappointment
I was someone who lived in the real world and had experienced my share of hardships. Therefore, I worried these dads were setting up their girls for an adulthood full of disappointment and frustration. None of them, after all, would be marrying a prince, living in a castle, and wearing a tiara. They’d be teaching at inner-city schools like I once had. They’d be single mothers, struggling to rear decent kids while being the sole financial support of their family. They’d be striving to break the glass ceiling by becoming corporate executives, political leaders, doctors, and scientists.
When I watched Karens on TV, they appeared bitter, broken, and disillusioned. I thought: Wouldn’t that be precisely how they’d feel if they'd been called princesses as girls but then discovered life wasn’t a fairy-tale? Wouldn’t they be sour now because their fathers had seen them as “special beyond belief,” but the rest of the world didn’t see them at all? Wouldn’t they be lashing out today when others didn’t appreciate how “unusually bright, gifted, and perceptive” they were like their dads had always claimed?
Studies on the Princess Culture
Unbeknown to me as the mother of two sons, there’s been quite a number of studies conducted during the past 30 years about the so-called “princes culture.” Some concluded that it’s wholly negative, others that it has some benefits, and still others that it’s largely innocuous. Sarah Coyne, a researcher and professor at Brigham Young University, examined how it affected over 300 preschool and kindergarten girls and boys. Her 2016 article, entitled the “Pretty as a Princess Study,” concluded it was a negative: “There was no evidence that the girls’ engagement with princess culture influenced girls’ behavior for the better. Princesses’ potential as positive role models is limited.”
In her 2021 follow-up study, though, Coyne checked back with the same kids she had observed earlier. She was surprised to discover their early exposure to the princess culture had actually benefited them in certain profound ways. The girls who had been obsessed with princesses at 5, for example, were actually more likely to hold progressive views about gender roles at 8 and 9. Furthermore, the boys were less likely to be shaped by society’s “toxic masculinity. “
The Dark Side of Princesses
The journalist, Peggy Orenstein, is much harsher on princess culture in her 2011 bestselling book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. She sees it as a dark force in the lives of girls, arguing that it sexualizes them at a young age. As a result, they grow up too fast and seek the attention and approval of men too early. Orenstein claims the princess culture tells girls how they look matters more than who they are, what they think, and what they achieve.
A Cultural Standard for Fatherhood
Thirty years ago, dads called their daughters princesses because it was culturally acceptable at that time and even encouraged. Disney characters and their accompanying merchandise were becoming hugely popular. Princess culture had taken over everyday culture. When viewers saw a father on a commercial or TV show calling his daughter “my little princess,” their hearts melted. As a result, it became a new standard for fatherhood, especially among white, wealthy, suburban dads.
The Beaver Cleaver Days Were Over
The culture had changed dramatically and so did notions of what it meant to be a loving, supportive father. In the 1970’s, socially aware dads wouldn’t dare saddle their daughters with the princess moniker, believing it would hinder them in a rapidly changing and competitive world. It was a time of tremendous social unrest with folks challenging and questioning the status quo and the roles of males and females in society and the workforce.
Parents were aware that the Beaver Cleaver days of family life were over. Their girls would now need to survive and thrive outside the domestic bubble. They would need to be strong, resourceful, smart, and resilient. Being a lovely, dainty, and helpless princess in a castle wouldn’t cut it any longer.
In the video below, another Karen calls to report an 8-year-old girl who's selling bottled water as a way to earn money for a trip to Disneyland.
No Fairy-Tale Ending
Fortunately, Disney’s representation of female characters has gotten better and more diverse. Today, they’re more independent, brave, and resourceful than heroines of the past such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. Many are even positive role models such as Mulan, Pocahontas, and Moana.
As for the Karens, we should loathe them but also pity them. How horrible it must be to get so stressed out by life’s minor inconveniences such as wearing a mask or waiting in line at a store! How terrible it must be to feel as though the world is a hostile place where people are intentionally doing things to cause you frustration! How awful it must be to lack the communication skills to express your thoughts and feelings in a calm, clear, and rational way!
We’ll probably never know if the little princesses of 30 years ago grew up to be the Karens of today. With the best of intentions, their dads indulged them and made them feel as if they were better than everyone else and deserving of preferential treatment. When they act out in public today, they display that privileged attitude as they struggle mightily to cope in the real world, not the fairy-tale one they were promised.
© 2021 McKenna Meyers