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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lewis

Karen: Why We Love Her So

In the movie ‘No Country for Old Men,’ the lead protagonist is being hunted by a hired hitman, Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, who did no less than embody one of the scariest personifications of death ever produced in cinema. Ever! He casts a jaundiced pall of unstoppable violence and doom the second he appears. There is a scene midway in this terrific movie where the protagonist’s wife, played by Kelly Macdonald, agrees to meet with the sheriff. The sheriff is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and he is a remarkable blend of world-weary competence beset by a growing affliction of ‘what-the-hell-is-the-point-to-it-all-itis.’ He knows the wife is going to lose the man she loves. Why? Because death is coming.

But she doesn’t understand what the sheriff understands. She is naive, impelled to this through an unflinching and wisdom-weakening love for her husband. When the sheriff tries to warn her about the situation the husband is in, she says in his defense, “He can take all comers.”

I’ve since found this line very endearing; a small piece laid well in the script, said well by the actor, and capable of emotional heavy-lifting. It’s so sincere… and open-wounded… embedded in a loyal love forged probably by young hearts beating back to high school. It’s also tragic. Youthfully dumb. The sort of thing my wife would have too much sense to ever utter about me.

Sheriff: “Your husband is in danger. These men coming for him will see to it the job is done.”

my Wife: “You mean they’re going to kill him.”

Sheriff: “Mm hm.” [Nods.] “We need to protect him. If you could tell us where he is, we can do that.”

Wife: [Sighs. Rolls her eyes.] “I always knew he’d make a mess of things. Better get the local and county police, the DEA, the Feds… in fact call in the National Guard. He’ll need all the help he can get. Trust me.”

Which brings me to my point about Karen.

Our Dear Karens.

‘She Can Take All Comers.’

While that line in no way describes a person of my qualities, it does underscore our chiseled portrait of Karen. Like Josh Brolin in ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Karen can take all comers: pundits from the Left or Right―social media bloviators of any ideology. Karen is a cultural villain for complainers of all milieus.

How this modern proto-archetype came to be called Karen… I don’t know. It strikes me as very unfair to our real-life Karens, many of whom are absolute sweethearts. Nevertheless, the actual name ‘Karen’ is a recent phenomenon, as it can shift, (Soccer Moms, Becky’s, Miss Ann’s), and yet the person, the proto-archetype undergirding the appellation is remarkably stalwart and sustained. Karen is strong. The sort of person or catcher’s mitt who absorbs so much of our animus. I remember reading in Lauren Groff’s novel, ‘Florida,’ about a woman who ended up vacationing solo in Brazil. In a moment of crisis, the author describes the woman casting about for help, leaning into her ‘white woman privilege’ in order to bend the world to her will. I thought this was a fairly good fictional portrayal of our ‘Dear Karens.’ Groff’s privileged version is the type who employs hysteria and helplessness so that others will interrupt their own lives, drop what they’re doing, and come to her aid.

But, day-to-day life reveals that Karen supplies herself to more than just self-chastising, progressive writers. I’ve heard her name invoked by people of contrasting political views, different cultural or racial backgrounds, various income levels, professions, irritations, beefs, opinions, rants, anecdotes/data, etcetera, etcetera. For Lauren Groff, Karen emerged as a white woman wealthy enough to travel alone to a foreign country, but not competent enough to protect herself when the storm pounds the town. For a colleague of a differing persuasion, Karen intrudes when corporate micro-aggression seminars remind him he’s a perpetual, albeit unconsciously so, prick. Karen even reared her head in the form of former President Trump in an Atlantic article. As I said, Karen is a catcher’s mitt, and the hostility-baseballs landing in the glove simply nourish her power. When I say she ‘supplies’ herself to any practiced complainer in need of metaphorical flesh, I’m inclined more to Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’ linguistic prank than the Thanksgivingly polite term ‘supply.’ The power of Karen whores itself generously to anyone in need.

As I said… she is strong!

Strength informs this portrayal of Karen, planting her in a pyramidal stance made permanent by her Michelangelo-esque muscularity. The red sheet flapping in the wind is the kinetic attrition of our collective guff. We’re giving her everything we got. And though we’re thin to admit it, we find her irresistible because we need her. She takes all comers. Absorbs all direction of political and cultural abuse. Karen will always be there, maybe under guise of a different name, label, gender―who knows―but she will stand firm despite our constantly updating mores. I think for all the surface level contempt, deep down in our hearts, we love her. Not, perhaps, on an individual basis. No one really wants Karen coming to his desk to lob a complaint. But… maybe… from a distance and on a deeply Freudian level… the community harbors an embarrassing fetish, an adoration of the heart for her enduring usefulness to our moral histrionics. We’ll always need her. She’ll always be there. Our Karens can take all comers.

One More Thing…

The Pikes Peak Writers Group published its second ever anthology of fiction. I was blessed to get a small piece in, and I hope you will take the time to buy a copy and support this local project. It features 27 fantastic writers from the Front Range and beyond. Titled ‘DREAM,’ it can be acquired in paper or ebook form.

I’ve always been fascinated by the reality of experience, a thing my fiction repeatedly explores. Humans are these extraordinary, intricately fragile blossoms at the bowsprit of evolution; remarkable, complicated beings blessed with ultra-sophisticated brains and bodies. However, it is this complexity which yields a pandora’s box of strange and weird experience. I’d argue that there’s a bit of dissonance between reality and one’s experience of it, and this is where story-magic happens. While science is the language of objective reality, fiction is the eyewitnessing of our engagement with objective reality. People have been making up stories longer than we’ve been doing sciencey type things, which means we’ve a rich tradition of magical thinking that honors our humanity better than pretty much anything else. So… please buy a copy of ‘DREAM’ to dive into this rich canopy which takes the torch from our ancient past and leads it forward into a new tomorrow.

To boldly go? Hmm…

~John Lewis


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