Aurora Magazine

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Finding Our Inner Karen

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Karens (and Kareems) abound, even in Pakistan. Could they be the basis of the next big idea?

The world isn’t quite sure how to deal with Karens. There is no denying that the stereotype of this self-entitled person showering disdain on those she deems as less significant than her is based on some underlying human truth. The Guardian even called 2020 the Year of the Karen. We all love to hate her.

I am curious though, is there a thing as a Pakistani Karen? Sure, she probably doesn’t have the trademark short, choppy blonde cut and there isn’t the white/black race interplay here. But perhaps we can find a personality match somewhere in our social spectrum? Here are some potential candidates.

Not too long ago, a video went viral on the Pakistani internets about a woman who was dubbed the ‘Desi Karen’. While her mask-averse actions were close to what you would expect from a western Karen, I think we have much more potent candidates in our midst that fit the Pakistani Karen title better.

Karen Auntie #1 is a slightly modified form of the helicopter mom. She can be spotted during parent teacher meetings where she will be endlessly complaining about her kids’ not-so-stellar grades and putting the blame on ‘incompetent’ teachers. She is very vocal about the ‘non-seriousness’ of said institute in the parents’ WhatsApp group.

Karen Auntie #2 is the woman who cuts the line at the immigration counter at the airport and then makes a big fuss about how the Pakistani system is so corrupt. She is usually accompanied by her husband, but he keeps a low profile, conveniently slipping front row in the ‘unaccompanied ladies and elders’ queue rather sheepishly.

Karen Auntie #3 can be found in your average upscale supermarket, loudly berating the staff as “kamchor larkay” because they are unable to understand the specific box of tissues she wants. Note that she doesn’t exactly know what brand or SKU she wants, just that it’s the pink one.

Karen Auntie #4 is found with eight of her other kitty party friends at Xander’s. She is known to always have some kind of problem with her food and is not reticent about giving an earful to the waiter. If she doesn’t hear from the manager soon, she threatens to post about it on ‘social media’.

Karen Auntie #5 is lurking on the streets of DHA in her 2020 Toyota Corolla. She bumps into a ‘jaahil’ motorcyclist, sending him flying off his bike. At which instance, she rolls down her window two inches, screams about how he doesn’t have road sense and drives off with a scowl plastered on her place. Lest a cop is nearby and stops this madam, she is ready with her ‘wardi utarwa doon gi tumhari’ threat.

Karen Auntie #6 is at the counter of your favourite departmental store or Khaadi outlet, demanding to return an article she bought from a no-return sale a few months ago in a different city. She has enough determination and the chutzpah to put the genie back into the bottle, rules be damned. She will speak to the manager at the bare minimum and namedrop the family that owns the business if they don’t comply.

Before you accuse me on being yet another gendered oppressor, I would like to add that Karen-ness is not limited to women. Yes, there are Karen men in our midst as well. Maybe you have encountered one of these:

Kareem Bhai #1 is the kharoos uncle that doesn’t return the ball when the neighbour’s kids hit it over the boundary wall of his house. Instead, he complains to their elder siblings that their reckless cricket has dented his car and reduced its value by 50%. Asks to send their parents over so he can have a word with them.

Kareem Bhai #2 is the person who thinks that everybody who is even a day younger than him is an incompetent idiot. He proceeds to call all these other men, some with greying hair as well, as ‘baccha’ or “young man”. They may be Harvard-bred rocket scientists, but he is determined not to take anything they say seriously.

Kareem Bhai #3 has a favourite restaurant; BBQ Tonight. They address him as Sir, and have been doing so for the last 30 years. He expects all the other cafes and restaurants to treat him the same way. He will complain about portion sizes and his food will never be hot enough. His go-to statement is “what rubbish”.

Kareem Bhai #4 is a valiant defender of cultural values. He always has a problem with women’s dupattas, the intensity of which exponentially increases if they happen to be smoking. He makes it a point to tell the manager of any public place that this sort of behaviour is not appropriate for a ‘family mahol’, all the while forwarding NSFW jokes on WhatsApp to his ‘oldies’ group.

All this begs the question; if this kind of social behaviour tropes are such a universal thing, and such Karens (and Kareems) exist amongst us, should we as marketers use them? The creative in me is torn on this issue.

On the one hand, I think it’s a great opportunity to show your pop culture chops. If you have got a Gen-Z brand that can use these references and drive up relatability for your target audience, then by all means go for it. Because Karen is an imported phenomenon that came by the way of memes – so it’s not likely that an actual Karen will get offended. Of course, like with everything else, the specifics of your community will determine whether it will be a hit or fall flat on your face. There is a chance that some of your Gen-Zers are woke-r than usual and will flak the content for inappropriateness.

It’s a pretty slippery slope in this hyper politically-correct world to acknowledge such Karens, because you are effectively pigeonholing some poor woman (or man) into a meme-based caricature. Dominos in New Zealand had to pull back a campaign that rewarded “nice Karens” because it was considered tone deaf. Tread carefully.

But if you hear the words ‘tameez nahin hai tumhe baat karne ki’ somewhere, there might a Karen Auntie lurking nearby.

Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.