Does Karen wear a mask? The gendering of COVID-19 masking rhetoric

Tavishi Bhasin (Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA)
Charity Butcher (Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA)
Elizabeth Gordon (Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA)
Maia Hallward (Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA)
Rebecca LeFebvre (Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, USA)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 25 September 2020

Issue publication date: 2 December 2020

3400

Abstract

Purpose

This paper asks how values and beliefs around gender influence social norms regarding masking. Specifically, the paper explores how the gendered meme “Karen” fits into social media discussions on support for and opposition to the wearing of masks to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors analyze tweets containing the hashtags #Masks4All and #NoMasks over a three-week period, using adjacent hashtag analysis to determine the terms most associated with Karen in the pro and anti-mask communities associated with these hashtags.

Findings

Anti-maskers reference Karen more often than pro-maskers, although she is presented in negative terms with gendered overtones by those on both sides of the masking debate.

Originality/value

The paper highlights how hypermasculinity rhetoric impedes social change that normalizes mask wearing.

Keywords

Citation

Bhasin, T., Butcher, C., Gordon, E., Hallward, M. and LeFebvre, R. (2020), "Does Karen wear a mask? The gendering of COVID-19 masking rhetoric", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 40 No. 9/10, pp. 929-937. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-07-2020-0293

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Although social and behavioral change is a long-term process, the 2020 pandemic spread of COVID-19 has required rapid responses by policy makers, health practitioners and the public on a host of issues. One of the most hotly contested surrounds the emerging social norm of wearing face masks in public. While guidance on mask wearing has fluctuated since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, in April 2020 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that everyone should wear cloth masks in public to reduce the spread of the virus (Hamzelou, 2020; Cleveland Clinic, 2020). This recommendation was confusing and unwelcome for some Americans; mask wearing is not a social norm in Western nations outside specialized contexts like healthcare. Further, in the US, mask wearing has often been associated with sinister activity or foreign cultures. American laws against facial coverings have been used to rein in the racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and arrest anarchists. Similar laws have been used against Muslim women, whose veils are often viewed as culturally “other” and (mistakenly) symbols of oppression (Ladhani, 2019).

During COVID-19, some Americans have resisted universal mask wearing for practical reasons, questioning the effectiveness in blocking viral particles. However, many others reject the practice on cultural or sociological grounds, characterizing mask wearing as embarrassing or “smug” (Liddle, 2020). This is not too surprising, given that masks not only disrupt viral transmission but communicate identities. Masks are “polysemous – not only are they heavy with meaning, but that meaning itself is slippery, adaptable, able to fit into all sorts of different, even contradictory moral frameworks….both ‘wearing a mask’ and ‘not wearing a mask’ can be held up as a symbol of intellectual superiority or moral rectitude” (Jones, 2020, n.p.). Face coverings are deeply embedded in cultural identities, from the opera-going experience to African rituals (Taylor, 2017). For mask wearing to become a new social norm in the US, it will require a redefinition of what the practice means for society and the individual mask wearer. Norms include “both the perception of how a group behaves and a sense of social approval or censure for violating that conduct” (Denworth, 2020, n.p.). Mackie (2018, p. 141) asserts that to “abandon old social norms, and/or adopt beneficial new ones” that “enough people have to believe that enough other people are changing.” Additionally, norms are often not based on comprehensive data, but rather “subjective perceptions of norms can guide individuals' opinions and behaviors” (Tankard and Paluck, 2016, p. 182). Consequently, communication from leaders and notable figures within individual referent groups plays a key role in signaling group norms (Tankard and Paluck, 2016). Within the US, establishing a mask-wearing norm has been hampered by high level political messaging that contradicts public health officials.

While many public health experts, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, regularly modeled mask wearing in addition to encouraging it, high profile elected officials did not universally or consistently promote or practice masking. In particular, President Donald Trump openly resisted mask wearing and even denigrated the practice. Based on public comments, he appears to believe that mask-wearing makes one appear weak, afraid and feminine. The first time Trump publicly wore a mask was July 11, which was 99 days after the CDC recommended the practice (Danner, 2020). Throughout April, May and June, his statements on mask wearing were critical at worst and lukewarm at best, with attendees at a Tulsa campaign rally in June encouraged to wear masks before entering the arena but “free to remove them once inside” (Egan, 2020). It was not until June 30, when the US hit record numbers of new COVID-19 cases, that key figures in the Trump Administration such as Vice President Mike Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams made public appeals for mask wearing (Parker and Wingove, 2020).

Gender and mask wearing in pandemic-era America

The emergence of a social norm around mask-wearing has stumbled in the US not only due to conflicting messages from political and public health leaders, but also from gender norms. In the US, masking is often associated with women and femininity, partly due to the discursive connection between mask wearing and concern for the broader community. Scientific evidence suggests cloth masks more effectively protect the public from the wearer than the other way around, thus underscoring gendered assumptions regarding women's traditional role caring for others, most notably as mothers. Further, the mask making effort has been driven primarily by women, overwhelmingly on a volunteer basis, thereby reinforcing the unpaid, domestic nature of women's traditional work. Despite the skill required to sew a proper cloth mask, “because it's been looked at as women's work, it's been devalued” (North, 2020, n.p.).

Even among people unaware of their own patriarchal values, internalized traditional gender norms can alter beliefs and actions (Mateju et al., 2017). This may explain recent survey data which suggests American women are more likely than American men to wear masks in response to the pandemic (Ritter and Brenan, 2020). American men are less likely to believe they would be seriously affected by the coronavirus (despite evidence to the contrary) and more likely to report negative emotions when wearing a mask. More men than women consider wearing a face covering to “not be cool,” to be “shameful,” and to be “a sign of weakness” (Capraro and Barcelo, 2020). These gender differences mirror widespread American attitudes toward masculinity. Research suggests the same masculine norms that lead to higher social status (e.g. aggressiveness, risk taking and dominance) also undermine both physical and mental health (Fleming et al., 2014). Glick (2020) describes one version of the “show no weakness” masculinity norm as having to always be right and not heed advice from experts. From this viewpoint, he points out, “wearing a mask emasculates” (Glick, 2020).

The masculinity contest culture further undermines social norm diffusion around mask-wearing given the prevalence of sexism and hegemonic masculinity in the Trump administration's communications even prior to the emergence of COVID-19 (Smirnova, 2018; DiCarlo, 2020). In addition to refusing to wear a mask, Trump has modeled the expert-defying, “show no weakness” behavior characteristic of hypermasculinity by openly taking an unproven COVID-19 preventative and shaking hands during the pandemic. Other mask skeptics have made “tough guy” masculine arguments about mask wearing, often praising Trump along the way. For example, R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative journal First Things, calls the mask culture “fear driven” and refers to mask wearers wanting to “cower in place” (Kristian, 2020). Others have asserted that “President Trump needs to exhibit strength and leadership in this crisis, he can't do that from behind a mask” (Marcus, 2020).

Karen as a contested meme during the COVID crisis

Social norm creation also happens through community diffusion and debate, including through memes, which “shape and reflect general social mindsets” (Shifman, 2014, p. 4). Enter “Karen,” a common gendered meme widely seen on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Memes can become tools of persuasion and political advocacy as multiple opinions and identities are negotiated (Shifman, 2014, pp. 122–123). While “Karen” is a flexible meme with multiple usages, social media teems with examples of users invoking a stereotypical white middle-aged woman who confidently complains to managers in retail stores as a critique of certain behaviors (Brewster, 2020). As community organizer Gwen Snyder commented, “Karen began as a Black meme used to describe white women who tattle on Black kids' lemonade stands. White boys stole it and turned it into code for ‘bitch’” (Tiffany, 2020).

Use of Karen has a sexist tinge, with its patronizing tone and suggestions that such women are “crazy” or “hysterical” (Abcarian, 2020). However, the meaning of “Karen” continues to evolve. While Karen's intersectional identity includes race and class, not only gender (Carbado and Harris, 2019), due to space limitations, this paper deals primarily with gender.

Given the varied and gendered ways in which Karen is deployed to advance values and beliefs, this paper explores how she enters the normative debates around mask wearing in the COVID era. “Karen” has been used to describe women who ignore calls for social distancing and mask wearing “out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest” (Tiffany, 2020). With her defining traits of entitlement, selfishness and the tendency to complain, Karen offers a resonant way to criticize women ignoring public health protocols, or women who seemingly put their own interests above the public good. In its most positive spin, mocking maskless Karens on social media provides “a shared language to encourage measures that benefit the public” (Tiffany, 2020). Because “no meme better captures the fraught feelings of the moment,” Karens are everywhere in 2020, in multiple print sources (Tiffany, 2020; Morris, 2020; Haasch, 2020), social media platforms and YouTube videos.

Despite Karen's widely recognized utility as a pro-mask meme, we suspect she is also deployed by mask resisters. Miller (2019) characterizes Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” feeling free to assault others' “happiness, selfhood and freedom.” In this way, Karen's behavior can be spun as a challenge to others' liberties. As current social debates rage about behavior in the face of the pandemic, arguments on the “no-mask, re-open everything” side draw on Americans' stubborn independence, political paranoia and distrust of experts. Asserting individual rights, anti-maskers may rail against not only the authorities advising them to wear masks but also against fellow citizens, such as the women sewing masks at home, who admonish them for their lack of care for the collective. Additionally, anti-maskers might portray mask-wearers as duped or hysterical (a gendered term itself) in the face of an exaggerated threat. In these scenarios, “Karen” can be used as a criticism of women engaging in pro-mask behaviors.

On both sides of the mask-wearing debate, we expect that Karen will be embedded in gendered norms, whether of protection and care (pro-mask) or of weakness, fearfulness and dependency (anti-mask).

Data and methods

For this study, we mined social media to explore how the Karen meme intersects with norm diffusion around mask wearing. We sourced Twitter due to its growth in popularity and its inherent openness for public consumption. Using the Twitter application interface (API), we searched for two of the more popular hashtags, one on each side of the debate: #NoMasks and #Masks4All. Searches over the three weeks from May 16 to June 5 produced 51,303 total tweets and retweets using these hashtags. Daily Twitter searches were implemented six days in arrears to give equal time for retweeting (see Table 1).

Data analysis and findings

To explore the diffusion of social norms related to gender and hypermasculinity, we need to explore the influence of particular tweets within the broader population. We used the qualitative analysis software Nvivo to conduct text analysis on #Masks4All and #NoMasks. Our first finding is that the term Karen is used as a gendered pejorative by both those supporting mask-wearing and those opposing mask-wearing in the COVID-19 era. We had 60 tweets, with an average of 0.6 retweets, over three weeks that used #NoMask and referenced Karen in a way that was consistent with the use of Karen in this paper. These 60 tweets were a small subset (1.076%) of the total number of tweets using #NoMasks. We had 32 tweets, with an average of 0.47 retweets, which used the hashtag #Masks4All and referenced Karen; these were largely written to support the wearing of masks and represented 0.337% of the tweets using #Masks4All. Even though Karen was used by both groups, Karen tweets against masking outnumbered Karen tweets supporting masks two to one, even though the #Masks4All hashtag was used more frequently. The difference between the proportion of Karen tweets with each of these hashtags is significant at the p < 0.0001 level (using a Chi-squared test). Thus, those tweeting with #NoMasks were significantly more likely to mention Karen than those using #Masks4All.

We examined the number of followers of those tweeting about Karen to evaluate the relative social influence of the pro- and anti-mask tweets. Table 2 indicates that although anti-maskers are more vocal, they are less influential in their tweeting. Over 62 percent of the pro-mask Karen tweets were issued by high and medium influencers, whereas 70 percent of the anti-mask tweets were issued by low influencers. Karen-related tweets from pro-maskers reached five times as many people (371,726) as Karen-related tweets from anti-maskers (74,496). Thus, while #NoMasks tweeters were more likely to mention Karen, #Masks4All tweets were more influential and reached a wider audience.

To illustrate how Karen was used in conjunction with other concepts, we created word clouds (Figures 1 and 2). These highlight the most commonly used words, phrases and hashtags, with larger sizes reflecting more commonly used terms. While the sample is too small for broad generalization, we found both anti- and pro-maskers used Karen to portray their targets as stupid. The differences between pro- and anti-masker use of the meme further illustrate gendered social norms.

#Masks4All

While fewer tweets used Karen in support of masks, a pattern emerged in keeping with the broader use of the term in popular culture, namely that Karen is stupid, selfish and racist. The non-mask wearing Karen is selfish for failing to follow rules designed to keep everyone safe and showing little regard for others she may infect. She is also pathetic, having “PTSD after wearing a mask for 45 min” This Karen is stupid for failing to follow clear signage in stores, for not choosing the safe option of staying home and for ignoring science. She refuses to take responsibility for her actions, and she has a victim mentality (another weakness). Hashtags used to support this view included #typhoidmary, #covidiot and #covidkaren. This Karen is also associated with multiple hashtags alluding to racism and racist behavior, a topic worthy of further study. This set of Karen tweets included only two hashtags that could be attempts to include men who refused to wear masks as targets of their ire. Each of these, #covidtomdickandharry and #kevins, appeared only once in conjunction with Karen. Ultimately, Karen, for the #Masks4All crowd, is someone that does not care about other people and refuses to wear a mask because she is selfish, or worse, racist. This conception of Karen relies on the gendered nature of mask-wearing as protecting and caring for one's community, something Karen does not do.

#NoMasks

We expected to find the cooptation of Karen by #NoMasks to express hypermasculine views of mask wearers as rule followers, weak, fearful, dependent and unable to think for themselves. We further expected these tweets to assign opposing traits, strength, courage and individualism, to those rejecting mask wearing. For this mask-opposing group, Karen emerges as an amalgam of traits which include stupid, controlling and hypocritical, all negative gender norms associated with women. In contrast to the #MasksforAll tweets, Karen is stupid here because she is a rule follower and enforces rules that are perceived as unnecessary and ineffective. This fits in with this group's skepticism toward the severity of the viral threat, and several used the hashtag #fakepandemic. Therefore, rule-following, mask-wearing Karens are stupid women who have fallen for a scam. They are “silly,” “scared,” and willing to wear a “diaper muzzle.” The tweets ask Karen to “calm down” and “go home if she is scared.” Relatedly, Karen is seen as a wealthy, controlling, busybody who is out of touch with reality and yet dictates terms to those around her, through hashtags such as #Cononacontrolfreaks, #plandemic, #Covid1984 and #sheep/#sheeple. Multiple tweets call out Karen for “snitching”, including a particularly misogynistic tweet that advertised a home that came with a “wide-eyed” Karen who compulsively disinfects every surface, watches CNN (often touted as #fakenews by Trump) and has the “snitch line” number saved on her phone. She is accused of disregarding people with conditions that make masks problematic. Anti-maskers also associate mask-wearing Karens with various political groups or ideologies including “liberal socialists,” “Democrats,” “arsonist rioters,” and “authoritarians,” while they associate non-mask wearers with patriotism and red states. These hypermasculine social norms about mask wearing are also directly tied to Trump, praising Trump for his refusal to wear a mask and alleging his challenger, Joe Biden, isn't a “real man” because he wears a mask. Thus, wearing a mask is being a weak, fearful, controlling, stupid, “Karen” (negative stereotypes of women) while non-maskers are strong and courageous—in other words, hypermasculine.

Conclusion

Through our analysis of #NoMasks and #Masks4All, we find that “Karen” is construed in highly gendered terms, regardless of whether she wears a mask. Those opposing masks are more likely to discuss Karen—and do so using hypermasculine language that praises men like Trump for being strong and fearless in their refusal to wear a mask. The first time Trump donned a mask a Republican congressional candidate tweeted “I don't wear face masks, but POTUS is the only man who can pull it off and still look intensely masculine.” (Reny, 2020) Trump himself said he thought he “looked like the Lone Ranger.” (Murphy, 2020). Mask supporters also use gendered language to describe Karen—but for them, Karen refuses to wear a mask because she is a selfish woman who does not care about her community. The gendered criticism of Karen, regardless of whether her face is covered, illustrates the polysemy of the mask and the gendered nature of the mask-wearing debate.

Our findings have several implications for social norm diffusion. First, the (negative) gender stereotypes associated with mask wearing, including low wage or volunteer seamstresses, busybodies, bitches and being weak or fearful, hamper broad adoption of mask-wearing, particularly in a hypermasculine context. Analysis of sexism in Trump's tweets as a candidate and as president indicates a number of rhetorical moves that also appear in our dataset of Karen tweets, including the notion that “women are weak, lacking in strength and ability, incompetent and ‘mentally instable’” (DiCarlo, 2020). We found several tweets about Karen on both sides of the mask debate that might fit into this category, with Karen being stupid, silly and gullible, as well as a dependent follower rather than a leader. Such tropes were mostly found in the more prevalent but less influential #NoMasks tweets and indicate the need for additional analysis regarding how the various components of Karen's identity intersect with attitudes for and against mask wearing.

In conclusion, gendered language is used by both sides of the masking debate, and the reference to Karen is ever evolving as a gendered critique of women. This is a continuing sign of women being assigned blame and negative traits associated with the shortcomings of each side, which bodes poorly for social norm diffusion around masking. At a time when mask-wearing, combined with physical distancing, is increasingly recognized as the first line of defense against the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, it is increasingly irresponsible for political and social media leaders to use negative, gendered language that discourages people from using masks. While it is good news that several cities and states have now adopted mandatory masking, an untold number of lives may have been affected by this negative, gender-based messaging that may have prevented adoption of this important safety measure. Our rhetoric around social norms, and particularly when they are significantly gendered, could have devastating consequences for public health and safety.

Figures

Word cloud for tweets that used #Masks4All and made a Karen reference

Figure 1

Word cloud for tweets that used #Masks4All and made a Karen reference

Word cloud for tweets that used #NoMasks and made a Karen reference

Figure 2

Word cloud for tweets that used #NoMasks and made a Karen reference

Count of tweets and retweets

TweetsRetweetsTotal
#NoMasks5,57421,09126,665
#Masks4All9,50215,13624,638

Social influence and “Karen” tweets

#Nomasks#Masks4all
High influencer (>10,000 followers)1 (1.7%)10 (31.3%)
Medium influencer (between 1,000 and 10,000 followers)17 (28.3%)10 (31.3%)
Low influencer (<1,000 followers)42 (70%)12 (37.5%)
Total6032

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Corresponding author

Rebecca LeFebvre can be contacted at: rlefebvr@kennesaw.edu

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