The Two Karens of Coronavirus

Culture wars over social distancing and masking have produced a muscular motherhood in America.

The moms bubbled from the ground up and trickled down in our COVID Spring. A proclamation from Barbra Streisand, for instance, claimed that Hillary Clinton as “a mother and a grandmother… would’ve instinctively taken care of the public health of the people of the United States.” But whispers of the particular efficiency of women leaders preceded and outlived Babs. The mother-wish seemed everywhere.

This is, to say the least, an imperfect response to Trump’s rule by decrepit Berlusconian bunga-bunga machismo. You might think of it as what Italians call “mammismo”: politicized mother-worship. But how did we come to think that “motherhood” makes you fit to govern, or that the governed yearn for a mother? (Margaret Thatcher, I hasten to mention, had two children.) Why has the pandemic led us to take up“Karen” as a type — to constantly draw women into public, into a power that misogyny makes available for respect, ridicule, protection, and visibility? And how do we read together the two seemingly opposite positions — the performance of purity, the performance of freedom — that these Karens seem to occupy?

There’s nothing stronger than a privileged woman performing vulnerability, it seems, even if her entitlement reveals weakness as a shell game.  The political flexibility of the “Karen”/”Mom” figure reveals the kernel under the rapidly-shifting shells. Whether at the Palm Beach County Council or in the Portland streets, America is refiguring the meanings of “Mommy War.” — a war not just between moms, but instead with white moms at the front lines of cultural battles, called to serve as immovable objects. For my part, I agree with Babs that Clinton would be a better president than Trump, but it is her knowledge, not her mothering, that the nation needed.

The problem is that motherhood is an endlessly-flexible political signifier. Like a virus, it’s a biological category with a cultural context that makes it possible to thrive. Those who mother in public (Ivanka-style) are not endowed with moral force, just abundant resources and facial symmetry. One might prefer to be governed by the first 50 names in the phonebook than the 50 best moms in America — at least they wouldn’t be self-nominated and self-styled in white linen on Instagram.  And at least this randomness would help us think about bonds to each other rather than to the gene, or the blood. Instead, the focus on motherhood has us hunkering down into a privatized family, hoping the household will save us. Staying home, after all, saves lives. That’s what the yard signs say. Here’s a spoiler: it does not. Healthcare does. Shelter does. The privatization of both kills.

And this is how “mammismo” connects to Karen, the vigilant, ubiquitous gendered figure of our COVID spring. Despite her professions of fear, Karen runs toward her belligerents: charging a motorist in Seattle, running toward a bird-watcher in Central Park’s Ramble, masklessly interrogating a San Francisco man stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in his own neighborhood. Sometimes, conversely, she aggressively polices while staying at home, monitoring through NextDoor and Facebook. In either mode, she is a figure of protectionist white femininity: touting her vulnerability while policing the perimeter.

The spectacle of white women calling the authorities was interrupted, for a social media moment, by a montage of Karens threatening “citizens’ arrests” against Palm Beach County councilmembers voting in favor of a masking ordinance. Soon after, as if to craft a countervailing image of vigilant white femininity, a line of white Moms (and, eventually, Dads) formed at protest lines in Portland, daring the police to take their breath away.

What interests me most is how the Karens of Palm Beach perform as wolf-moms deployed to fight what conservatives are inclined to call “the nanny state.” This metaphor inconsistently aligns motherhood with a desired freedom. Consider this strange mix of liberation and protection: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear,” said one Palm Beath anti-masker. “Things gotta breathe.” Some readers of this essay were undoubtedly urged, as children, to “let it breathe” at bedtime. The heel-turn and hair-toss rendered this proclamation distinctly parental: “end of discussion,” your mom might have said to you during the nightly underwear check.

As if to collaborate with the metaphor, COVID Spring produced a genre of scolding public signage, chastising readers for selfishness, mixing irrational-seeming rules with the cover of concern. In the absence of consistent, honest, truthful public health directives, especially about masking, the scolds chose wildly-unscientific “urban etiquette” – perhaps even mother-wit – that enables COVID-denial.

Take the mixed messages of my local farmer’s market. They perform vigilance while failing to provide safety or support. Originally indoors, the market has moved to stalls on an “Active Street” delineated for social distancing. The market’s signs prohibit smoking and eating on premises “to prevent the spread of disease”— though these rules, as written, do precisely nothing to halt coronavirus. (It is not the eating or drinking that’s the problem — if they write to prevent shoppers from lingering, they should say so. Writing “no accordion jam sessions” would have the same effect.) Signs at the intersections warn you to keep distance and enjoy the limited company of someone from your “household.” (Non-cohabitating couples ought to consider celibacy). The benches in the park are roped off to prevent sitting, as though coronavirus efficiently enters the body through a clothed anus. (Injured or otherwise impaired human bodies will have to find another way to avoid being housebound, the disabling condition that the ADA militated against in the 1980s.) Water bottle refillers and hamstring-stretch bars are roped off with police caution tape on the rails-to-trails. (Our bodies will be disciplined, if not in the way our resolution to jog more intended.)

The market isn’t the end of it. An apartment building down the street has a NO VISITORS sign on the door. A church around the corner assures congregants, in a warning on the gate, that they may check driver’s licenses to ensure that pew-mates live together. Meanwhile, a Twitter acquaintance boasts that her children haven’t stepped into the hallway of her condo building since March 9. Others provide tickers of how many days since they last touched another human being. Here we see the limitations of the term humblebrag: what does one call it when you brag about taking up so little space? And how does this state-deployed vision of “maternalized” concern inhibit our ability to collectivize?

These problems aren’t new. If you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, you might remember the purity anxiety of the AIDS panic, and hear how it haunts the Karens of Social Distancing. The fantasy of zero-risk migrated from right to left between AIDS and COVID. The Karens rely on a notion of equivalent, distributed risk – mistaking the sidewalk for San Quentin – to enforce new social norms. These fantasies abandon the vulnerable and enable the malicious.

Think of this image, which appeared on the website of the Jefferson City Medical Group before shifting to social media. The denotative meaning is that masks do not work; it simultaneously enables anti-masking Karen and her sister, the hausfrau of social distancing. Because the mask promises 75% reduction in new cases, it is simply not enough. The refusal to accept anything more than 0% risk has made it more possible to refuse anything less than 100%.

Harm reduction, not abstinence, will burrow us out of these holes, and collectivize us, too. Sutured together by fantasies of the absolute, the Karens of Coronavirus evince a massive cultural failing. A nation of angry individualists fibrillates – agitated, atomized – after months of erratic public health guidance has left them to fill the vacuum of the collective. But it is not parenting they need, since the family has always been too small to sustain the world. To that world, I commend the wisdom of post-2016 New Orleans graffiti: only everyone can save us now. 

Jennie Lightweis-Goff teaches in Mississippi and China, but is most at home in New Orleans. She doesn’t know what ‘shelter in place’ means.