Little Fires Everywhere: Clawing for Power with ‘Karen’

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘Karen’ lately. The name has become a meme representing middle-aged entitled white women everywhere, women who are clueless to their privilege yet use it (often cruelly) on the regular. I feel that the force behind this behavior people scraping for power wherever they can find it, and Little Fires Everywhere typifies this point brilliantly.

Little Fires is largely centered around a character named Elena, who’s a white upper-class woman in the 90’s. She is a conservative woman with a lot of privilege, who uses it freely to get what she wants. But it’s not that simple. She wields her shreds of power with ferocity because she feels disempowered in her own life, aching for the experiences she dreams of; but trapped by the very culture of conformity that she actively holds up, one where she plays ‘dutiful wife.’ Because of this, she cannot wield power and privilege the ways that men do; as she cannot behave like a man and still successfully fulfill the role she’s chosen.

Women are culturally conditioned to make ourselves small, so our power plays are often more subtle, more passive-aggressive, more behind the scenes. Not that men don’t behave in similar ways, subtly manipulative ‘Soft Bois’ are probably just as prevalent as the overly-agro ‘Chads’ of this world – but it’s a completely different dynamic, our culture just treats genders too differently for the respective reactions of the zeitgeist to be the same. 

However, I feel that these varying displays of personality imbalances all stem from the same desire: more power and autonomy.

The Karen meme is all about white women using what little power they have to make things go their way; throwing their weight around at PTA meetings, petulantly asking for the manager, basically bossing around whomever they can. These aren’t the actions of someone who feels in control of their life, these are actions of desperation and fear. It’s not just about being a privileged jerk; it’s also about our playing field being so enmeshed with inequality that even the top players don’t feel like they have the tools to win, so they unconsciously insist on making things even less fair.

Little Fires Everywhere sets Elena up in stark contrast to Mia, a black artist and general nonconformist. Despite her differentness, Mia displays strong self-worth and inner direction, which terrifies Elena – who feels she’s made all of the responsible sacrifices, done everything right, and generally played her role as expected by society. Elena decides to make herself Mia’s landlord on the spot, seemingly as a way to control her; but the move doesn’t work, because Mia’s not playing Elena’s game. 

Much like popular opinion today, Mia doesn’t give AF about the power of Karens, and more importantly, she’s subversive towards the unjust power structures that make ‘Karening’ even possible. The Karens of this world are searching for a way to gain control in a game where we’re pitted against each other, and doing so in a way that’s completely clueless as to their advantages and who their harming – and Mia sees right through it, doesn’t fucking bother with it, and is the more victorious of the two in the end. 

My point is that we live in a society where even people at the tippy-top often don’t feel like they are safe enough to express themselves freely.  They’re doing it to themselves, and then they’re doing it to the rest of us. And most Karens are smushed between other Karens in life and so think their behavior is normal. (Errr, did, before the internet called them out…) This makes confrontation very tricky, as they feel entitled to entitled behavior, it’s just what they know.

Of course, the solution to the problem of Karen lies in dismantling the power structures that she upholds. In life, this looks like confronting them even if it’s not likely to go well. (Chads, Softbois, and plain ol’ racists + bullies too!)

And while we’re working on that, and in an effort towards that, we ought to start applying a much more Mia approach to life, as a culture. We should make it normal to live our truths and stay focused on our passions, even when they’re controversial. (Even if the Karens would kick us out of book club for ‘em.) Empowering ourselves simply by being ourselves fully.

We’ve been abiding by the standards of Karen, and especially the powers she’s prey to, for far too long. 

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