By now, most of us are well acquainted with the “Karen” meme.
It’s not a flattering concept, to be sure. And yet somehow it feels unjust to tar an entire name because of some unfortunate examples. Most people probably know people named Karen who are wonderful, cool, easygoing and a joy to be around.
In the spirit of sticking up for all the great Karens out there, here are examples of several Karens who do their name proud. Most of them are real, but a couple of fictional Karens deserve a nod for the positive things they’ve done for Karenhood.
Karen O: For a badass refutation of the meme, look no further than dynamic Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. Her band’s Fever to Tell stands as one of the seminal albums in 21st century alternative music, and its hit single, “Maps,” has been as enduring as it has been influential. An extended break for the band has seen O branch out into solo work and successful collaborations (including her Grammy-nominated work with Danger Mouse). O has also conquered the world of composing scores and songs for films, notching an Oscar nomination (for “The Moon Song” from Her) and a Golden Globe nod (for the Where the Wild Things Are score). Throughout her work, O has embodied the ideas of fierce intelligence, uncompromising independence and a commitment to not taking the easy road. A brilliant artist and influential role model for women in rock, Karen O is the fiery refutation of the Karen meme.
Karen Black: One of the pioneering 1970s Scream Queens, the indefatigable Karen Black had more than 200 film and television credits under her belt when she died in 2013 at the age of 74. While Black appeared in some prestige projects in her career, including her Oscar-nominated turn in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces, as well as Easy Rider, The Great Gatsby (opposite Robert Redford), The Day of the Locust and Nashville, for many movie fans, Black is best remembered for her trailblazing roles in cinematic horror productions. Movies like The Pyx, Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings and Killer Fish might not have been high art, but they established Black as a cult heroine of genre cinema that kept her the star of late night television reruns for decades to come. As she moved into her 40s, Black remained as busy as ever, taking roles in a variety of movie and television projects, becoming the epitome of the Working Actress, not being snobbish about material, genre or medium. She remained busy right up until her death, even revisiting her horror roots with a role in rocker Rob Zombie’s 2003 indie splatterfest House of 1000 Corpses. With a diverse and long-lasting career, Black was the ultimate Hollywood survivor.
Karen Starr (a/k/a Power Girl): At times, this powerful comic book heroine has received more attention for her imposing cleavage than the numerous attributes that have made her a mainstay of DC’s line. And possibly her origins weren’t entirely promising. Introduced in the mid-1970s as the “Earth 2 Supergirl,” the future Karen Starr popped up as the cousin of the Golden Age Superman (her rocket took a lot longer to reach Earth from the doomed Krypton). Powergirl became a core part of the mid-70s Justice Society of America revival that ran through several titles, also regularly participating in the annual Justice League/Justice Society team-up. While Powergirl was one of the strongest members of the Justice Society, Karen Starr often seemed tentative in her personal life, and writers struggled to craft a persona for Karen that was distinct from that of her famous Earth 1 counterpart. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, Power Girl was integrated into DC’s main continuity, while a variety of writers struggled to come up with a new origin for her. But more interestingly, as both Powergirl and Karen Starr, she emerged as a strong, forceful personality, unwilling to compromise her strength or to rein in her confident attitude, even if others found her abrasive. Powergirl became a major hero, while Karen Starr thrived as a successful software entrepreneur. When Powergirl joined the JSA revival in the late ’90s, she was as strong-willed and forceful as ever, eventually becoming the team leader and serving as a role model and mentor for the group’s young heroines. Overcoming iffy origins and a cheesecake presentation, Karen Starr/Powergirl stands as one of the most powerful heroes in the DC canon.
Professor Karen Timberlake: Author of highly regarded chemistry textbook General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry: Structures of Life, Professor Timberlake is too busy training the next generation of scientists to have time to traffic in the stereotypes of the Karen meme.
Karen Carpenter: The voice of a string of big hit singles by sibling duo The Carpenters in the 1970s, Karen Carpenter’s smooth, crystalline contralto and wide range garnered her widespread admiration, even if cred-obsessed music world hipsters sneered at the duo, whose image came off as hopelessly square and squeaky clean. But that surface impression was belied by some rather adventurous choices on their albums, with Karen’s impassioned vocals intertwining with her brother’s deceptively sophisticated arrangements to embody some of the best of 1970s soft rock. Beset by personal demons, Karen Carpenter didn’t live to see the retrospective critical re-evaluation of the Carpenters oeuvre, with the duo’s overall quality and especially Karen’s timeless performances taking their place in the 20th century music pantheon. But with indelible classics like “Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Superstar” and “Top of the World” as a legacy, Karen Carpenter’s contributions to popular music will be long remembered.
Karen Allen: After launching to attention in 1978’s hit comedy Animal House, Karen Allen had an admirable Hollywood run, working with big names like Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and Jeff Bridges. In her signature role, she stole attention from star Harrison Ford as the feisty Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, setting a standard for Indiana Jones leading ladies that no other actress could match. Allen remained a reliable screen presence, balancing indie and studio pictures, well into the ’90s. At which point the actress made the choice to prioritize family over her career. She didn’t exactly turn her back on acting, but after relocating to western Massachusetts, her choices were driven by her family’s schedule. She’d occasionally pop down to New York for a role, or take a part in a production filming close to home. But the actress had no problem turning down roles which would have disrupted her family life, resulting in occasional gaps in her filmography. Not that she was idle during those periods, having founded a couple of successful businesses in her adopted town. Allen has remained selective about her work ever since, occasionally making a big screen splash (she was one of the best parts of the 2008 Indiana Jones revival, as game for the highly physical action as she’d been 26 years earlier), while also turning up in well-regarded indies or the occasional television project. Always radiating strength and intelligence, Allen has set the example of taking the entertainment industry on her own terms that many other actresses have since followed.
Karen Mackenzie: As embodied by the irrepressible Michele Lee, Karen Fairgate Mackenzie was the beating heart of Knots Landing throughout its 14-season run, appearing in every single one of its 344 episodes (plus a reunion miniseries). While she had a host of challenges to face over the course of the series, Karen always stood tall as the kind of friend, neighbor, wife, mother, aunt or community pillar anyone would be glad to have in their life. When a character in a latter day episode ribbed Karen’s unfailing positivity by calling her a “Pollyanna,” Karen not only accepted the label, she claimed it proudly and defiantly. And in a primetime soap opera landscape filled with some of the most depraved souls a viewer could imagine, having an unfailingly decent and sympathetic character like Karen as the gentle center of Knots Landing was almost revolutionary. She wasn’t perfect, she had her flaws and blind spots, and even struggled with painkiller addiction. But she was always relatable, a entry point for viewers into the heightened drama of the show. Much of that was down to Lee, who infused a lot of herself into this signature role. It meant that Karen was equally believable, whether she was engulfed in one of the wilder plots of the Peak Primetime Soap Era of the ’80s, or was in a more down-to-earth domestic story more typical of the show’s earliest and final seasons. Lee even nabbed a Primetime Emmy Nomination in 1982 for playing Karen, one of the few primetime soap performers and characters of that era to achieve that recognition. It was a simple equation: without Karen as its anchor and moral compass, there was no Knots Landing. No one was better suited to the task.
Karen Page: The comic book version of Karen Page is probably more tragedy than triumph. She went from being the secretary/love interest of Daredevil’s secret identity, to Hollywood actress, to junkie, to community pillar, to supervillain casualty. She was killed several years ago, but in comic books that can’t last forever. More interesting is the version of Karen that appeared in the Netflix adaptation of Daredevil, as portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll. Karen started out as something of a mess, dealing with personal struggles not unlike what her print counterpart endured. But this version of Karen soon emerged as one of the linchpins of Netflix’s Defenders mini-universe. She still started out as secretary to Matt Murdoch and his legal partner Foggy Nelson, but in this incarnation served as the lawyers’ social conscience. Her crusading for justice led her to a career as an investigative journalist, where she faced down some of the nastiest crooks in Netflix Marvel New York and lived to tell the tale. By the Daredevil finale, Karen had reunited with Matt and Foggy, the trio poised to start a new chapter in defending the weak and helpless of Hell’s Kitchen. While she battled a host of deadly challenges and heartrending personal demons, Karen ultimately emerged as a strong, self-sufficient champion of the underdog.
Karen Fukuhara: Meet your action hero for the modern age. Karen Fukuhara caught attention just four years ago, playing Katana in comic book adaptation Suicide Squad, a left field hit. Much of the movie was something of a hash, but Fukuhara stood out as the sword-wielding heroine assigned to help ride roughshod over the team of supervillains sent on a potentially suicidal mission. Fukuhara’s role wasn’t huge, but she made a strong impression with her fluid movements, first rate navigation of complicated fight choreography and fierce attitude. Fukuhara has found a much better home for her gifts on another comic book adaptation, Amazon’s The Boys, now in its second season. Fukuhara has scaled the intimidating challenge of playing a mute character on a show noted for its wry dialogue. Not only has she nailed that assignment, she’s made the damaged Kimiko the most expressive part of the ensemble, using her dazzling eyes, precisely chosen movements and ability to convey complex emotion via economic expression to stand out among the louder characters around her. And when the show sets Kimiko loose, Fukuhara demonstrates every time that she’s as capable a badass action hero as any of the guys around her. If there’s any brainpower left in Hollywood, they’ll craft a big screen vehicle to spotlight this compelling actress/action hero sooner rather than later.
Karen Moncrieff: Soap opera fans of the late ’80s and early ’90s might remember Moncrieff, an expressive actress whose dark hair and intense eyes made her a standout in a daytime world often overrun with interchangeable blonde starlets. The soap world didn’t necessarily do well by the actress, though, stranding her in the “victim/psycho” roundelay common for female characters who weren’t part of a core family. She continued her acting career throughout the ’90s, with a string of guest roles in some drab television dramas. With the dawn of the new millennium, though, Moncrieff boldly took her creative destiny into her own hands, trading in the limitations of a journeyman acting career to try her hand as an indie auteur. Moncrieff grabbed attention with her debut as a director and writer; Blue Car might not have been a showy film spectacle, but its small scale, very human story of a young woman finding her voice earned strong critical notices and an Independent Spirit nomination for Moncrieff’s screenplay. Since, Moncrieff has split her time between film and television projects, demonstrating an admirable commitment to artistic freedom. She’s made a couple more indie features, while notching directing credits on high profile television projects, including popular series Six Feet Under and 13 Reasons Why, and the adaptation of the teen lit classic Petals on the Wind. Moncrieff’s successful second act stands as a strong rebuke to Hollywood’s tendency to pigeonhole and stifle women’s voices.