The Meaning of the Karen Meme: Includes Exclusive Interview With The Creator

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Make us think and we’ll listen. Make us feel and we’ll pre-order. It’s common knowledge to game and tech developers. They want us talking about their upcoming products. Without saying a word in the commercial, Karen says, “Nintendo’s got a new system coming out. If you don’t know, now you know, players of games we call video.” In a superficial sense, the Karen meme is free advertising for Nintendo’s new console.

“So much of the identity of gamers and game cultures was and is manufactured by marketing. The falsity of advertising was exactly what I was hoping to get at [when I created the Karen meme],” Joe Matar, Karen’s creator, tells me via a Reddit handle. [A previous version of the article included the Reddit handle. Its inclusion did not add anything to the piece, so it has been removed.] From this perspective, the Karen meme says something about Nintendo’s marketing that the company doesn’t want to hear.

Who Is Karen? Don’t Ask

As a meme, Karen has reached its fever pitch. The internet is asking, “Who is Karen? Is she merely representative of the long-outdated antisocial gamer? What’s her story?” Nothing if not self-referential, the internet is also answering.

Calling Karen a “shut-in,” as I did in a previous article, is a “strangely negative interpretation” that doesn’t do her justice, according to redditor AdamManHello.

The meme’s creator agrees. “I’m really surprised by people [who] saw the joke and thought it was… shaming antisocial gaming types,” says Joe Matar. [Updated 10/31/2016:  Joe Matar finds the term “creator of the meme” to be hyperbolic. “To my mind, I didn’t create Karen, seeing as the creation is the combination of a real person, a character in an advertisement, and my joke… The meme encompasses the evolution of Karen beyond my initial joke.” In other words, the meme belongs to the hive mind.]

If Karen is more than a new form of the old anti-social gamer cliche, what is she? And to what does the Karen meme owe her popularity? AdamManHello has a simple explanation for the popularity. “I just think it was the combination of Nintendo’s weirdly funny and unlikely scenario starring a cute girl who is at the helm of the whole awkward thing.”

The real question is not “Who” but “What.” What is Karen?

“I don’t see Karen as a real person at all,” says the meme’s creator. Karen is not the person in the Switch commerical. In fact, the character she plays is officially unnamed. The actress who plays Karen is as much Karen as a cosplayer dressed as Mario is Mario.

The Karen meme fails if the actress gets doxed against her will. To the NintendoKaren subreddit’s credit, the Karen-appreciating community has remained civil, respectful, and conscious of memes’ powers to destroy as well as to create. Redditors like AdamManHello understand the important distinction between the meme and the actress. If some misguided fan were to dox her, it would be a terrible look for the meme-forging hive mind.

Gamers’ Manic Pixie Dream Meme

The character portrayed in the commercial is “just an advertising prop in an altogether unbelievable world,” says Joe Matar, the meme’s creator.

Karen is a fantasy. Karen exists solely in the fevered imaginations of ad-writers and meme-perpetuators to teach Nintendo’s broodingly soulful demographic to embrace the Nintendo Switch and its infinite mysteries and adventures. Karen is a manic pixie dream girl of the mute variety. She only exists in the hive-mind.

Karen’s satirical appeal is that, for different reasons, she is unrealistic for both Nintendo itself and the real world. Does Nintendo really believe someone who lives in a luxurious studio across the street from a rooftop party would interrupt the single-player game she’s wrapped up in to go play two-player games (and not demonstrably feel like a tactless idiot while doing so)?

If she could speak, what would she say when she arrives at the party? “Hey, everybody, so I live across the street and, funny story, I was playing Mario on this new console I got when you called and waved to me and, well, my new toy is sort of a transformer, hybrid handheld console thing, so I brought it with me. Don’t worry, it’s two-player. I know there are way more than two of us but the rest of you can watch while one person from your group plays games with me on this rooftop across the street from my apartment which would be way more comfortable and a whole lot less noisy. I hope you all think I’m bubbly and adorable and not just some tactless idiot.”

Only in your dreams, Nintendo. If Karen exists, she is smarter than you think she is.

Mario as Karen Alpha

Advertising expert Rob Frankel has set out ten laws for branding success. The third law is the most instructive for purveyors of interactive entertainment media. It says, “Advertising grabs their minds. Branding gets their hearts.” Nintendo’s ad campaigns of the late 1980s and early 1990s make clear the company’s grasp of gearing both advertising and branding to children.

Need proof? I’ve got one word for you. Mario.

Which Mario do you see immediately? Is it the retired hockey player (Lemieux), or the tragically underappreciated stand-up comedian (Cantone), or the actor who has actually done a lot of work since his days on Saved By the Bell (Lopez)? If you were a kid with a TV in the NES and SNES eras, you probably see Mario the plumber in the red hat, red shirt, blue overalls, and white gloves.

If you played a lot of video games in your youth, you might even identify with Nintendo’s Mario. You’ve known him since you were a kid. You’ve been through a lot together, you and Mario.

A classic commercial for Super Mario 1, 2, and 3 proves Nintendo understands cartoonish iconic branding. It begins with kids dressed in the same color (blue, black, white, or red) chanting with nationalistic enthusiasm, “Mario! Mario!” The camera pans out to reveal a satellite image of Mario’s iconic face stamped on the United States.

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“Nintendo! Now you’re playing with power,” proclaims the ad. The irony of the old NES ad campaigns targeted to children is that Nintendo was asserting the real power — power to shape kids’ imaginations, power to mold the zeitgeist, power to leave its mark on the world and dominate an industry for a decade.

Nintendo wants the Switch console, not Karen, to be the star of the show. Gamers didn’t choose Mario. Nintendo chose Mario for gamers. Karen is a gamer-elected satirical Nintendo icon for the modern era. Karen is part of a tradition of modifying corporate properties to speak truth to power. We fail to consider the full picture when we relegate Karen to the status of a simple meme.