September 3, 2021

The evolution of middle-aged white women into fearsome spectres of villainy has been just over a year in the making. It started in Central Park last May, when a woman named Amy Cooper was filmed making a 911 call in which she claimed that a black man was threatening her life. This 40-second video hit the internet at almost exactly the same time as another one — the one capturing the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

These two incidents were connected by neither geography, subject matter, or substance; the first was a tense but ultimately toothless conflict between two neurotic New Yorkers in which nobody got hurt, while the second captured not just a horrific tragedy but a gross abuse of police power. It didn’t matter: within hours, the two viral moments had fused in the public consciousness to create a monster, literally. She was a boogeyman spawned on social media, one we loathed and feared in equal measure.

And because we live in the age of movies spawned by memes, she’s coming soon to a cinema near you. A bedraggled and atrociously-hairstyled Taryn Manning will be playing a villainous white woman who antagonises the sweet and blameless black family who’s just moved in down the street. She’s the embodiment of all evil, the manager-calling bigot next door, the proud owner of a soap dispenser emblazoned with the confederate flag. Her name, of course — and the movie’s — is Karen.

You don’t have to see Karen (and based on the trailer, it looks like a pile of hot garbage) to know how it will end: the villainess will come to a brutally but suitably violent end, and we’ll all learn an important, even life-changing lesson about embracing diversity and equity — lest one end up disemboweled by a wine opener.

Manning herself believes that Karen will pack a powerful, even global punch: “I felt a social responsibility to take on this role,” she told Deadline. “Even if I had to play the villain to effect change around the globe, then I was more than willing to step into the role… It’s time for change, and for me to be a part of the bigger picture meant a lot to me.”

Alas, Hollywood has but one “Karen” to cast. But for white women who yearn to effect change by embracing their own inner villain, two new books offer a way forward. Nova Reid’s The Good Ally and Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism, both published this month, invite white women everywhere into a new, exciting role: that of the bad guy.

“I felt like I was being eaten alive by a pack of wolves,” Reid writes early on in her book. But the feeding frenzy she describes isn’t a brutal, racist attack; it’s how she felt after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, fielding calls and emails from people who wanted to hire her as a diversity consultant. The tragedy in Minneapolis triggered an international wave of reckoning, and being recognised as an expert in her field, people turned to Reid for help. And those wolves? White women. Entitled, hungry, snarling.

The white feminist antagonist, inflicting countless harms in her desperation to do good appears in both Reid and Zakaria’s books — but it’s in Against White Feminism that the critique is sharpened to a point. Not that readers should feel attacked, mind you — “White women must not feel that the critique of whiteness within feminism is some crude intimidation tactic meant to silence them altogether,” Zakaria writes, even as she insists on the importance of denouncing “those who cling to exclusionary histories, stories, and forms”. (So, you may be denounced, but don’t let it intimidate you.) Reid, meanwhile, assures her reader: “Any discomfort you feel is temporary and pales in comparison to what Black people and People of Colour often have to experience on a daily basis.”

In reading these books, Reid and Zakaria become an omniscient authority, one who has never met you but knows you better than you know yourself. Zakaria explains that people of colour understand white women fluently, as a matter of necessity: this is the natural outgrowth of “the need to survive in a white-run world”. In practice, this means that Zakaria spends much of the book ascribing intent and motive to the behaviours of various white women; needless to say, her interpretation is not flattering.

White women’s reactions — or in some cases, what Zakaria imagines those reactions might be — are presented in turn as expressions of fragility, of defensiveness, of grasping hunger for power. For instance, Zakaria was married young to an abusive husband, a terrible situation from which she ultimately fled. But when the opportunity comes to tell this story to a group of friends, she assumes that this is beyond the scope of any white woman’s experience. In fact, she doesn’t tell the story at all, lest the other women “demote me mentally below the women who do the real work of feminism”.

“I know that my companions’ world is split into women of colour who have ‘stories’ to tell, and white women who have power and an inherently feminist outlook,” she writes. Remarkably, she’s so certain of this she never actually tests her hypothesis; instead she tells a shortened version of her life story and then quietly resents her friends for the rest of the night, first for their imagined lack of empathy, and then for failing to notice when she pays more than her fair share of the bill. (Zakaria, unlike her “prettily dressed, slightly soused, fashionably woke” companions, had refrained from drinking — a decision for which she also imagines she’s being judged.)

Zakaria is deeply suspicious of white women, perhaps reasonably so, but it’s hard to separate her historical analysis of white feminism from the grudges that animate the book’s more personal sections. Her anecdotes often include snide observations about other women’s physical appearances; Zakaria is antagonised by a “smug white professor” seen “duly sporting the scarves and baubles of the well-travelled,” or a “willowy blonde” with her hair in braids. And while she assures us that white women need not feel attacked, this may prove difficult even for the most open-minded reader; the words “white women” appear in Zakaria’s book 161 times (the book is 245 pages long.)

Sometimes, the entire case for this or that thing being fundamentally “white feminist” seems to rest on the presence of an individual white woman somewhere in the equation. One chapter, titled “White Feminists and Feminist Wars,” seeks to frame the War on Terror as a white feminist exercise primarily through the lens of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and its female CIA agent, Maya, who was instrumental in the operation’s success.

Here, too, Zakaria’s personal experience ends up dominating the narrative. She dwells at length on the screening she attended of Zero Dark Thirty at a movie theater in Indiana, where the crowd “repeatedly cheered” at the sight of “a brown man being waterboarded”, then gave the movie a standing ovation while Zakaria wept despondently in her seat. (Sidenote: I know the notion of a bunch of red-state yokels cheering for torture scenes before leaping to its feet to applaud the end of Zero Dark Thirty — in fact a pretty meditative work that in no way glamorises or glosses over the horrors of the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden — may hew believably to certain ugly stereotypes about the American midwest, but if you’ve ever actually seen a movie in the US, this scene is so out of keeping with how audiences usually behave that it’s hard to believe it’s entirely factual.)

Amid this myopic focus on a fictional CIA agent and a handful of real-life female soldiers, one could almost forget that the American war on terror was enacted, strategised and fought almost exclusively by men. And indeed, overlooking the role of men in lieu of vilifying white women is a recurrent theme in Against White Feminism. In one chapter, Zakaria blames “self-declared feminists” after an article she wrote for Dissent magazine is met with an Islamophobic response — even though the ugly backlash was apparently fuelled by a male editor.

In another, she recounts showing up to an event that was billed to her as a speaking engagement, but turned out, humiliatingly, to be a sort of global bazaar at which she was supposed to man a table of Pakistani handicrafts. Zakaria was urged to attend by two friends, both men, who evidently misinformed her about the nature of the event — but rather than blame them, her contempt falls squarely on the women in attendance. She rages at the organisers, at the white women drinking wine and buying crafts, and particularly at the “Black and brown women doing the bidding of my handler and others of her kind”.

Zakaria is at her strongest when she zooms out to a systemic distance, such as critiquing misguided efforts to support women overseas, where a lack of cultural literacy led to interventions that were more intrusive than useful. But even as Zakaria reasonably criticises various movements for “imposing the goals of white, Western feminists upon women who were neither white nor Western and did not necessarily share their concerns”, the bad actors at fault were massive organisations: the UN Global Alliance for Clean Stoves in one case, the Gates Foundation in another.

And in some cases, her anger at the “dictatorial feminism” practised by these would-be do-gooders is oddly reminiscent of the right-wing critiques that have lately proliferated surrounding the failed American operation in Afghanistan: both Zakaria and Tucker Carlson have similar things to say about the usefulness of neoliberalism in a nation ruled by tribal politics and religion, and its attempted imposition of Western gender roles on Afghan women. At any rate, it’s hard to see what the individual white women who make up her readership are meant to do with this information.

So, where does this leave Karen?

Out of commission, probably. If she reads Against White Feminism, she’ll be too busy wallowing neck-deep in self-flagellating guilt to get busy making a difference, or indeed even have the faintest idea how she’d begin to do so. If she takes the advice of The Good Ally, she’ll be journaling through her awokening with the evangelical zeal of the alcoholic trying to white-knuckle his way through the early days of sobriety (“The magnetic undercurrent of white supremacy is a force to be reckoned with and will tempt you to go back to your comfort zone when it gets too hard,” Reid warns.) Neither book offers concrete solutions; indeed, one gets the impression that asking for them would be just another expression of white feminist entitlement.

But that’s fine. Readers don’t buy these books because they want to be efficient activists. They buy them to marinate in the vision they sell — because while white feminism probably isn’t to blame for every last one of the world’s ills, there’s a particular breed of guilty white liberal woman quite eager to believe it is. Maybe it’s because, if you look at it just right, it suggests a victory of sorts: that feminism has moved beyond mere empowerment and into the realm of actual power, that some women have shed the mantle of victims to become formidable villains in their own right. After all, women can’t ever be truly equal to men until we’ve not only achieved power, but abused it, using it to crush those beneath us. Orwell once said that “if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

These books take that picture to the next level: imagine the exhilarating power of having your own dainty foot inside the boot.