When you hear someone telling a woman, “don’t be so loud” and “get out of the way”, your gut instinct might be that you’re in the presence of a reconstituted misogynist. Perhaps the ghost of Bernard Manning has popped back to put on a show. But no: these are actually the words of alleged feminists, speaking on a BBC podcast, on the subject of how white women can avoid being “Karens”.
The obvious problem with the question (asked by host Sadia Azmat of her two white guests, Amelia Dimoldenberg and Dr Charlotte Riley) is that it supposes being declared a Karen is some kind of just process, rather than a reflexive jab of contempt that can be aimed at any woman over 35.
When Dimoldenberg’s immediate answer was that women should “educate themselves”, I wonder what kind of “education” she thinks would have helped the woman in this viral clip, who was pursued to her home by a man who has a history of calling people racist as a prank. Maybe if she’d read one bell hooks book, he’d somehow have intuited that she deserved to be left alone.
Of course, no one who says “educate yourself” actually means “educate yourself”: that would involve getting into the gritty stuff of intra-movement controversies and ultimately having to use your own judgement to decide what’s right. “Educate yourself” means “mouth this catechism and keep your head down”.
There’s always been a place in public life for the woman who says other women should shut up. Sometimes she has a column in the Mail. Sometimes she’s the UK’s first female prime minister. And sometimes she’s calling herself a feminist, calling other women out (this, I guess, is easier than calling out men, who are quite scary).
All this adds up to a pretty embarrassing scene, where a conversation about racism devolves into two white women talking about white women. How this helps to centre black voices or redress historic exploitation, God knows. What it does do, however, is throw a very welcome bone to the hard Right, which knows just how to get at the nourishing marrow of a culture war. A clip like this will keep anti-BBC, reverse-racism polemicists in material for weeks.
And the women in it get abused, inevitably – which, while it has a Dante-esque symmetry (justify sexist abuse, get sexist abuse), is really just grim. There is no formula that will make you safe, no amount of attacking other women that saves you from being attacked. We’re all Karens in the end. Every wicked queen was a Snow White until her crows’ feet came in. The problem, for women like those in the podcast, is understanding that the game is rigged before you start to lose.