The ‘Karen’ stereotype is all the rage at the moment. The label has been floating around the internet for a while, but it took off in 2020. It recently entered the consciousness of mainstream Australia when video of the ‘Bunnings Karen’—a conspiracy theorist who refused to wear a mask— went viral.

‘Bunnings Karen’ garnered the attention of traditional media outlets and even Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. For those out of the loop, the woman’s name was not actually ‘Karen’. Anyone (or perhaps just any woman) may be called ‘a Karen’ within the scope of the meme.

Who is ‘Karen’?

The label is typically associated with the kind of person who gets into a confrontation with a hospitality worker then asks to ‘speak to the manager’. Urban Dictionary defines ‘Karen’ as follows:

The stereotypical name associated with rude, obnoxious and insufferable middle aged white women.

Karens take everything wrong with the typical over entitled western woman and crank it up by several thousand percent. They are a mutated subspecies that descends from the Soccer Mom, and have many of their traits. Such as a short temper, a crown bowl haircut, an unnecessarily large SUV to take her kids to soccer practice and be a menace on the road, etc etc. But Karens have developed their own unique characteristics /antics as well. Including but not limited to;

-Reveling in making the life or retail workers a living hell by constantly making a scene over nothing and demanding to “speak to the manager” (a near universal battle cry among Karens).

-Threatening to sue someone for a minor misdemeanor they may or may not have committed and may or may not have even involved Karen at all. …

-Being a part of the anti-vax crowd…

If you call a Karen, ‘a Karen’, you might get sued by that ‘Karen’ in defamation

Whether said in jest or otherwise, arguably, a pejorative label like ‘Karen’ could be defamatory. Defamation is a tort of strict liability, meaning that you can be liable for defamation irrespective of what you intended.

Defamation laws aims to protect our reputation. A description of a person may be defamatory if it damages that person’s reputation in some way. Courts draw on various tests to determine whether a certain meaning is defamatory. They ask whether the description exposes them to ‘hatred, contempt or ridicule’; or ‘tends to lower’ the person in the eyes of the ordinary, reasonable person; or causes the person to be ‘shunned and avoided’.

Although mere gratuitous abuse is not defamatory, if a description exposes a person to more than a trivial degree of ridicule, it may also be defamatory. For example, to call a professional tennis player ‘the worst tennis player in the world’ may be defamatory. To say that a woman made a drunken spectacle of herself by proposing to her boyfriend while singing karaoke may be defamatory. In one famous case, a film director complained that a critic called him ‘hideously ugly’. The judge said:

I must say I am doubtful whether to call a person ´hideously ugly’ exposes that person to ridicule, but I have come to the conclusion that it is likely to lead ordinary reasonable people to shun the plaintiff, despite the fact that being hideously ugly is no reflection on a person’s character or good reputation. For that reason, albeit with hesitation, I hold that to call a person ´hideously ugly’ is defamatory.

In our view, depending on the context, to call a person ‘a Karen’ is potentially defamatory.

A person who is sued for calling a Karen ‘a Karen’ may be able to argue various defences. Australian law treats ‘truth’ as a defence called ‘justification’. But the burden of proving truth would fall on the person defending the case, and this may be a difficult task. There is also a defence of honest opinion that could protect some commentators, but it may not be available to your typical Karen critics.

What about defamation law reform?

In the same month that the Bunnings Karen video took off, Australian governments agreed to reform Australia’s defamation laws. The proposed changes include a new requirement that defamation cause ‘serious harm’ in order to be actionable. The intent behind this particular change is to get rid of more trivial defamation cases that are consuming court resources.

If a person is called ‘a Karen’ then sues in defamation, she might be defeated by an argument that she did not suffer ‘serious harm’. On the other hand, that outcome is not guaranteed. What constitutes ‘serious harm’ is not defined in the proposed legislation. If past experience is anything to go by, courts are likely to consider that the bar for ‘seriousness’ is easy to overcome.

What does this mean for you?

Before you call a Karen ‘a Karen’, think carefully about whether you want to be sued by a Karen.