The Outside Wild Theory

“Karen” and the Maenads

“Karen” videos and similar viral images project the threat of social breakdown onto spectacles of ranting women – much like the Maenads of ancient Greece.

In recent months, a certain genre of viral video has transfixed the digital collective. The main elements of this genre are:

  1. The video is recorded in a public place.
  2. The central figure in the video is a woman in the midst of an unrestrained emotional outburst.
  3. The secondary figure is an individual, or several, in the role of the “cop”: sometimes literally police, other times civilians who have taken on the role of enforcing public order.
  4. The “cop” is the object of the woman’s rage and/or terror.
  5. The woman also appeals to some form of authority.

The first example that came to prominence was probably the infamous “Central Park Karen” video, in which a white woman with an unleashed dog threatened to call the police on a black man birdwatching in the park who attempted to get her to abide by the park’s leash rules. Obviously, the woman was attempting to appeal to the actual “cops,” which gave rise to the claim that she was placing the man’s life at risk. But within the immediate context of the video, the man was the “cop” in the terminology I’m using here, in that he positioned himself as the enforcer of public order.

A recent video, known as “Trader Joe’s Karen,” exhibits the same basic features. Here is the video with a representative retweet:

In this one, a woman shouts at supermarket employees for asking her to wear a mask in the store. Refusing to use a leash to restrain a dog or refusing to wear a mask to contain one’s droplets: the defiance of public order is fundamentally the same. TJK, in an echo of CPK’s threat to call the police, accuses the store employees of “violating federal law” by demanding she wear the mask.

CPK’s and TJK’s appeals to law and law enforcement are instances of mirroring behavior. Being asked to adhere to the law/rules by someone assuming the position of “cop” leads them to appeal to another (absent) authority. For CPK, this triggered a further mirroring, since the video creator’s appeal to the authority of the public then led to the “calling of her manager” and her firing from her job. Mirroring, then, escalates the conflict rather than resolving it.

These videos appealed to a left-of-center public, since both seemed to illustrate a specific political crisis it is concerned about: in the first case, anti-black racism, and in the second, the refusal to abide by public health rules during the pandemic. However, a new sub-variety of the video genre has emerged out of the recent protests that appeals mainly to right-of-center viewers. The protagonists are still white women shouting or screaming, but the politics are reversed. Examples:

In the first instance above, authority is redoubled in a way that parallels the “Karen” videos. The man recording the video attempts to take up a secondary “cop” role, questioning a white woman’s right to accost black police officers. The woman asserts herself as an authority of sorts as well, a status accorded by being white and opposing racism. The confusion, then, echoes that of the “Karen” videos: who is the real representative of authority here? Who is the real threat to order?

So, what is the appeal of such videos across the political spectrum? Why do they become the perfect stand-ins for generalized crisis?

The Maenads (“raving ones”), or Bacchae, were female followers of the god Dionysus. Greek myth and literature portrays them as the protagonists of the the chaotic dissolution of the social order.

The most famous example is Euripides’s The Bacchae. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is the ostensible representative of authority and law. Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, and ecstasy, is the representative of chaos, who has come to avenge a slander against him on the part of the Thebans. In the course of the play, Pentheus confronts a series of threats to his authority, all emanations of Dionysius: most centrally, the titular Bacchae, the god’s retinue, which eventually includes Pentheus’s own mother. Pentheus’s attempt to rein in the danger is compromised by his fascination with the disturbing Dionysian rites. Eventually, Dionysus tricks him into infiltrating the Maenads by dressing up as one of them. Once he is among them, Dionysus prompts his followers to tear Pentheus limb from limb.

The similarities with the recent viral videos may not be obvious at first, but they are there. First of all, we have a “cop,” a representative of public order, facing off against a threat to that order embodied in “ranting” women. Second of all, we have a gradual confusion of this initial opposition. In the videos, both antagonists lay claim to a certain authority; likewise, in the play, Dionysus can claim a divine authority which supersedes the temporal authority of the king. Pentheus, meanwhile, is repeatedly compromised as the royal family, and ultimately he himself, are drawn into the swirling disorder set in motion by the god. The mirroring we saw in the videos also dominates the play, culminating in Pentheus sharing the mythic fate of his nemesis and cousin Dionysus: the spargamos, or being torn to pieces. This erasure of differences, as the antagonists become each other’s doubles, consummates the collapse of authority. The loss of distinction between order and its opposite, after all, is the ultimate disorder.

So what can we learn from this comparison?

In The Bacchae, the emblem of social breakdown is Agave, daughter of the former king Cadmus and mother of Pentheus, who joins in the Dionysiac frenzy and participates in the murder of her own son. The royal family itself melds with the disorder that besieges it. Similarly, a white woman is the preferred protagonist of these videos because, as is often remarked in “privilege” discourse, she is seen to hold together opposite poles: power and vulnerability, authority and threat to authority, and so on. In this way, due to her ambiguous symbolic position in the collective imagination, she is best positioned to embody the dissolution of boundaries and distinctions.

The recorders and viewers of these videos, like Pentheus, can’t help but be transfixed by the threat to public order they see. They believe that it proves that the danger is “out there,” embodied in the raving women they can’t look away from. But in this fascination, they deny their own part in the looming chaos. The symmetry of the “right-wing” and “left-wing” videos is instructive here. In both cases, the viewers of the video fixate on what they perceive as the harbinger of social collapse: a grotesque embodiment of their political nemesis. But the fact that they mirror each other in this fascination shows they are not immune from the breakdown of differences, even as they try to position themselves (like Pentheus) as mere spectators.

These videos, then, are documents of social breakdown in a deeper sense than their scandalized viewers imagine. They manifest the spiraling conflict of doubles into which we are drawn, in part, through our entrancement by viral images. On the other hand, the ancient Greek theater, dedicated to Dionysus, served a stabilizing function: it released and recontained the risk of dissolution. Likewise, perhaps the consumption of these videos enables a relatively “safe” indulgence of our perverse attraction to the disorder we project onto our enemies.

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