Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter and a character in Jane Eyre Gets Real, has observed the recent spate of “Karens” with interest. Outings of the Karen–typically a middle-aged, middle-class woman with a sculpted bob and delusions of grandeur–seem to appear in the media daily. While some Karens may indeed be over the top in their aggrieved expressions of complaint, Hester wonders if this sudden obsession with Karens is not a subtle attack on outspoken women. Are Karens the modern equivalent of “shrews”, a term first applied to women in the 14th century?
In medieval times the shrew, a mouse-like animal, was thought to have a wicked influence on people. Eventually the name became slang was for an obnoxious woman who, with the flaunting of her aggressive opinions, was breaking both man-made and Biblical laws–which in the case of Hester’s Puritan New England were one and the same. William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew culminates with the hero subduing a fiery heroine, most famously portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor; the popular 90’s film 10 Things I Hate About You gave this theme a teenage rift, by setting it in an American high school with a feminist Kate (Julia Stiles). Hester herself was branded as an adulteress, suspected of witchcraft yet never called a shrew, not even by her worst enemies.
Today’s Karens may be plastered over social media, their worst moments held up for public display over and over, at the touch of a Replay button. Shrews in Hester’s day might have to wear a “scold’s bridle” (an iron muzzle which enclosed the head), then be paraded through town, put into stocks where they might be pelted with garbage even endure lashes from a whip. FYI: the scold’s bridle came with a “bridle-bit” slid into the offending woman’s mouth then pressed down onto the tongue to flatten it; this served to prevent her from speaking or “scolding”. She couldn’t utter a word.