“My husband should be able to straighten this out,” she tells the harried female clerk, after breezing past a long line of patiently waiting guests. “Shall we get him on the phone?”
Forty years before the term “Karen” was coined to describe entitled white women’s may-I-speak-to-your-manager life strategy, Alice is modeling some extraordinary Karening. She is confident that her dial-a-man tactic will work, as it always has before. Only this time it doesn’t. The clerk can’t magically produce more rooms, and she tells Alice if she wants to call her husband it will have to be from a pay phone. The camera lingers on Alice’s face, not angry so much as confused.
It’s a quiet filler scene, but it subtly conveys a lot about white women and privilege. The grand bargain of Alice’s life, in her pre-second-wave feminism era, has been to exchange independence for protection. To always have the dial-a-man option at the ready. If that option no longer confers the privilege it once did, then what is she getting out of the deal?
I had this episode open in one corner of my screen as a different video of a white woman started to go viral: a white woman phoning the police on a black man who’d asked her to leash her dog.
The video of Amy Cooper, the police-phoning dog owner, was a chillingly self-aware performance of privilege: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she warns Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher, who was not threatening her life. “Please send the cops immediately!” she instructs a 911 dispatcher in a voice that’s not so much may-I-speak-to-your-manager as help-me-I-am-in-grave-danger.
Alice in the lobby. Amy in the park. These are vastly different situations, and not just because one happened in a fictionalized world four decades ago and the other happened in our world this week. The implications of siccing the police on a black man under false pretenses are far more horrifying than appealing to male authority to take care of a hotel booking.
But there is a thread of white, female entitlement that runs through both scenes. Alice and Amy Cooper are both damsels in distress-of-their-own-making. Each knows just whom they can dial to save them from inconvenience. One “Karen” calls her man; the other calls The Man.
Amy specifying Christian’s blackness seemed to be strategy, based on the idea that a black man would automatically be considered uniquely dangerous and a white woman uniquely credible. Decades of history have propped up this concept. Just one famous example: In 1931, two rail-riding white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, accused a group of young black men (later dubbed the “Scottsboro Boys”) of assaulting them in a flamboyant story that the judge instructed the jury must be true: “Where the woman charged to have been raped is white,” he said, “there is a strong presumption under the law that she will not and did not yield voluntarily to intercourse with the defendant, a Negro.”
Later, Bates said she’d made it up. She and her co-accuser were covering for traveling unchaperoned, sneaking onto trains and engaging in unmarried sex — behavior that would have been considered unrespectable for women at that time. The audacity of the false accusation showed that Ruby Bates understood her place in an unequal system. Above black men, yet, according to insidious stereotypes, vulnerable to them; below white men, yet symbolically precious to them. And she knew how to manipulate those dynamics to her advantage.
What I loved about “Mrs. America” was how often it explored the nuances of hierarchy: how white women gained access to power via their access to white men, how that power is poisoned and poisonous. The word “privilege” is used a lot, but not how we think of it now. Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA movement has a slogan: Stop Taking Our Privileges. She means, the privilege of being taken care of. Her members don’t have to work. They don’t have to be independent. It is white men’s job to worry for them, to defend them, to create a society that benefits them.
The police don’t exist only protect white women, and they don’t only pose a threat to black men. But you don’t even need have to look past the news of this week to see the grave risks black men face in encounters with law enforcement — and how easily excessive force can be rationalized when there’s no video. White women can access that power via a phone call. And that, too, can become poisonous.
Amy Cooper is an anti-Alice in all outward respects: a working woman with a high-powered job. Presumably, she makes her own hotel bookings. But when she found herself in what she perceived was a distressing situation, she fell back on a time-honored tactic: dial an authority that you suspect will make inconvenience disappear, so long as your complaint is about someone with even less power than you.
In this case, that someone was a black man who was asking her to leash her dog, and Amy, like Alice, miscalculated her ability to Karen her way out of playing by the rules. When she reached for her phone Christian Cooper already had his out, and was filming her.
Soon the footage of Amy was everywhere, and lot of people wanted to speak to her managers.
White women can access that power via a phone call.
And that, too, can become poisonous.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.