As Kim Kardashian West confirms that Keeping up with the Kardashians (KUTWK) will come to an end in 2021, the very concept of reality television stars comes to the fore. Kate Demolder asks was their foray into the public sphere a calculated entry into the hedonistic descent of the 2000s – or did we, as a culture, manipulate their very essence into something at which we could point and laugh? Furthermore, have they actually done anything wrong?
KUWTK was formed thirteen years ago, in 2007, as an opportunity to introduce TV’s first family to the public and maximise their 15 minutes of fame – the world was still reeling after Kim’s sex tape leak and her father’s subsequent links to the OJ Simpson case – but it quickly became the foundation on which all their future successes were built.[restrict]
image via Instagram
The show was subsequently picked up by E! cable network with Jenner acting as the executive producer. Under her watchful eye, the show provided the framework and context for everything the family did. It championed the Kardashian news cycle, offering continued visibility, and connected them as the world’s most ubiquitous, powerful celebrity brand.
While the first few episodes boasted a scripted corniness only synonymous with canned laughter, the behind-the-scenes nature of the show was infectious in a world when gossip magazines began to fill shelves. The scandal was also omnipresent. Within minutes of the debut episode, Kim had addressed her sex tape, joking that she’d participated because she was “horny and felt like it.” Later, Kris and Kourtney got drunk on tequila and showed up late to their own party, where Khloé threatened to “strangle and beat” Kim with a bat, as 9-year-old Kylie writhed around a pole erected in her parents’ bedroom.
This set the tone for the early seasons of the show, where the core cast of nine navigated as much bickering and bawdy theatrics as the 30-minute time frame would allow. But, at the show’s core was the steadfast familial love that transcended bitter arguments and petty jabs. Each episode drilled down into the love the Kardashians had for one another — a premise in direct opposition to other reality shows at the time in which women were traditionally pitted against each other (The Hills, America’s Next Top Model, The Real Housewives Of Orange County).
“Given daily discourse on the subject, it would seem that one’s feelings on the Kardashians as a brand would be, on a graph, directly correlating to personal cynicism with the Hollywood trope.”
Ratings have shown that younger people – those, on average, more likely to naively emote with role models – are, unsurprisingly, their most uncompromising of fans, with public opinion consistently changing by way of the present storyline. We cried with Kim when her 72-day-old marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries fell apart – culminating in 4.47 million viewers, expanded clothing lines and detailed memoirs – and pushed to know more when Season Four teased the beginning of a new Kar-generation by way of Mason Disick.
So, does a show so scaffolded by public opinion feed us – or do we feed it?
American artist and documentary photographer Lauren Greenfield chronicles our recent obsession with abundance in her 2018 multi-platform project ‘Generation Wealth’. Through first-person interviews, she explores how the US – and Los Angeles, in particular – exports the values of materialism, celebrity culture and social status to every corner of the globe. It examines how The American Dream has been uprooted and reformed in recent decades by way of celebrity comparison, leaving an aftertaste of dissatisfaction for everyone involved. “In my parents’ generation, people used to compare themselves to their neighbours, to the people that they knew, kind of keeping up with the Joneses,” Greenfield told CNBC. “But what’s happened is that now we spend more time with the people we know from television than our real neighbours, so keeping up with the Joneses is now keeping up with the Kardashians,” says Greenfield.
This societal shift – coined by some as ‘Kardashian Kulture’ – paved the way for the self-indulgent nature of the 2010s that brought with it Instagram, filtered selfies and Spanx – products all lauded by the KarJenners, acting as manufactured reflections of ourselves. The ripple effect of this drip-fed materialism had us believe that the women we saw on screen were ‘just like us’ – meaning, our garages should, too, be filled with Bentleys. A lateral consideration of this begs the question, ‘what came first, 00’s greed or the Economic Boom?’, whereas it’s more likely that one actually fed the other. A reckless and trashy time throughout, the 2000’s were framed by the political corruption of the Bush era, the decline of widely-deemed ‘decent’ music, fast-paced communication and vapid pop culture. Environmentalist Al Gore wasn’t voted in, showcasing poignantly our desire for all things disposable – among them, wealth.
image via Twitter
Now, rapacity in a time of extreme fortune is nothing new – but what happens when the bubble bursts? For the average person, corners are cut. But, the Kardashians were never average, and especially not in the early 2010s. In fact, they were at the top of their game while the rest of the world counted pennies. This rise in popularity came by way of viewers, and network bosses, telling the cast that they wanted to see their extreme relationships, lifestyles and spending sprees – which is where the wheels fell off for many fans. But, how much of themselves did we project onto them?
Psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. What we react the strongest to says the most about what we place importance in. For example, if we can’t stand watching sex on TV, this could very well be a reflection of a hidden sexual shame or insecurity we have in ourselves. With that in mind, could it be that we psychologically projected the monstrous excess we no longer had onto the Kardashian stage?
Another reason many questioned the show’s integrity was its total fabrication and blatant inconsistencies. As referenced by The Cut author Mariah Smith in a piece entitled ‘The Fakest Moments on Keeping Up With the Kardashians’, “sometimes it feels like the inconsistencies are so apparent, that they might as well pull a hammer out of their purses and literally break down the fourth wall.” These inconsistencies that also fuelled fans’ distaste – allowing viewers to feel lied to. Thankfully, it was around this time that Snapchat, Instagram and several other video or photo-based social media apps were hitting their popularity peak, meaning that further manufactured content could be harvested for willing fans – however, this time, the content appeared far more authentic, despite being heavily edited to appear as such.
image via Instagram
In addition to this discontent with reality as well as projection, KUTWK also served as a site for investigation into what is or isn’t “feminist”, leaving it open to far more criticism than similar shows with a male-centric audience. A modern shift towards postfeminism (a term fraught with ambiguity, but what this writer believes as relating to or occurring in the period after the feminist movement of the 1970s) in pop culture has turned the tables by way of sexuality, sparking debate whether objectification by choice – i.e. profiting from your allure – is an empowering feminist act. Overt sexuality takes centre stage in most Kardashian dealings, but is it by way of feminist ambiguity and our unconscious policing of women that we hold female public figures to account far more intensely than we do men?
Just last week, actor Chris Evans accidentally uploaded a nude photo of himself, causing the world to empathise and jokingly jeer. Fans of the star flooded social media with press photos of the 39-year-old to hide the picture under reams of content and allow Evans’ mishap to become old news within minutes. In the same week, Emily Ratajkowski released a personal article detailing a photoshoot in which she was coerced to shoot nude. The internet – and indeed, the photographer – reacted differently than when Evans’ photos were leaked, with Jonathan Leder stating by way of Ratajkowski: “This is the girl who was naked in Treats! Magazine, and bounced around naked in Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”
Handled similarly was one of the KarJenner’s most recent scandals – JordanGate. In February of last year, Khloe’s ex Tristan Thompson was found to have been intimate with close family friend Jordyn Woods. The internet found out and berated Jordyn – and only Jordyn – to a point where she felt the only option was to remove herself from the family entirely. Another most interesting example of this is that Caitlin Jenner – whom Kendall and Kylie still refer to as “dad” – received far harsher criticisms when she transitioned, showcasing just how transparent the industry is. Just as the media stereotypes men and women, it also reinforces stereotypical male/female relationships. Men are portrayed as authoritative and independent, while women are illustrated as reliant upon men, and primarily domestic. While the Kardashian women are far from passive, they do correspond with sexual norms and profit from their sexual agency, opening up the discourse, albeit unknowingly.
Female viewers need not resign themselves to distance from women on screen when engaging in subversive viewing. The Kardashians – like all public figures, in this writer’s opinion – should be viewed critically, but not negatively; they can be enjoyed in a revolutionary way when one accepts them as a force for themselves rather than ‘good’ or ‘evil’. They have, as a group and individually, accumulated mass wealth by riding the very currents they indirectly criticise—the male gaze, female objectification, self-commodification. And by doing that they are not compromising their wealth or position in life or in the media realm.
If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that every member of the Kardashian family boasts the capacity to reincarnate and regenerate into newer, more fascinating versions of themselves as the years go on. Even more so, the Kardashians have long been a family that’s needed nothing but the internet – embracing Instagram, fuelling rumours and feuds (not just with other celebrities, but among themselves), and selling merchandise through apps.
Even the corporately unsavvy of us can admit the impressive nature of their business model and commend them for wringing the towel dry of commercial opportunities. The Kardashian brand is also as multifaceted as it is relatable. Visually, it takes the notion that you can turn nothing into something and survive the unreasonable struggles most women have to deal with throughout their lives. Their rise to fame – much like Trump’s, but that’s a different conversation – is a direct reflection of our generation’s cultural fabric and values by way of opportunism, sensationalism and snowball-journalism. As celebrities, they’re not so much redefining fame as they are embracing the way that the average person acts. They proved that people want to keep up (no pun intended) with their favourite stars in the same capacity that they do with their closest friends. They also want to feel like the people they look up to and admire are real, and that’s exactly what the Kardashians have so seamlessly accomplished.
As for good or evil, it depends on who you’re asking – or their relation towards celebrity and voyeurism, more so. It’s impossible to toe the party line because their divisive nature is exactly what has kept them in the public eye. In terms of their influence, it’s quite possible that we won’t really know the true impact of said influence until it’s retrospective. The future may look back harshly on their place in culture, or herald them as the elusive seventh-wave of feminism. If they don’t stand the test of time, it’s likely they will remain in living memory as just another fad. I think that we find it difficult to accept the KarJenners as feminists because they don’t fit into our cultural template of what a feminist looks like – and, dare I say it, that is wholly our problem, and not theirs.