Remember their names: Kris, Khloe, Kendall, Kourtney, Kim, Caitlyn, Kylie and Kim’s daughter North West. And don’t forget Rob, from the early days. They are the Kardashian clan and recently Keeping Up With the Kardashians ended after 13 years and 20 series.
The two-part ending wasn’t the global event that some in the clan and the celebrity-obsessed media wing might have expected. (A note from the E! channel encouraged me to write about this tidbit: “Khloe Kardashian calls out Kourtney for not showing her love life.”) It wasn’t quite a whimper instead of bang, but it was low-key.
The reality TV series was a cultural marker in more ways than one. If you’re bourgeois and consider yourself a smart, literate person, you probably loathed the show and the people it presented. To other people, who would never, ever use the word “bourgeois,” the show wasn’t just reality-TV catnip, it was enormously influential.
Keeping Up With The Kardashians is one of the most widely studied shows on TV for that reason – the influence. It had a global reach and practically commands its own field in the arena of gender and media studies.
Here’s why: First, it’s a matriarchy. At the beginning it was a family of six women and two men. The boss was Kris Jenner. Initially, much loathing of the whole presentation of the Kardashians was focused on Kris, because she was seen as selling out her daughters for fame and profit. The first season was launched on the back of Kim’s notoriety, after a sex tape she made willingly with her rapper boyfriend Ray J was leaked online and went viral. What actually happened, of course, is that Kris and Kim used that notoriety to become successful businesswomen. In the years since, men had an ever-decreasing role in the Kardashian saga.
Second, the perception of female beauty. As Dr. Meredith Jones of Brunel University has written: “As well as changing perceptions of what it means to be and become a mother, the [Kardashian] family has had a huge impact on perceptions of womanhood – particularly notions of beauty.” What Dr. Jones and others note is that Kim Kardashian is particularly responsible for the new idealization of the curvaceous female form, helping shift the media concentration on thinness. In doing this she’s been helped by the images put forward by Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez.
Next, there’s the Kardashian’s ground-breaking use of social media. Instagram was their chosen platform and by the end of the TV show’s run, television was much less important as a profit tool. Their deftness on social media led to the creation of an entire industry of “influencers” being paid for being Instagram-famous.
There’s lot more to the serious study of the Kardashian’s influence. In a paper written while at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2014, Alexandra Sastre said of Kim Kardashian’s body image: “Media coverage has placed constant attention on her curvaceous body, locating it as a site where both her ‘realness’ and artificiality lie. This attention to her body, much of it promulgated by Kardashian herself, works to consistently flatten the many interplays between race, class and sexuality in her image in order to best position her as both an accessible and unique commodity in the marketplace of personality.”
Right, well, it is also possible to simply loathe the Kardashian phenomenon for the many contradictions that are inherent in it. The family members don’t really do anything. They primarily accumulate wealth by attaching their names to things rather than building, achieving or innovating.
Their flaunting of wealth is an issue as toxic as the body-image matter. What the Kardashians did was present a billionaire lifestyle as normal, and their complete lack of empathy for their followers who live the lives of the working poor is astounding. This issue was crystalized when Caitlyn Jenner recently began promoting her political career and her campaign to become governor of California.
Jenner received great sympathy and respect when she came out as a trans woman in 2015, but now appears entirely tone-deaf about anything that impedes the ostentatious display of her wealth. A Trump supporter, she recently appeared on Fox News and vented about the unsightly presence of homeless people, from the vantage point of the hangar in which she stores her private jet.
The Kardashians will always be villains to some and figures of fascination to others. But they are not irrelevant, no matter how much you despise reality TV. They will, by the way, be back. They’ve signed a deal with Hulu for more TV projects. Of course they have.
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