In the era of reality television and social media, the posterity of a person’s fame is directly correlated to how viral (understand shocking, entertaining, and therefore shareable) their content is. Since her infamous 2014 photoshoot for Paper Magazine, Kim Kardashian and the rest of the Kardashian clan have made a habit of breaking the internet and dominating discourse. With pregnancy announcements, global brand partnerships, 17-minute private jet flights, and cheating scandals, the Kardashians have cemented their relevance in pop culture. But how have they convinced us to care about them in the first place? How might we explain this “Kim-Kraze”?
1. Work as an aesthetic
The Kardashian-Jenner clan is best known for leaning into tacky, flashy, and often overtly provocative displays of its newfound wealth. Their expensive cars, huge mansions, and designer clothing embody this “new-money” aesthetic meant to serve as material proof of their success. The association between work and reward resonates with a middle-class US-American audience because it implies that work always breeds success. In a video that has since become a meme, Kim Kardashian delivers her ultimate advice for women in business as follows: “Get the f**k up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.” One would question the timing of such a statement considering the fact that the United States is in the midst of The Great Resignation and on the verge of a recession. Her statement received immediate backlash and she was especially criticized for her refusal to acknowledge not only systemic inequalities in the United States but her own privilege as a woman born into money. Nonetheless, her statement embodies the idea of the American Dream: that hard work always pays off in a free and just society such as the United States of America. While examples of the existence of the American Dream are scarce, many still believe in this ideal and consider the Kardashians to be living proof of its existence. Throughout Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the sisters and momager, Kris Jenner, fight to convince their audience of how hard they work which is particularly interesting considering we owe them the existence of influencers, the people who are paid to promote brands, lifestyles, or aesthetics and who willingly commodify their lives for profit.
2. Family is power
“No matter what happens, we’ll always be family”. It’s in this Succession-Esque sentence that the promotional teaser for the second season of The Kardashians ends. The Kardashian way is the family way, and much of the family’s success and outreach can be credited to their on-screen chemistry as a cohesive, albeit chaotic, family. Momager Kris unabashedly uses her daughter’s talents to fuel her family’s fame and endurance on the pop-culture scene. Her daughters have understood the power of family as an economic and social resource and between them have eleven children, suggesting that the Kardashian reign is far from over. In What The Kardashians Reveal About American Values, The Take proposes that the family dynamic is even more entertaining because of its seemingly matriarchal structure which contrasts with the usual patriarchal dynasties American audiences are so used to seeing. Throughout the show, the men of the family make few appearances, and it is the women who run the show at home but also at work with fortunes that greatly surpass their significant others. “It is as if the men do not exist”, suggests the video essay, a statement that rings true considering that they do not even appear in the title sequence of The Kardashians.
3. Appropriation to stay relevant
One of the long-lasting effects of this Kardashian reign is the influence it’s had on younger audiences, particularly on younger women. This is best shown through the unrealistic beauty standards that they embody and set. The Kardashians follow a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about plastic surgery: it is often alluded to but rarely explicitly revealed or, considerably downplayed. Kim and Kylie are both are the helm of beauty empires with SKKN and Kylie Cosmetics. On her end, Khloe produced and hosted a weight-loss show on E! Network disguised as empowerment called Revenge Body while Kendall Jenner is a runway supermodel. As a unit, the Kardashian women have all promoted waist trainers, laxative pills and teas, and frequently overuse photoshop on social media. Time and time again, have they failed to reckon with how their actions delude ordinary people into believing that such features and figures are achievable or worse, aspirational. It also creates a culture of self-surveillance and self-restriction, especially through the selfie. Although the latter seems to empower because the one captured in the photograph has agency over its quality and its content, it demands that you evaluate yourself in comparison to a myriad of existing self-portraits which in turn, affects your self-esteem and confidence.
Additionally, their ever-increasing use of self-tanner and Black hairstyles has repeatedly landed them accusations of cultural appropriation. But this foray into ethnic ambiguity is especially damaging because it translates into the fetishization of racialised women in the United States who are punished, mocked, and vilified for practicing their own culture. When racialised trends are associated with the Kardashians, they are hailed as innovative and transgressive, but when they are replaced in their cultural context they are deemed ‘ghetto’, unkept and improper. What’s more, they often do not attribute these fashions to the community from which they came. Kim Kardashian notably referred to cornrows and box braids as “Bo Derek” braids referencing the white actress’ signature hairstyle in the 1979 film 10 instead of acknowledging that these styles have been worn by women of African descent for centuries.
Since she filed for divorce from Kanye West in February 2021, fans have noticed that Kim had made some significant changes to her appearance and that her figure appeared smaller. Many alleged that this was due to the removal of her implants. Intrusive commentary of her appearance aside, for many this was a textbook case of a white celebrity attempting to rebrand herself as white once ethnic ambiguity is no longer profitable for their brand (see Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, or Gwen Stefani). This opinion was cemented by Kim’s arrival at the 2022 Met Gala in Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress. Marilyn Monroe represented in her time and to a certain extent still does embody the ideal of the All-American Girl, gold standard of white femininity. Wearing her dress at the Met Gala with the theme “The Gilded Age” seems to imply that Kim has entered her own era of greatness as “America’s sweetheart”.
4. Capitalism and the “Other” as entertainment
It appears we love to hate the Kardashians, but we also hate to love them. They allow us to judge and feel morally superior to people who hardly exist in the same reality as we do or in the same tax bracket. It is possible that what keeps audiences coming back is that while they lead lives that are completely removed from ours they are seemingly plagued with the same mundane issues we have.
Controversies such as Tristan Thompson cheating on Khloe and Kanye feuding with Kim’s new beau Pete Davidson captivate the audience and demand for us to reckon with our responsibility in making these people who they are today. It forces us to look at how desensitized we have become to others’ pain. In the aftermath of their divorce proceedings, personal and worrying exchanges between Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Pete Davidson were published on Instagram by Kanye himself. In a post-“Me Too” digital space, the real plight of a woman who has built her career around the sensationalizing of her life was mocked or unheard. The recurring feeling online was that she had publicised her life, therefore she ought to assume the very public consequences of her actions. The escalation of the situation highlighted the need to reframe and reconsider the ways we approach domestic abuse even for people who are considered untouchable because of their status as public figures and to fight the urge to see real people’s pain as entertainment or as a form of escapism. Late-stage capitalism turns other people’s lives into commodities, but in reality, they remain human.
Kardashians divorce, they get cheated on and they have health problems. They are mothers, sisters, and daughters. Although they want us to envy them, they also need us to sympathize with them. That is the true mystery of the Kim-Kraze and that’s why its end is nowhere in sight.
Written by Tessa Ndjonkou