This is the Kardashians’ world – we’re just following it
The past decade has been dominated by the first family of post-modern pop culture.
A publicity shot for Keeping Up with the Kardashians
It’s been 10 years since we started keeping up with them, and The Kardashian-Jenners aren’t going anywhere. In October of this year they signed a whopping $150 million deal with the E! network to ensure five more years of full Kardashian Kontent. You can try to avoid them but there is no denying that this decade has been dominated by the canny clan.
The Kardashians are the first family of postmodern pop culture and reality TV royalty. They are a matriarchal mafia whose tentacles extend throughout television, business, fashion, art, sport and music. From Robert Kardashian’s involvement in the OJ Simpson trial to the slow evolution of Kimye (the last true power couple), from the introduction of Caitlyn Jenner to the Saatchi Gallery’s recent exhibition celebrating the family, they have become an indelible part of our cultural lives.
These polarising women (the attention is almost exclusively focused on the female family members) provoke intense feelings. To their detractors, they are a commercialised coven responsible for the debasement of modern society. To fans, they are inspirational, savvy, modern women utilising their looks and lives to achieve the new American Dream. To many in between, they are the comforting, vocal-frying, white noise of blankness that hums from the TV screen every Sunday night. The Kardashians offer an escape hatch into a world of glossy, empty glamour, the home of big salads, private jets, chinchilla fur throws, and exotic holidays coupled with the relatable mundanity of sisterhood and family life.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK) began in October 2007 when gossip websites such as Perez Hilton, TMZ and Gawker’s Hollywood sister site Defamer were not just revealing the wizard behind the curtain but were photographing him urinating on the streets of the Emerald City.
These sites were filming Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan failing to wear underwear while falling out of cars. They were offering up the bruises concealed under the professionally applied make-up. Our appetite for the unvarnished truth, the “reality” of fame had increased, creating a separate class of celebrity. It dovetailed with the growing popularity of Facebook, which managed to turn the public into famous people at the click of a well-chosen photo.
KUWTK differed from The Hills, The Simple Life or The Osbournes, the most popular reality shows at the time, because they insisted it wasn’t scripted and there was nothing you didn’t see. They were the anti-Hollywood, the antithesis of the hush-hush cover ups. Unlike beige, PR-drilled, copy-approval-obsessed megastars, the Kardashians instead laid out their lives and demanded to be feasted on.
The show’s audience has witnessed the clan’s every breakdown, breakup, marriage, overdose, robbery, pregnancy and incontinence issue, and most famously saw Olympian Bruce Jenner begin the journey of transitioning.
With their promotion of the personal, the scrutiny of the lives of the Kardashians truly deepens the divide between those that fail to understand or embrace the generational shift from the private to the public and those entirely engrossed in the swirl of social media. The skyrocketing success of the family is a ringing endorsement of the documentation of the banal, the shady status update, the Instagrammed dinner, the carefully collated Pinterest mood-board.
The most common insult levelled at the family’s leading lady, Kim Kardashian, is that she’s “famous for no reason”. These old-media critics are obviously utterly oblivious to the Warholian feast that we are now dining at in 2017. Kim took Warhol’s “15 minutes” quote and managed to expand it into a decade-spanning career. She made herself famous through the forging of the self, emerging as a flawed but fabulous diamond from the coal dust of scandal.
Not only can you play the Kim Kardashian celebrity game on your phone but since 2015 each sister has an individual app
Between her and momager/PR dictator Kris Jenner, they birthed a television show out of something that previously would have been the death of a starlet’s career. Freed from patriarchal shame, Kim’s sex tape indiscretion was her accidental ticket to television stardom, and from there she has clung on, ever evolving.
When featured in Forbes magazine as one of their top moguls, her occupation was listed as “personality”. A born hustler with an enterprising eye and an industrious nature, she has built a lucrative empire. Her beginnings as a “stylist” were entirely pedestrian. But she has metamorphosed into an internet-breaking entrepreneur and fashion icon, a symbol to some of modern liberation and empowerment. Without the backing of the American heritage of old money, like socialite and fellow reality star Paris Hilton, Kim carefully crafted and honed her life into an object of interest for others. And she and the rest of the family have commodified almost every aspect of their existence.
Not only can you play the Kim Kardashian celebrity game on your phone but since 2015 each sister has an individual app (each of which attracted over a million subscribers within the first week of their launch), where you can watch Kylie apply lipstick and talk about her dogs, adopt Khloé’s fitness regime, get parental advice from Kourtney, watch Kim’s shoot with Juergen Teller, and pick up selfie tips from model Kendall.
Whiff of self-hatred
Dangerously bound up in this all-consuming focus on the self is the whiff of self-hatred. The Kardashians are forever stuck in an adolescent dichotomy between self-obsession and self-disgust. Just as they became household names, so too did Instagram, which dissolved the need for personality and let photos do the talking. In among the teens duck-facing themselves with confidence on the app are those waiting for approval, buckling in that quicksilver moment of doubt, wondering when the first like will roll in. Image is everything. In the Kardashian world, vanity is a virtue that must be upheld.
For every Paper magazine front cover trumpeting the wonder of Kim’s derriere, there are thousands of tabloid articles and Twitter posts examining every inch of her body with revulsion. Due to this preoccupation with the physical, the television series is awash with fat-shaming, a cavalcade of criticism that can be attributed to the Kardashian-Jenner women. They can be described as vapid, vacuous or insipid, but they only react when it is their bodily perfection (or lack thereof) that is called into question.
Sister Khloé’s struggles with her weight and subsequently her self-worth have been well documented within the series, culminating in a punishing fitness and dietary plan that she now espouses in an evangelical fashion in more recent episodes, ignoring the enormous glass jars in her kitchen that contain hundreds of artfully arranged sugar cookies.
Kylie is the embodiment of the millennial malaise, the pressure of social media performance
She has even gone so far as to promote the idea of the “revenge body”, creating a spin-off makeover series that endorses the problematic message that women need to change their bodies to feel better about themselves. It’s a show that has been infected by the fame-warped Kardashian sense of self, the idea that women’s bodies are a display unit, something only to be viewed and judged by others.
If this lifestyle has sucked all the fun out of the more rebellious, carefree Khloé, it appears to have dismantled the youngest sister, Kylie Jenner. Kylie has grown up on screen. She was only nine years old when the show started and, in that time, with cameras on her face daily, she has now become an almost unrecognisable melange of her sisters.
Kylie is the embodiment of the millennial malaise, the pressure of social media performance. She constantly talks of being anxious, her fears of being looked at, and her desire to control her image. In these moments, she represents the unseemly side of Kardashian Kulture. The irony is that her idol, sister Kim, is the icon of this world, and the person largely responsible for this life being thrust upon young Kylie.
As with everything Kardashian, there is a flipside. These moments of unhappiness illuminate an unexpected truth, and viewers get a glimpse of the work that goes into being that woman, the drudgery and pain of living up to a notion of perfection. This includes Kim breaking taboos surrounding pregnancy. It was not a bleached-out Beyoncé-style time of gestational bliss for the star but an excruciating process, with the cameras catching every tear-inducing hospital appointment. The TV show is the reality, revealing the unhappy space before Photoshop blurs the creases out.
After 10 years and with their fame at its peak, Keeping Up with the Kardashians has matured. They may still perch in their pristine kitchens constantly stroking the ends of their hair, sipping on giant iced teas, repeating the word “stop” on a loop like sentient mannequins, but they are now also using their influence to draw attention to important social issues. Throughout the last two seasons they have injected discussions about planned parenthood and the Black Lives Matter movement into the mix, as well as constantly educating the US and beyond about the Armenian genocide.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians has become a series that acts as a running commentary on fame, a cautionary tale of what happens after you get everything you wish for.
With a whole younger generation of the family on the rise, this truly American dream may be a never-ending story.
Dolls, slores and bibles: How to speak Kardashian
As with any pop-culture phenomenon, the Kardashians have borrowed liberally from gay and black street speech, with the girls peppering their conversations with slang such as “giving me life”, “turnt” and “Damn, Gina!” Khloe has even snatched drag queen Laganja Estranja’s iconic alien-sounding delivery of the word “okay”. The family are not just linguistic magpies, they have also introduced several terms into the modern lexicon. Here are some of their greatest hits:
If there was a Kardashian supercut of every time one of them said “bible” while picking through a salad bigger than a car hubcap, it would be longer than Shoah.
“Bible” is handy Kardashian shorthand for “I swear”, a grave promise that you are telling the truth. It’s fitting that Robert Kardashian’s children have utilised legal imagery – it comes from the courtroom gesture of placing your hand on the Bible when being sworn in. It’s usually used when one of the family is attempting to get another to confirm something: from whether they saw their mother down half a bottle of Pinot Grigio in bed to what they truly think of Kourtney’s make-up.
The pit and the peak
The pit and the peak is another Robert Kardashian ritual. It’s an Oprah-like tradition where (usually on special occasions) the family will sit at dinner and each go through what the highlight and low point of their day was. As the series has progressed and with their lows becoming international news (as with the Paris robbery), the act has taken on a more serious tone, with most of the clan being thankful for the sanctuary of the family unit.
An affectionate greeting for anyone in the general vicinity – even Scott Disick. Possibly also used as a common salutation due to the fact that as time goes on it is getting harder to differentiate Kim from Kris and Kylie from a Bratz doll.
A vintage Kardashian word that is now in semi-retirement (perhaps replaced by the snake emoji), a “slore” is a mix of a slut and a whore. Sometimes used as a term of abuse between the sisters themselves (and said in an over-the-top “Noo Yark” accent), it is more often used as a derogatory way to describe a woman who has entered the Kardashian sphere and has wronged them or has attempted to exploit a family member.
A very messy individual or a hungover person. This term is usually deployed when one of the girls is going through a bout of singledom and has been acting like a slore the night before.