"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I would love to know how Tolstoy would have categorised the Kardashians. Would he have thought their contentment made them too boring to bother with, or do their dramas make the ultimate case for his point that different kinds of unhappiness have a unique quality? On one level, there is something generic about Kim and her sisters, partners and relatives. Over the course of the last decade, “Kardashian” has become to celebrity what Hoover is to vacuum. Every generation knows who they are and has something to say about them, and there are so many ways of measuring their success. Recent headlines have been dominated by the rumours that Kim, Khloé and Kylie are all expecting babies, and further column inches have been devoted to the families’ reactions and their refusal to confirm or comment on these stories. Together, they make so much news that they’re in a position to break the news. It’s as easy to find a 14-year-old who has been saving up for a Kylie lip kit as it is to find someone in their sixties or seventies with strong opinions about Caitlyn’s transition or Kim’s robbery.
Keeping Up With The Kardashians first aired 10 years ago, in October 2007. It’s been a tumultuous decade in which our relationship with entertainment, social media and celebrity has been redefined entirely. In that time, Caitlyn Jenner – the ex-partner of momager Kris – was one of the most high-profile people to ever come out as transgender. Kim married Kanye West, one of the most awarded, acclaimed recording artists of all time. Kendall appeared in a heavily criticised Pepsi commercial that was quickly withdrawn by the brand, for making light of the Black Lives Matter protests. And, including fees from the TV show, the endorsement deals, the fashion and cosmetics lines and sponsored social-media posts, it’s estimated that, over the last 10 years, the family has amassed a net worth of more than $300m.
Why should we care? What is it that elevates this group of women into the modern aristocracy, when even the most devoted KUWTK fan would struggle to explain what it is that any of them actually do? The Kardashians are divisive and they arouse equal levels of enthusiasm and passionate disinterest. In 2011, a Colorado woman called Cyndy Snider circulated an online petition requesting that the E! network stop showing the programme, and attracted over 150,000 signatures. “We feel that [Keeping Up With The Kardashians is] mostly staged and place[s] an emphasis on vanity, greed, promiscuity, vulgarity and over-the-top conspicuous consumption”, was the petition’s opening statement.
It has never been easier to become famous and it has never been harder to sustain fame, yet the Kardashians have managed both
However, others have made a strong case for the Kardashian family as a sociological phenomenon, worthy of specialised academic attention. In 2015, Meredith Jones, a cultural theorist at Brunel University, organised the first “Kimposium!”, an academic conference dedicated to the study of all things Kardashian. Jones attracted criticism for her conference, from inside and outside the academic community, but she maintained: “You may love them or hate them, but the Kardashian family must be examined. It has occurred to me that the hostility around the Kardashians may not be about their supposed shallowness or vanity, but the fact that there are hardly any men on the show – it is about highly successful women and their relationships with each other.” Elizabeth Wissinger, professor of sociology at New York’s City University, wrote a paper about the Kardashians in which she coined the term “glamour labour”, exploring the Kardashian “practice of no-holds-barred sharing and giving up privacy online”. This is, she says, “presented as the ticket to achieving glamour, visibility and social acceptance”.
When Kim was robbed at gunpoint last year, a section of the internet responded with vitriol, suggesting that she was everything, from a “slag” to an “attention seeker”. This is, in part, why the Kardashians are so fascinating. Even those people who don’t want to engage in their story, do so, furiously. They are the most well-known women in the world and they are, in part, defining womanhood during a moment when misogyny is rife, the fightback is furious and you can wear your feminism on a $700 T-shirt. They are the epitome of fame at a time when that word and its meaning has been stretched and distorted beyond all recognition. Arguably, it has never been easier to become famous and it has never been harder to sustain fame, yet the Kardashians have managed both.
These women were born into a world of celebrity and attendant privilege. The late Robert Kardashian – who became globally known as OJ Simpson’s defence attorney in 1994 – married Kris in 1978 and they went on to have four children: Kourtney, Kim, Khloé and Rob. After Kris and Robert divorced, she married the former Olympian Caitlin Jenner, who was then known as Bruce. They had two daughters together: Kendall and Kylie. In 2006, Kim embarked upon a working friendship with Paris Hilton, as a stylist and assistant, and started to appear in paparazzi pictures. In March 2007, Vivid Entertainment released a leaked sex tape featuring Kim and her then boyfriend singer Ray J. Kris famously said, “When I first heard about Kim’s tape, as her mother, I wanted to kill her. But as her manager, I knew that I had a job to do.”
What followed was an odd celebrity relay. Kim was, broadly speaking, following in the footsteps of her old friend and employer, Paris (who also went from a mild to major level of fame when her sex tape was released in 2004). Kris worked with producer Ryan Seacrest, who was keen to make a family reality show, and KUWTK debuted in the autumn of 2007, just as Paris’s reality show, The Simple Life, was cancelled by the same network. The rise of the Kardashians seemed to coincide with the fall of America’s other sweetheart, the wealthy, obnoxious party girl. Paris presided over an era in which we were collectively obsessed with a particular kind of woman – women like Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Mischa Barton and Britney Spears. Women who were associated with drugs and alcohol, women who weren’t ashamed to behave recklessly, women whose lives seemed to be veering out of control. Now, we celebrate Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie and, of course, Kris. Women who will purposefully share their own professionally lighted nude selfies, but who will never be papped with their pants on display. These are women who work, even though their jobs cannot be defined traditionally. Women who stand for sobriety and family values.
On one level, the Kardashians are admirably inspiring for this reason. Kris has spoken openly about how proud she is of her daughters’ work ethic and they are consistent in what they stand for. They work hard and make money; they are emblematic of our unofficial post-millennial motto of “girl bosses to the front”. But I am not the only one who worries that one of their cultural contributions is a narrowing of what women are able to be. Their entire brand value is about their visibility and their celebration of their own immense beauty. Is that something that inspires other women to participate in their own empowerment, or does it mean that there is no room to feel vulnerable or weak, for fuck-ups and disasters?
Kim and her sisters have the sort of talents that are fed by fame. This might also be true of Paris, but arguably her acolytes and peers – notably Barton, Lohan and Winehouse – were making genuinely exciting artistic contributions before their potential was destroyed by their own celebrity. It seems cruel to begrudge the Kardashians the opportunity to profit from something they excel at. We get the celebrities we deserve. If our interest wasn’t providing enough petrol to fuel their trajectory, they wouldn’t be marking 10 years on television.
It's difficult to comprehend the Kardashians in 2017, a time in which celebrities and public figures are defined by their missteps, and we understand the people in the public eye by deciding whether they're good or bad. The Kardashians are neither and both – it's complicated. An optimist can argue that they have made the world better for women, but at the same time it's impossible to talk about them without acknowledging that their words and actions have been, at the very least, problematic.
Caitlyn Jenner has opened up an international conversation about trans visibility and how we can make the world kinder and more inclusive for everyone. In her headline-dominating interview with Diane Sawyer in April 2015, she said she was not a spokesperson, but “The suicide rates, murder rates, the difficulty – for especially black female trans women – I would like to think that we can save some lives here.” Caitlin might not face the same risks as many other vulnerable trans women, but she acknowledged those risks on a global platform. However, she’s also a lifelong Republican and she attended Trump’s inauguration, when the Republicans are actively drafting and passing transphobic and queerphobic legislation. According to a story in USA Today, Caitlyn, when challenged on the issue said “I would much rather convince Republicans to do better with [LGBTQ] issues than to try to convince Democrats to lower taxes and have less regulations and less government.” Critics have said that it appears she’d rather protect her own considerable wealth and privilege than make a genuine stand for the rights of the trans community.
What makes the Kardashians fascinating, and a true product of their age, is the way that they allow themselves get constantly caught out and called out
They have all had a radical impact on the way we talk about women, sex and bodies, and this has been positive and negative. If you’re pissing off Piers Morgan, as Kim did with a naked selfie, you know you must be doing something good for feminism. Yet, Kim also joked about how the “flu diet” helped her lose weight in time for the Met Gala, and was criticised for being irresponsible and suggesting to millions of young fans that sudden, dramatic weight loss was aspirational.
Kim has been praised for “posting photos of her family for everyone to see, normalising mixed-race couples and families for a massive (and relatively young) audience”. Khloé has spoken out to support a fan who had been harassed and abused for being in a mixed-race relationship. Kim blogged about her own experiences of racism as the wife of Kanye West and the mother of his child. But Kim has also been accused of racism, by posting a photo where her skin had been deliberately darkened, and by telling fans to “get over” racist comments from beauty vlogger Jeffree Star. Kendall and Kylie seem to get into trouble weekly for cultural appropriation. There was the now-notorious, tone-deaf Pepsi advertisement that was withdrawn by the brand for everything, from commodifying the Black Lives Matter movement to joking about police brutality. The pair then attempted to sell T-shirts with their faces superimposed over famous musicians, including Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. Often, their behaviour is enraging, but it never passes without comment and they do keep creating conversations about our moral codes. When we ask “How can they do better?” we want to know how we can do better, too.
However, what makes the Kardashians fascinating, and a true product of their age, is the way that they allow themselves get constantly caught out and called out. For all of their faults, they don’t allow themselves a hiding place. This doesn’t necessarily make them better people, but it does make them a compelling case study for the nature of celebrity in 2017. Their pictures might be retouched and heavily filtered, but their behaviour is good, bad, inconsistent, wholly human and on display in its entirety.
Ultimately, I like living in a world in which I can keep up with the Kardashians. They are not role models. They’re as flawed as they are contoured and that is probably why our fascination with them shows no sign of ending. They’re proof that beauty doesn’t make you inviolate, that money can’t keep you safe and that everyone fights with their families, even if they live in the most idyllic part of California and “glamour labour” appears to be their only labour. Julian Fellowes once posited that we sometimes struggle to recognise or acknowledge the happiness of others, unless they’re “happy in a way that we can understand”. It’s taken me 10 years to understand the Kardashians. I don’t envy them, but I believe they’re a compelling, contemporary example of a happy family. However, I also believe they’re a truly unique phenomenon, whatever Tolstoy might say.