A Compromising Position: The Kardashian Influence
The Kardashian family needs no introduction; they are the First Family of celebrity reality television and through their production, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, (KUWK) they have occupied American popular culture for the better part of the last decade. The real question about these reality television moguls is; how exactly did this affluent Armenian family rise to fame and how do they maintain their position within the elite circles of American pop-culture? The answers to these questions are both complex and troubling as they compromise the American definition of success and highlight the questionable strategies employed by reality television. The Kardashian/Jenner clan has been able to exponentially expand their wealth and influence by exploiting their conspicuous consumption, hyper-sexuality, and by allowing unprecedented amounts of television access into their lives, blurring the lines between public and private space, while distorting the longstanding image of the “American Dream”. This distorted image of success brings into question how success is both achieved and measured, leaving behind a scrambled assortment of messages for viewers.
In August of 2013 President Barrack Obama highlighted this distortion of the “American Dream” when he criticized Kim Kardashian and Kanye West for their over the top lifestyles and the exposure they receive. The President states, “Kids weren't monitoring every day what Kim Kardashian was wearing, or where Kanye West was going on vacation, and thinking that somehow that was the mark of success” highlighting that these unrealistic lifestyles have become the benchmark of success in America (Clark). Ernest Owens expands on this critique as he states, “What was once an idea shaped around getting a good home, a good job, and the possibility of higher education has been exploited for this idea of ultimate fame and immense fortune”. What President Obama and Mr. Owens are arguing is that today’s celebrity culture has compromised the identity of the “American Dream” by superficially illustrating an emphasis on material possessions and status, rather than the journey of achievement through merit, scholar and hard work. What is even more troubling is that this celebration of excess and luxury is the machine that continues to facilitate and enhance the Kardashian’s affluent lifestyle.
This discussion of a distorted reality and materialism is also directly linked to one of the dominant and reoccurring themes utilized by the text to attract viewership through what Thorstein Veblen calls conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption is the practice of purchasing equivalently functional goods at higher prices merely to achieve a higher social status (Bagwell/Bernheim). This conspicuous consumption is utilized by KUWK in order to attract viewers by justifying their relevancy through their elite social status within the world of materialism.
For the Kardashians, this conspicuous consumption comes in the form of lavish vacations, luxury automobiles, habitual spending habits and expansive homes, all prominently displayed in each episode for the consumption of viewers. One of the best examples of this conspicuous consumption is when Kim purchases a custom Bentley, which is then followed by an altercation with her sisters surrounding the purchase of the vehicle. During the episode the custom luxury vehicle becomes the focal point of the text, as if to remind the audience that the cast of KUWK is socially elite because of their superior purchasing power. Amanda Scheiner McClain explains this relationship between KUWK and viewers as she states, “the Kardashian brand signifies a cultural fascination with wealth, beauty and celebrity, and ourselves, cyclically bolstering the fortunes of the Kardashians”, reiterating that we as consumers facilitate this lifestyle by acknowledging their social status through the consumption of the text. It is through this conspicuous consumption that we are able to understand the President’s argument as the display of lavish purchases elevates the prominence of social status and encourages the shallow behaviors of materialism.
It is also important to examine the other strategies by which the Kardashians are able to garner viewership, as they are equally problematic in their distortion of the “American Dream”. One of these reoccurring strategies within KUWK is the blurring of public and private spaces within the lives of the Kardashian/Jenner family. Prior to KUWK, viewers had never before had the amount of access into the personal lives and private spaces of a family that they have with the Kardashians/Jenners. Even “The Osbournes” the pioneer of family celebrity reality television did not go as far as to offer as much insight into personal space as the Kardashians do, as many times very troubling and personal matters are openly discussed. Many even feel that the Kardashian machine was created from this exploitation of personal space as the family matriarch (Kris Jenner) was able to “parlay” Kim’s “leaked” sex tape publicity into the hit reality television series they have today (Marcus).
Many times this blurring of personal and private space becomes the focal point of KUWK episodes, as the private lives of the Kardashians/Jenners are examined through the lenses of television cameras. This self-inflicted invasion and display of private space captures personal matters that range from body weight and shape to the infidelities of the family matriarch. An example of this illustration of sensitive personal space is when Khloe is questioned and harassed by the media over the legitimacy of Robert Kardashian being her biological father. This is clearly a troubling matter for Khole as it highlights the infidelities of her mother as well as the possibility of her not knowing her biological father, yet it does not stop KUWK from exposing the private matter for millions of viewers to consume. Although Khloe expresses that she does not wish to discuss the matter, it is still utilized as a tool by KUWK to capture the highly dramatic nature of the family and attract viewers. This exploitation of personal space is troubling, whether it is riding the coattails of Kim’s sex tape’s publicity or publicly questioning the authenticity of Khloe’s biological father, the Kardashian/Jenner family is sending the disturbing message that status and luxury are superior to privacy and personal space.
The Kardashians not only use this strategy of blurring of public and private boundaries to garner attention, they also perpetuate reoccurring themes of hyper-sexuality and unrealistic standards of beauty and body shape. According to McClain, the Kardashian girls were taught the importance of beauty at a very young age, as Kris treated them to eyebrow waxings at age eleven and bikini waxings at age thirteen. This standard of beauty is illustrated through both the discourse of the text as well as the great lengths at which the Kardashian/Jenner girls will go to maintain their statuesque beauty.
A prime example of the discourse that reinforces these standards of beauty is when Bruce Jenner (the family patriarch) informs Khloe that before she does a nude photo shoot for PETA, “she could loose a few pounds”. Kris also reinforces this message as she verbally attacks Kim for eating cookies the day before a photo shoot, as she needs to look her best. Throughout the text there are constant references to expectations of size and shape, often directed at Kim’s posterior or Khloe’s height and weight. It is not only discourse that reinforces these standards of beauty, as the Kardashian/Jenner girls go to great lengths to maintain their high standards of appearance. This is clearly illustrated through the cosmetic maintenance that they endure frequently throughout the text. An excellent example of this maintenance is when Kim and Khloe receive cosmetic treatments to reduce cellulite in preparation for photo shoots. These cosmetic procedures illustrate both the relentless importance of beauty to the Kardashian/Jenner girls as well as the unrealistic expectations it places on viewers, as the average American would not be able to afford these outlandish procedures.
The most obvious and overt tactic used to garner viewership is through the exploitation of the Kardashian sisters’ hypersexuality. A common trend of the text that teases out this sexuality of the Kardashian sisters is the documentation of seductive photos and enticing images. On multiple occasions there is controversy or discussion revolving around the intentional or unintentional release of alluring photos of the sisters that draws attention to their sexual nature. A classic example of this (other than the obvious sex tape) is when Kim conducts a sexy calendar photo shoot for her boyfriend, Reggie Bush, and Kris accidentally distributes multiple copies of the calendar to the public, when the calendar was intended to be a private gift. Another example of this sexualized documentation is when Kim appears in Playboy, albeit through the pressure of “momager” Kris, Kim is overtly celebrated for her curvy sex appeal. By reducing themselves to sexual objects in photos and images they are able to entice viewers through controversy as well as sex appeal. McClain further explains this by stating, “(the Kardashian sisters) exploit their sexuality in order to earn monetary rewards, fame… celebrity and publicity”. While these dominant themes of size, beauty and sexualization do not revolve around the consumption of materials, they reinforce this superficial mentality of the President’s argument as appearance is held in higher regard than character.
While the Kardashians/Jenners may work hard for their lavish lifestyles, the messages that they perpetuate are troubling. Through their conspicuous consumption, blurring of private and public boundaries, and hypersexuality, the Kardashian/Jenner family and celebrity popular culture in general is distorting the “American Dream”. This distortion of success has led to a superficial desire to acquire fame and fortune through exploitative measures rather than embracing the journey of achievement through merit.
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Clark, Carin Kilby. "President Obama vs. Kris Jenner: What Are We Teaching Our Children About The True Measure of Success?" The Huffington Post. 19 Aug. 2013. TheHuffingtonPost.com. 03 May 2014 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carin-kilby-clark/president-obama-vs-kris-j_b_3765200.html>.
Marcus, Stephanie. "Rumors Kris Jenner Brokered Kim Kardashian's Sex Tape Surface Again." The Huffington Post. 08 Aug. 2012. TheHuffingtonPost.com. 03 May 2014 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/08/rumors-kris-jenner-orchestrated-kim-kardashian-sex-tape_n_1755831.html>.
McClain, Amanda Scheiner. Keeping up the Kardashian brand: Celebrity, materialism, and sexuality. Lanham: Lexington Book, 2014.
Owens, Ernest. "Kris Jenner, Stop Misinterpreting President Obama's Critique of the Kardashians." The Huffington Post. 11 Aug. 2013. The Huffington Post. 29 Apr. 204 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ernest-owens/kris-jenner-stop-misinter_b_3741006.html>.