For most of us, Keeping Up With the Kardashians provides a welcome dose of escapism, a chance to turn off our brains and lay aside the existential burdens of modern life. Unless you’re an academic, that is. While the rest of us have been mindlessly double-tapping to plump Kylie’s lips, scholars around the world have been grappling with the profound meanings of the Kardashian phenomenon, using the family to probe into our society’s deepest pathologies.
In 2015, Dr. Meredith Jones, Reader at Brunel University London, organized the Kimposium, the world’s first academic conference devoted entirely to, as Jones put it, “arguably the USA’s new ‘royal’ family.” Presentations covered a variety of topics, from fourth-wave feminism and body politics to race and neoliberalism, and touched on every element of the Kardashian empire, from Caitlyn’s transition to Kim’s vulva. Activists, artists and culture writers presented alongside traditional scholars since, as anyone who spends any time consuming any form of media will quickly notice, the Kardashians attract mass curiosity.
“I wanted to organize [the Kimposium] because they’re such an important cultural object,” Jones told me in a recent phone interview. “The Kardashians, if you think about them from cultural or sociological terms, they’re in many ways really definitive of contemporary life.”
Most Kimposium presenters viewed the Kardashians as the culminating point of a variety of larger cultural trends. They are the perfect mirror into our collective psyche—whether you like what you see there or not. “I don’t want to disparage them because I think that they do just express the values that our cultures tend to have,” Jones said.
This even-handed tone rang through many of the conference’s presentations, with scholars serving up shade where it was due while avoiding falling into the lazy critic’s trap of surface-level distaste. As Jones suggested, to call out the Kardashians for something like their emphasis on “consumption and consumerism” is hypocritical unless we acknowledge that these qualities are born from our broader culture. It’s hard to know how much of the dismissiveness and ire directed at the Kardashians traces back to discomfort about perceived cultural deterioration, but the academic consensus seems to be that haters are probably avoiding some uncomfortable self-reflection.
In her presentation titled Kardashian Komplicity: Beauty Work in Postfeminist Neoliberal Times, Dr. Giuliana Monteverde, Lecturer at the University of Ulster, proposed that the Kardashian image “should be both defended and critiqued”—defended against sexist dismissals based on their exaggerated beauty and sexuality, but critiqued for the ways their brand perpetuates “a post-feminist neoliberal rationality.” As Dr. Simidele Dosekun, Lecturer in Media and Culture Studies at the University of Sussex, explained in her Kimposium presentation, post-feminism is “a very celebratory cultural sensibility that positions women as empowered, but constructs this empowerment in delimited and problematic ways,” taking it for granted that women are free from the patriarchy even as they still perform rigid, traditional scripts of appearance and behaviour. In Monteverde’s opinion, the Kardashians should be held accountable for cashing in on an archaic version of gender but defended against the misogyny of many of their critics.
Monteverde referenced a 2013 book by Dr. Amanda Scheiner McClain, Keeping Up the Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality. “I was interested in the Kardashians because they are ubiquitous, because of their breadth and depth of media use and their obvious success, and that made them a great text to study,” McClain, who is an Associate Professor of Communications at Philadelphia’s Holy Family University, told me. “People either love or hate the Kardashians, but everyone is interested.”
While Monteverde argued that the Kardashians perpetuate caricatured and damaging ideas about gender, Jones had a more optimistic take. “It’s really an all-woman family, the men play a very small part,” their weaknesses providing much of the show’s comic relief, she said. “But then all of that powerful women, women as businesswomen, women as in control of their own sexuality stuff, all of that is still wrapped up in this incredible drive for bodily perfection and for bodily adornment,” which is “at least equally important as the fact that these women are in charge of their own financial destinies, their own sexual destinies, etc.”
Dr. Elizabeth Wissinger, Professor of Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY, elaborated on how the Kardashian brand of beauty relates to our current social landscape. “I think they fit well with the Trump American version of what’s considered good femininity,” Wissinger told me. “It’s this idea of pliant femininity that is polished and presented in this uniform way.”
“They give an illusion of feminine empowerment, but their empowerment is firmly within the boundaries of beauty culture, feminine culture, fashion culture,” Wissinger added. “It’s like empowerment™. It’s a brand.”
Academic coverage on the Kardashians has been sparse, but Jones said she has seen a rise since the Kimposium. Most recent studies in media mention the Kardashians, but whole books have also been devoted to them, from the theoretical, like McClain’s, to the practical, like The Kim Kardashian Principle: why shameless sells (and how to do it right). Award-winning poet Sam Riviere even published a poetry collection called Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, a philosophical tour of the modern culturescape organized into sections titled with the steps of Kim’s makeup routine (Primer, Contour, etc.) . Undergraduate and graduate dissertations have been devoted to the Kardashians, and several more are in progress around the world.
Jones herself is writing a book that will explore how the Kardashians are perceived as role models, using interviews with British women aged 18-25. “There’s all of these incredibly burdensome expectations on women in the public eye, and there’s actually no way that they can win, no way to get it right because no matter what you do, for women in the public eye, someone will attack you,” Jones said. Musing about the parallels between Kris Jenner and Donald Trump, she added, “A woman in the public eye can do exactly what a man does, and he’ll be congratulated, and she’ll be told she’s fat.”
Three years before the 2016 election, McClain also picked up on the overlaps between Kris Jenner and Donald Trump. What at the time was an offhand observation now reads like an eerie prophecy. “Political views aside, the rise of the Kardashians and Trump is similar. They both started out rich and low-level celebrities; they both used reality TV to raise their national profile; they both use social media’s direct connection to fans and the ability to construct and convey perceived authenticity to build a brand; both rode cultural trends of narcissism and materialism to high levels of celebrity,” McClain said. Jones agreed: “If anything, more recent political events have just made more concrete my ideas about the Kardashians. All the stuff about appearance and superficiality and a real glorification of wealth for its own sake. I could be describing Donald Trump.”
The Kardashian phenomenon also reflects the economic realities of our times, Wissinger explained. In a paper she co-wrote with Dr. Brooke Erin Duffy of Cornell University, “Mythologies of Creative Work in the Social Media Age: Fun, Free, and ‘Just Being Me’”, she studied the gig economy and Instafame. The paper analyzed “the rhetoric espoused by the people in that cycle of making money from being cool,” like YouTube stars and Instagram influencers who get paid to market products. The entire economy rides on the principle that for few to find success, many need to buy into the promise of it, Wissinger said. Despite the many barriers in place that only let a tiny minority reach the highest tiers of fame, “it’s part of the way the system works that everybody needs to think that they can be a YouTube star in order to keep going back and watching, and liking, and contributing content to the platform that continuously needs new content.”
The Kardashians are the most extreme example of this type of specific, contemporary success, driving this “economy of cool” by insinuating that you can like, follow and tweet your way to the top.
Whether the Kardashian dynasty holds for decades or abruptly fades out of the spotlight, as long as the media continues to chronicle each new outfit, baby and makeup line for hungry fans, academics will keep slaving away to decipher the meaning behind it all. As Jones put it, “they’re kind of the goddesses of our moment, and we can’t get away from that.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.