The theme for tonight is ‘little-known or slightly embarrassing passions for unexpected things’, but I don’t think anything I’m into would come as a surprise to anyone who’s glanced at my Twitter or read any of my writing or spoken to me for more than a few minutes. So, instead of something new or surprising, I’m going to talk about something that’s related to what I kind of wrote about in the latest issue of Kill Your Darlings.
For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. And that’s ‘series’, plural. If you’re one of the millions of Kardashian-deniers in the world, you might not know that the family’s reality TV empire extends beyond the flagship show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which is in its 10th season right now.
I’m going to divert really quickly to say that I started writing this talk a few weeks ago, and have been editing it every Monday night since, because every time a new episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians airs I have something new to say about them. Today was the mid-season finale of season 10, in which Kim announced she’s pregnant for the second time. I just had to mention that so you know I’ve got my finger on the pulse and am not faking this.
Also, I’m just diverting from my diversion to mention that, the morning after delivering this talk at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, we woke up to Caitlyn Jenner’s stunning Vanity Fair cover. SO MUCH HAPPENED IN THAT 24-HOUR PERIOD, YOU GUYS. With this in mind, I’ve edited this piece to reflect Caitlyn’s name and preferred pronouns. – BL
I’ve seen every episode in those 10 seasons, as well as all the spinoff series: Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons (one season), Kourtney and Kim Take Miami (three seasons), Kourtney and Kim Take New York (two seasons) and Khloé and Lamar, which followed newlyweds Lamar Odom and Khloé Kardashian Odom for two seasons of their marriage, during which time they released the fragrance Unbreakable, before breaking up.
I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons.
As Matt Thomas wrote on The Decider, ‘opening an essay about the Kardashians by noting that people hate the Kardashians has become almost as clichéd as hating the Kardashians.’ But I’m doing it anyway. I really don’t want this to descend into a ‘Leave Britney Alone’-style rant, but, guys, we need to leave Kim alone.
Even more than the rest of her family, Kim Kardashian West is treated horribly by the media, and people in general. She’s labeled brainless and conceited just as readily as she’s torn apart for genuinely raising awareness of the Armenian Genocide, or for (naively) trying to articulate her experiences of racism after becoming a mother to a mixed-race child. People flood comments of any article or Facebook post about her, and complain that the world is sick of seeing her face (or butt) whenever she poses for a new photoshoot; but when, after a particularly nasty attack by paparazzi, Kim requested privacy in the final weeks of her pregnancy with North, she was basically told to lie in the bed of overexposure that she’d made for herself.
Kim has recently been on the promotional trail for her new Rizzoli book, Selfish, which in itself has highlighted one of (to my mind) the greatest gifts the Kardashians have ever given us: the transparency about what is really required to look the way they do.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that they’re ‘promoting unhealthy or unrealistic bodies’, but unlike celebrities I grew up looking at, there’s no mystery surrounding how the Kardashians and Jenners achieve their appearances. In her book and in interviews, Kim is upfront about the hours she spends with her ‘glam team’ every day. In a recent episode of the show, Khloé brought Kim and Kendall along to a laser clinic where she was having her cellulite and stretch marks treated. ‘When you’re photographed all the time,’ Khloé told the camera, ‘it’s natural to have insecurities and want to change certain things about yourself.’ Later in the same episode, Kim did a nude shoot and voiced concerns a recent psoriasis inflammation could affect the final shots.
The Instagram accounts of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie and Kris show a combination of skin treatments, contouring, vampire facials, lasering, hair bleaching, lip fillers, waist training and weight training. I’m not one to indulge in or enjoy or even, really, tolerate diet talk, but in the case of the Kardashian sisters, I appreciate the honesty they offer their followers. Sure, they’re placing greater importance on their image and their bodies than their minds, but the same can be said for professional sportspeople or models. Rather than looking at the finished product and claiming they’ve promoted unachievable standards for beauty, I observe the steps Kim and her sisters took to get there, documented to death, and see that it might be achievable – if you wanted to achieve it, which I clearly do not.
In her review of Kim’s book, Haley Mlotek examines the line of thinking that’s become the ultimate insult to lob at Kim:
The trajectory of Kim’s career – from daughter of a prominent lawyer to a tech, beauty and fashion tycoon with an estimated $65 million personal net worth – is one critics have often reduced to “nothing”. As in, “she’s famous for nothing.” The statement betrays its own logical inconsistencies: do we still believe there is more to fame than fame itself? (…)
As a public figure, Kardashian West has made herself one of the only commodities on Earth with a value that increases the more available it becomes. Her worth is not about scarcity. It’s about access.
Maybe that access is why the Kardashian/Jenners rub people the wrong way. After all, they’re not doing anything different cosmetically, financially or socially than any other celebrity – it’s just that their cosmetics, finances and social lives are the reason for their celebrity, and for some reason we want more than that from our tabloid cover stars.
We want to see celebrities in fictionalised stories only, or in highly produced photoshoots only, or photographed without their consent doing things that are ‘Just Like Us!’: grocery shopping or taking out the bins. We don’t want their image and their work to be one and the same, particularly if they control that image and that work is a version of their everyday lives.
The other members of the family are similarly treated as scapegoats to support whatever message we want to reinforce that day. Either the Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner is a careless, selfish monster for not going on the record during Diane Sawyer’s groundbreaking, tell-all interview about Caitlyn’s transition, or she’s an opportunistic, selfish monster for producing a separate TV special featuring Caitlyn and their children, to document the family’s response to Caitlyn’s story.
The night after the Diane Sawyer interview aired, my favourite feature of the family re-emerged: their ride or die support of one another. In this case, it was even more special than when they congratulate one another on landing a magazine cover, or go into bat in beefs against Amber Rose or Perez Hilton, or fly out en masse to see Kanye perform, or share photos of their new nieces, nephews and grandchildren. They’ve always been one another’s biggest fans, but following Caitlyn’s announcement, the family’s celebratory posts took a turn for the sincere, praising the honesty, courage and bravery it took for Caitlyn to come out and expressing their absolute love for her.
Weeks later, when the two-part special ‘About Bruce’ aired, we bore witness to a close-knit family dealing with the grief of losing the patriarch they knew, as Caitlyn began the transition into the woman she’s always been.
‘All the family has to do to be successful is to opt in to the very public experience of living.’ Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in an excellent profile on Kris Jenner for the New York Times recently. ‘They have to share their secrets, broadcast their doctor’s appointments, admit that their whim of a marriage was a terrible idea, ugly-cry when they remember their father, let the cameras roll as they emote jealousy or anger or confusion or humiliation. If they do all this, the family business thrives.’
That family business, I should add, was estimated to be a cumulative $101 million in 2014.
Any time one of her daughters does anything special, Kris Jenner tags her posts about it on social media #proudmama. Kim is on the cover of Vogue Brasil: “#proudmama #mygirl”; Khloé looks hot at a club appearance in New York: “Blown away by all my girls!! #stunning #proudmama #caniborrowthedress”; Kendall walks the red carpet at Cannes in an Alaia gown: “Wow!!!!! you look like a princess!!! #okayweknowimobsessed #thatsmygirl #proudmama”
I’m so used to seeing this tag that I almost didn’t register when she recently attached it to a photo of Kanye West’s graduation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received an honorary doctorate recently.
The only thing I love more than the Kardashians (and as much as One Direction) is Kanye.
Kanye lost his mother, Donda, in 2007 and, after being shunned from the entertainment industry following his Taylor Swift stage-crash in 2009, lost every personal and career touchstone he’d spent so long working for. He gave an interview in 2010 where he said you couldn’t take anything away from him because he’d already lost everything. ‘I don’t have a mother, I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have a daughter,’ he told the host of a morning radio show.
When I saw Kris refer to herself as Kanye’s #proudmama, and, in a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, when I watched Kanye and North film the video for his song Only One under Kim’s watchful eye, I realised my favourite guy now has everything he lost five years ago. He has a wife and a daughter (and another baby on the way), and even though his mum is gone, he’s been welcomed into the fold of a family that has transformed what that word even means.
So, I opened by saying I wasn’t interested in defending why I love the Kardashians, and then proceeded to do just that. And that’s because the show itself and the characters within it – that very vaguely resemble actual human people you or I might encounter – are really funny and silly and I get a lot of joy from watching them. I’m not under the impression that what I’m watching is of high quality or particularly grounded in reality or stimulating in any way. But that doesn’t make it any less valid.
There are only maybe five other TV shows I’ve ever watched that have made me laugh as much as I did when Kris Jenner got in trouble for using the waffle maker Khloé got as a wedding gift, or when Caitlyn Jenner seemed so confused about who or what “Yeezus” was when she saw the rest of the family wearing Kanye’s merchandise, or when Khloé became addicted to Cuban coffee for the length of one episode, or when Scott decided to move his office into a mobile home that Kourtney then drove away, or when Kim decided to be a private eye and help Miami police locate a missing girl.
Also, this might not be a cool or impressive thing to say in literary circles, but I don’t have a great vocabulary. I find dense, academic writing boring, and I don’t read it. But this very fact is one of the reasons I love listening to Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie and Kris talk to one another: they sound like me. When they like something, it’s ‘amazing’ and they’re ‘obsessed’ with it. When they’re unimpressed with one of their sisters, they call them ‘annoying’ and rarely anything worse, then go back to eating the huge bowls of lettuce that are literally always in front of them.
Paparazzi are ‘annoying’. Kim is ‘obsessed’ with Balenciaga. Kylie’s Tumblr is ‘amazing’. Bible: I love it. I live for it.
But, in writing this and doing lots of watching and reading about the Kardashian/Jenners as “research”, I had a revelation.
Reality TV, including and especially Keeping Up With the Kardashians, is often criticised for not actually depicting reality, because it shows real events being contextualised and shuffled around to fit a convenient narrative that can be wrapped up in time for the final commercial break.
But the more I think about it, the more I realise that that’s no different to any non-fiction writing. We edit out the ‘umms’ and ‘aahs’ in interviews, we restructure events we experienced or exaggerate feelings we had in service to the reader, to create logical steps from one moment to the next. We might not recreate actual events for the sake of cohesion, but as writers, we pass our recording of the world through a filter of subjectivity, we break it up and reassemble it to create a narrative.
And in that way, we are all Kris Jenner. There are much worse things to be.
This piece was originally performed at the Kill Your Darlings Nerds Gone Wild event at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.