American Institution and Global Logo: Notes on Kim Kardashian

It is one of the errors of ‘serious art’ and its devotees to dismiss what millions enjoy on a daily basis. Reality TV tends to attract a disregard that prohibits anything more than claims of its arbitrary nature and melodramatic predictions of the death of culture. Part of the collective known derogatively as popular entertainment, those trends that leak into the wider conversation are treated with an equal off-handedness - Paris Hilton, Big Brother, talent shows. And if any figure has truly breached those limits, who can no longer be considered solely as a TV personality, it is Kim Kardashian. Borne from any other beginnings, Kardashian would be studied like any innovator, captivator or public spectacle. The notes that follow are an attempt of just that: an understanding of an intensely modern phenomenon.

It is with ease to the point of platitude that Kardashian is compared to that deity so relevant to the digital age, Narcissus. But when she peers into the pond - or more fittingly, the glass screen - it is not her own image she sees returned, but ours. Ours is the mark of the hypocrite when, as a culture, we accuse Kardashian of the same self-regard we are so accustomed to offering ourselves. That reflection is made singular when we watch her, and fractured into millions when she looks through at us. All celebrity, parasitical in nature, survives for as long as its host does. If the audience is not there, then the opportunity dies.

That need, however, that want for her reality, to read her tweets, see her Instagram posts, and to experience the thrill of the voyeur in a legal environment, is not unanimous in its ask. Two aspects of Kardashian’s fame split her fans and critics: her aesthetic beauty, and her social life. Both are picture perfect imitations of the daily made dream-like. Male culture generally, while attentive of her physical appearance, is critical of the fascination held for her home life. To watch Keeping up with the Kardashians, there is an express interest in the domestic, and as a result, the genre of Kardashian television is slotted into the category of feminine preoccupations.

Kardashian is four parts politician, six parts businesswoman

Those domestic and public spheres formed by Victorian hands still hold overt implications for us today, however many women enter the workplace, however many men halt their careers to care for their children. Men do not experience reality TV as women do because there is an acceptance that it is not for them. There is no difference between this and buying trucks for boys and dolls for girls. The task of making a house a home is still considered a wife’s job, a mother’s presence.

The place at which heterosexual male culture meets its female counterpart in relation to Kardashian is best summarised by Roland Barthes. In analysing the appeal of the striptease, he describes how, ‘There will be in striptease a whole series of coverings placed upon the body of the woman in proportion as she pretends to strip it bare.’ In both her publicised home life, and in her physical image, Kardashian is an expert in the pretence of exposure. She maintains control, offers just enough to draw her audience back again and again. It must not be forgotten that Kardashian is four parts politician, six parts businesswoman.

Alongside Kardashian’s rise to international fame was the forward momentum of another star: social media. Kim Kardashian as a creative idea has grown with the internet as its reach spread globally. Her understanding of its ability as a medium to stimulate income and exposure is second to none. The internet, that great democratiser of experience and anonymity, allows Kardashian to speak directly to her audience. To a degree never available to the magazine photo shoot or television interview, social media allows for the celebrity to appear personal, responsive. At any point she chooses, she is on your screen. With this, her public persona is both reinforced while the otherness of her situation is regularly challenged.

The distance that inevitably comes with her position is both her appeal and has the potential to curtail her career. She must establish a specific relationship between connection and superiority, familiarity and separation, otherwise the spell will be broken. Kardashian is like us, yes, but she is not us. If she were, the desire to follow would be lost, while on the other hand, if she disappeared too far from us, she would fall into the same category of a monarch, a Howard Hughes-esque, eccentric millionaire. To succeed, she must balance Kardashian the icon with Kim the comfort. Encased in its cold, digital atmosphere while transmitting instant messages and photos from her home, social media is the perfect platform to maintain this relationship.

the Kardashian name is an American institution and a global logo. What she has performed is a rebranding

What the components of Kardashian’s success add up to, however, is an inability for a large portion of the population to take her seriously. She stands upon seemingly trivial or transient ideas – social media, the domesticated home, fashion, fame – but what these things add up to is a life. Regardless of its truth, whether or not the Kardashian we see on television or on our phones is the ‘real’ Kardashian life, is of no import. Either way, why there is always an audience for it is because she is telling a story; social commentary, fairy-tale, family saga, coming-of-age documentary.

Men have been telling these stories for centuries, of their exploits, their daily lives and artistic constructs. The story of Man is inescapable, and because of that it has been accepted without challenge, from the Iliad all the way through to Donald J. Trump. Kardashian’s particular story, of monetary gain and the pursuit of celebrity, is nothing new to anyone. It is a story that has been told to us relentlessly. The only difference is a combination of modern desires, and a feminine perspective; the bricks with which she has built her career only seem trivial because the cement is still trying to dry.

Kardashian did not define our wants; she simply caters to those that already existed, and to cater to the so-called ‘guilty pleasures’ of the public is a service many before her have fulfilled. The truth is that our culture continues to force women to explain themselves in cases where a man never would. Men are buoyed by centuries of male reinforcement. Kardashian has no such security, and so her story is trivialised, patronised.

Despite these boundaries, Kardashian has transmuted something held so dear to patriarchal history: the family name. As well-known as her father may be, the Kardashian surname is no longer a masculine inference, but a feminine dynasty. Synonymous with Kennedy or Rockefeller, the Kardashian name is an American institution and a global logo. What she has performed is a rebranding. 

History demonstrates that masculinity defines the exterior world surrounding it: it is the male who names, who restrains. Most recently, Donald Trump succeeded in rebranding Hillary Clinton. In managing to make ‘Crooked Clinton’ stick, he was able to defer criminality away from his own image. To do this all that was required was his birth-right and privilege: the male gaze. Clinton, however experienced she is in the political arena, had no equivalent. In his voters’ eyes, Trump became the politician, she the criminal. Kardashian, however, rebranded Kardashian.

‘Females sluggish, eager, artful, stupid, callous, lustful, ferocious, abased’ de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, ‘man projects them all at once upon woman.’ Marilyn Monroe understood that the sex symbol, in a lineage running from Eve to Pamela Anderson, must bear the weight of these projections to such a degree that self must struggle constantly against objectification. Kardashian is the latest of this bloodline and, though it would be naïve, even harmful, to say that she is free from the artificial restrictions of her predecessors, it does not seem feasible that any man could reverse her Midas touch.

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