I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that I’ve been keeping up with the Kardashians since their show premiered on the E! Channel in 2007. I have watched their True Hollywood Story several times, and I generally stay up-to-date on their activities. I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the cultural phenomenon that is Kim Kardashian and her family, as well as the rather disproportionately rabid public antagonism they have received. In mid-2012, Kim was ranked the second most hated person in America by a New York Post readers’ poll – under Casey Anthony, and above Jerry fucking Sandusky. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike the Kardashians (in my opinion they’re all pretty insufferable people, except for Khloe, who I believe is a goddess), but they’re hardly comparable to a serial pedophile. This seems to indicate that the mass hatred of the Kardashians runs deeper than their apparently vain and airheaded ways. I argue that it’s rooted in the core of patriarchal capitalism in America.
The story of the Kardashian family as figures of pop culture begins with Kim, born in 1980, the second of four children, to Robert Kardashian, an attorney noted most for representing O.J. Simpson during his murder trial, and Kristen “Kris” Houghton. Kris filed for divorce from Robert in 1990, amid disagreements over money, accusations of emotional abuse, and an affair Kris was having with a professional soccer player. Robert died of esophageal cancer in 2003, his death rumored by some in the family’s circle to have been accelerated by the divorce. In 1991, Kris remarried former Olympian Bruce Jenner, who had four children of his own from a previous marriage. The new couple had two daughters, Kendall and Kylie, bringing their household total to 10 children.
Kim graduated from high school in 1998, choosing to enter the workforce rather than attend college. In 2000, when she was 19, she eloped with music producer Damon Thomas. The relationship lasted only two years, with the divorce finalized in 2004. Having been catapulted from homemaker to independent woman, Kim was in need of income, finding it when singer Brandy hired her as a stylist. Kim met and began dating Brandy’s brother Ray J during this time, though the relationship was fairly short-lived. The stint evolved into full-time employment for Kim as a celebrity stylist. With the money from her booming business, in 2006 Kim opened the clothing boutique D-A-S-H with her older sister Kourtney and younger sister Khloe. Clients such as Paris Hilton introduced Kim to the socialite scene, and slowly she began to accumulate modest notoriety.
In 2007, the notorious sex tape made by Kim and Ray J when they had been dating years earlier was leaked and released by Vivid Entertainment, a pornography production company. Kim sued Vivid for rights to the tape, settling for $5 million in April. Media hype surrounding the tape and the enigmatic Kardashian clan compelled the E! Channel to capitalize on the trend, and only six months after the settlement with Vivid, Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered. Within a year, Kardashian was a household name.
Countless reality shows have been made about B- and C-list celebrities when they happen upon media buzz for one reason or another, but it is rare for such shows to survive the first season or two, nor provide their subjects with sustainable fame and income. What seem to differentiate the Kardashians – especially “momager” Kris, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney – are their ruthless opportunism, relentless creativity, and intelligence for business. Keeping Up pays handsomely in and of itself, but the Kardashians chose to interpret the show as a platform for more high-earning and stable business ventures. Kim posed for Playboy in December 2007, and in 2008 appeared on Dancing with the Stars as well as in the film Disaster Movie. The family has pursued numerous enterprises over the years, including spin-off reality shows, expanding the D-A-S-H boutique chain, crafting entertainment careers for other Kardashians, myriad television appearances and endorsement deals, products ranging from fragrances to jewelry to credit cards, and generally keeping themselves in the headlines. In 2010 alone, the Kardashian family netted $65 million, as much as Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, and Tom Cruise are estimated to have earned that year combined.
It’s worth noting that the clan’s success cannot be wholly attributed to work ethic – their pre-existing membership in the upper class should certainly not be understated. But why aren’t the Kardashians just another wealthy, materialistic Hollywood family? Why do we know their names and not, say, those of their equally privileged and beautiful neighbors? I believe the difference is their naturally attention-grabbing business model of scandal-for-profit.
In 2011, the Kardashians embarked on what I consider to be the zenith of their self-exploitation and manipulation of celebrity media – Kim’s marriage to Kris Humphries, a basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets, following a brief and highly publicized courtship. Between endorsements, broadcast rights, photo-ops, and extensive hype, Kim profited $18 million from the wedding. After 72 days she filed for divorce from Humphries, who had signed a restrictive pre-nuptial agreement. He is seeking an annulment (which, if granted, would dismiss the pre-nup) rather than a divorce under accusation of fraud, but it appears unlikely his claim will be granted due in part to evidence of adultery. It appears that the Kardashians sensed a marriage for Kim would be an epic cash cow, located a clueless male vessel, and cast him away once the checks had been deposited. It’s difficult for me to pity a professional athlete who made $16.9 million last year anyway, let alone one who proved himself to be a giant, leaky douchebag in his appearances on Keeping Up. Further, I am impressed with the icy, calculating nature of the wedding scheme, though I’m in the minority on that one, as can be seen in the New York Post’s poll.
Perhaps the wedding scheme was in reasonably bad taste, but I believe society’s offense at the Kardashians is due in part to the family’s subversion of traditional gender roles in patriarchal capitalism. The Kardashians are one in a long line of examples that ruthless opportunism, business acumen, and cold ambition are key ingredients for success in the Western free market. Why are they so despised for doing what Alec Baldwin urges all of us to do in his (albeit nauseatingly macho) speech in Glengarry Glen Ross? The difference appears to be the fact that the Kardashians have built their careers largely upon sexuality; but the American economy in general is dependent on the exploitation of female sexuality, between the great need of advertisers for attractive women to endorse/wear/stand near their products, the booming industry surrounding female physical/sexual insecurities, explicitly sexual markets such as pornography, and the list goes on. The Kardashians, however, alienate themselves from this accepted economy of female sexuality by saturating the profits of self-exploitation within their nepotistic empire, for themselves, rather than being employees of and primarily making money for men, as is the situation of most women in both explicit and implicit sexual markets. Holly Madison is a fitting example of the latter.
As the “number one” girlfriend of Hugh Hefner and a noted Playmate, Madison succeeded through capitalizing on her sexuality. She starred in E! Channel’s reality show The Girls Next Door, following the escapades of Hefner’s three live-in girlfriends. The show magnified Madison’s fame, creating a platform for Kardashian-esque self-exploitation, but as an employee of Playboy she was forbidden from pursuing business ventures for herself. She endorsed only Playboy products and thus most of the profit from her work landed in Hefner’s pocket. Following their breakup, Madison was left with relatively little money of her own, and essentially had to start from scratch as a performer in Las Vegas. Both Holly Madison and Kim Kardashian have built their fame and careers upon their sexualities, but only one is publicly vilified – the same one who has profited most from her self-exploitation and who has had the most freedom to create her own business enterprises, Kim Kardashian. Patriarchal society is uncomfortable with female sexuality when it is not somehow controlled by men, even more so when women capitalize on their own sexuality for their own gain, rather than primarily the gain of men as is the industry norm (and, really, the society norm). I’m certain the influence of our patriarchal value system is not the only factor at work in the differential public opinions of Kim Kardashian and Holly Madison – in fact, I would argue that race plays a considerable role – but disregarding the effect would be willfully ignorant of both this specific situation and broader patterns in society.
In my opinion, the Kardashian phenomenon exemplifies the patriarchal hue of American capitalism – ruthless, calculating opportunism is regarded as a favorable trait when possessed by traditional businessmen, despite the fact that such behavior on the part of powerful corporate types can and does have devastating effects on families and communities (e.g., Bain Capital). Further, these characteristics are not thought of as highly in women who occupy similar positions, being that businesswomen are expected to walk an impossible line between aggression and submission if they hope to gain the respect of male peers. When the Kardashians use these traits as well as self-exploitation of sexuality in the interest of profit, doing pretty much no harm to others in the process (except Kris Humphries, but does anyone even care?) they are seen as scourges of society, worth hating more than a serial pedophile. Public opinion of this family is shaped, at least in part, by slut-shaming impulses and gendered double-standards of behavior within the structure of capitalism in America. I keep up with the Kardashians because they subvert these social forces, trucking ever-onward to greater accumulation of wealth, paying no mind to the haters and shamers. You go, girls.
Or maybe I just want a quasi-intellectual excuse to watch trashy TV. Whatever works.
Reader submission by Julia Richardson, Kardashian Korrespondent