Story by MJ Corey
Illustration by Sam Tuvesson
To understand how a collective cultural obsession with the Kardashians came to be might require an understanding of how an individual’s obsession with them happened. I run the instagram page kardashian_kolloquium, on which I alternately meme and hyper-intellectualize the family’s billion-dollar franchise. Apple tells me I spend fifteen hours a week on the account, so my little project might constitute obsession. On the bright side, my followers engage in banter and discourse in the comments, reminding me I’m not the only one who craves a processing space for this absurd, Kris Jenner-concocted phenomenon.
How’d it start for me? Technically I’m a latecomer, though it’s true that back in the early 2000s—when tabloids typically identified her as “Paris Hilton and friend”—Kim Kardashian’s vaguely Middle Eastern appearance struck me. A woman of Arab descent, I was less white passing then than I am today, and the “It Girls” of the new millennium were painfully white. Some members of the “Holy Trinity”—Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Paris – even seemed to glorify a certain bored sadism that was mimicked by the Mean Girls at my midwestern prep school (e.g. Hilton’s “Stop Being Poor” t-shirt and her comments about “disgusting gay guys” and AIDs). I wanted to see somebody—anybody—in the spotlight who was just a little bit different; Kim intrigued me by contrasting Paris in both looks and demeanor.
In fact, the latter is my foundational theory of the empire’s power. Though the KarJenner women possess the same privilege and vocal fry as their wild child predecessors, Kris Jenner seems to run a tight ship when it comes to her daughters’ table manners. They took care to express graciousness at every level of their rise (with a particular emphasis on punctuality); and, as Nat Natles of the “Say Bible!” podcast points out: “None of them have drug or alcohol addictions or anything like that. As far as beefs, they know who to come for and who not to – and they keep it at a Twitter fingers level.” Strategic self-containment keeps Kardashian content consumable for audiences—“fun, petty, and entertaining,” rather than chaotic or overwhelming. In short: the Kardashians stick to a standard of professionalism that makes it easy to keep up with them.
When my high school self turned to Google to get the story on Paris’s nameless—yet super eager—“assistant,” I learned what we all know now: Kim was half-Armenian, the daughter of OJ Simpson’s defense attorney, and essentially, a very pretty underdog/wannabe. There wasn’t much about her to be a fan of—even after their friendship deteriorated, that fateful sex tape leaked, and, in 2007, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” premiered on E!
At the time I considered reality television to be junk food for the brain, so I didn’t tune in. Still, as “KUWTK” seasons went on, paparazzi and appearance photos of Kim became increasingly inescapable in the media. She was “famous for being famous;” a concept named and normalized more and more in cultural discussions as reality television emerged as a dominant genre. In 2007, major networks responded to the “American Idol”/”Big Brother” boom by signing on 50% more “unscripted” pilots than the year before. Unknowingly predicting the social media era to come, Americans were captivated by “real people” and “true stories,” due to many presumable reasons fit for their own essay (or dissertation).
And so, the next stratum of Kim’s power: She’s the poster girl of an ever-changing landscape of American media, tracking cable television to Smartphone video games. “KUWTK” was a “fly on the wall” series rooted in the successful tradition of shows like “The Osbournes,” “Newlyweds,” and “The Anna Nicole Show.” But her online sex scandal made her viral at a time when viral marketing, trending topics, and memes were still newish concepts. It was the Internet that turned out to be Kim’s most essential key into all our lives—using as, Natles points out: “the classic formula– sex sells.”
In 2014, when she appeared nude on the cover of Paper Magazine in a controversial photograph taken by Jean-Paul Goude, Paper’s stated goal was to “#breaktheinternet.” Marry a challenging hashtag with an explosive image? As millennials, we know the sheer power of that kind of equation. Paper’s website reached almost 16 million hits in one day. Kardashian has been at the helm of every new medium—Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Bitmojis, video game apps—and will continue to be.
But I’ve lost track of time and space. It’s only 2012 now, when I still wasn’t paying much attention to the growing “KUWTK” empire. That is, until Kim and Kanye West began dating and Kim’s gaudy LA-princess aesthetic elevated to something haute and post-modern, the rest of her family following suit. Even Kris Jenner was wearing monochrome getups and Yeezy sneakers. Thus, my second wave of intrigue with Kim Kardashian: the Kanye ascendance.
West was still several years away from his infamous right-wing meltdown; at the time, he was merely a grandiose auteur with a history of impulsivity. I’d always admired him, and Kanye the visionary clearly saw something special in Kim. “She created something really powerful that the universe connected with,” he told Vogue in 2014. A misunderstood genius like Kanye and an ex-underdog with muse-potential like Kim was an iconic coupling in my book—but that might not be the only reason their love legitimized her brand.
Like life itself, Kim’s main constant has been change, and, after Kanye, she started to make that fact her “thing.” This principle has come to reflect the rest of the Kardashian-Jenners. When the world was buzzing about Kylie’s new lips, she announced that she’d gotten fillers. When the world was buzzing about the fillers, she built a billion-dollar lip-oriented cosmetics franchise. And why was the world buzzing? Evolution is the essence of existence on just about every plane—biological, psychological, and physical—and humans respond primitively to depictions of transformation. It’s what engages us in our books, movies, and TV shows.
Literary theorist Joseph Campbell called this the “Hero’s Journey.” He wrote that the soul of any good story is at its root about the journey of the main character: “the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and historical limitations” to face the “desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.” The Kardashians’ public narratives have been self-aware demonstrations of hero’s journeys—if not particularly valiant ones, at least super photogenic.
Still. I remained void of interest in “KUWTK” as a show. Many people said it was dumb and I believed them. I simply appreciated the inescapable images of a now ever-changing Kim Kardashian, and left it at that.
The summer of 2017 is when my life changed. I’d been living in a perfect Brooklyn apartment with my best friend and my girlfriend, and they were both moving out. My BFF had music dreams to chase in Atlanta; my girlfriend was starting law school. It was my girlfriend who went first—at my encouragement. She was an alcoholic. I’d pushed her to choose a California school over New York because the program seemed like a better fit, but also because I wanted space from the chaos so often caused by her drinking problem. When she left for orientation, though, I began to feel the ache of a profound loneliness. She really had been my greatest love.
I wasn’t alone yet, though. My BFF and I had one bittersweet week left, and she picked TV shows for us to watch while we packed up the rest of her things. One night she said, “I’m in the mood to watch luxury,” and chose “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
This was a form of initiation that seems to be how most people get into the show: “A friend put it on and made me watch it,” Natles told me. “All it took was one episode.” Pia Marchetti (illustrator of kardashian_kolloquium’s logo) had the same experience: “My girlfriend introduced me. Then we decided to watch the whole thing the whole way through.”
My best friend nodded at my captivation as our barren living room filled with shouts – Kim Kardashian and her younger brother, Rob, were arguing at the pool of a Bora Bora resort about his lack of direction in life. “I think you’re a whore and should shut up,” he told Kim. The swift delivery of Rob’s insult was even funnier in moving form than all the gifs I’d seen of it on Instagram. But something else about the fight enthralled me even more than its inherent comedy.
“This feels kinda real!”
“Yeah, dude,” BFF said. “Sometimes you can tell it’s staged but other times it gets really real. They put it all out there. I’ve been trying to tell you this. It’s different than other shows.”
Rob deflected Kim’s critiques by scolding her for diva behavior she’d exhibited that morning.
“Mom raised you better than that. Dad raised you better than that,” he said.
Genuine shame seemed to flash across Kim’s face.
I pointed at the TV and yelled. “That seemed real! He just brought up their dead dad. And you could see it on her face!”
For me, much of the show’s power has been about the intense dialectics of its coexisting polish and rawness. I get something out of identifying the mini moments of authenticity to occur in a depiction of reality that – by nature of its medium, reality television—I probably can’t trust. Yet “KUWTK” is such a massive enterprise—with so much multi-media footage of 7+ peoples’ lives- the odds of finding those gem-like moments at least seems higher. A tremble in Kourtney’s monotone voice, a flicker of warm pride in Kris’s camera-ready eyes, a certain tenderness that sometimes shows in Caitlyn’s smile.
My urge to connect with the humanity underlying the show peaked when the episode’s storyline shifted to Scott Disick and Kourtney Kardashian. They were taking a dip in the aforementioned pool, and Scott announced to Kourtney that he wanted to break his sobriety for the vacation.
“Why do you need to drink?” she asked, tensing.
“To fit in,” he shrugged.
I’d been turning over memories of conversations like this in my mind every night.
As my BFF played more episodes, I learned that Kourtney was a closet weirdo who reminded me more of Daria the cartoon than the bite-sized SoCal girl she looked like. Scott, hilarious and easygoing, seemed to be the only person who really ‘got’ her—but he had a history of aggression, cheating, and blacking out when drunk. My existential treasure hunts for “Real Moments” on the show were rewarded by these relatable scenes, which felt like pure truth captured on camera.
I was shocked by how explicitly the show documented and shared their lowest moments —there was a phase when Scott became suicidal and disappeared on the panicked family; at another point he was drunk and alone in broad daylight, shattering bottles on the street—disarray that eventually surpassed anything I’d experienced with my girl. Their cautionary tale provided me lessons I wouldn’t have to learn the hard way. I began to feel closure on the relationship I was grieving.
This is the individualized phase of Kardashian obsession. My sister feels that the impact the Kardashians have had on body image was a big facet for her. “I was moved to see women on TV who didn’t want to be stick-thin. I don’t like what they’re doing now. But in the beginning, before the body modifications and tummy tea stuff—their endorsement of curves was healthy for young women.” Natles agrees with this. “They’ve changed the body image game. It’s cool to have thick thighs and a butt now. And because they’re on that ‘sex sells’ formula, they’ve kind of given women license to be sexy too. We’re all on Instagram doing sexy selfies now—it’s celebratory.”
Which brings Natles to the aspect of the Kardashians that hit her most. “The freedom. There’s no shaming whatsoever in that family. They can do anything. They talk about everything. They talk about their sex lives with their mom. Kris saying ‘you’re doing amazing, sweetie’ while Kim is posing for Playboy. I’m from a really strict family so this shocked me and I loved watching it.”
The Kardashians possess a keen ability to address individual vulnerabilities while really broadcasting for the world at large. This is probably due to the size and scope of the family – every member comes with their own themes and stories to offer. But whether you come to the show with a hunger to see body positivity or bogged by unprocessed relationship angst, there’s one part of the code that works for all of us: family.
When my best friend moved out and the apartment echoed with vacancy, I fell asleep each night watching a family who reverberated with many things, but never loneliness. It didn’t matter if it was an episode of staged hijinks—like when Khloé, Kylie, and Kendall put on prosthetics to look like middle America tourists and roved around Los Angeles—or one of the wrenching ones where Scott over-drinks and has to be carried to bed limp as a ragdoll in the arms of one of his friends. Every single “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” episode is structured like a tidy family sitcom with the same conclusive lesson: “At the end of the day, family is what’s most important.”
It goes without saying that love and belonging—nestled at the center of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—is fundamental to humanity. As a social species, we feel parched and unsafe when we’re isolated (which many of us might feel at night, alone in our beds, the Hulu glow seeping into our faces).
Eventually my sister graduated from college and moved in. I did my part by introducing her to the show. “I’ve never used my brain more while watching anything!” my sister—a FILM THEORY MAJOR—exclaimed.
She pointed out the show’s postmodernism—like the episode wherein Jonathan hires a Kim Kardashian impersonator to be his friend, and together they run into the real Kim; or the one where Caitlyn is in a doctor’s waiting room, picks up a magazine with Kim on the cover, and mutters, “I can’t get away from these people.” My interest in the show became (only semi-ironically) intellectual, which matched the meta direction it was heading anyway.
And now here we are. Besides long-suffering Kourtney—whose self-empowerment journey occupies a deep place in my heart—I don’t know if I even identify as a “fan” of the brand, which has been so successful largely because it reflects a system that is, in many ways, broken. I’m frequently fatigued by their publicity stunts, I’m annoyed when Kylie identifies as self-made, and it would be so easy for them to stop appropriating women of color, yet they relentlessly continue to do so.
Is obsession the best word to describe America’s relationship with the Kardashians? Or do we all just have varying “Keeping Up” levels on some continuum of nonconsensual awareness of their self-asserted ubiquity? If this is the case, I confess that my desire to “Keep Up” is high. UK-based academic Meredith Jones once wrote: “when energy is spent declaring that something is not worth serious consideration, I know it is important. Because when people devote time and space to condemnation, it immediately makes me wonder what social fears or cultural desires might lie beneath the aggression.”
I rescind my moment of doubt. It is some sort of obsession we’re all living with. Half of the women I know in New York have Kylie’s lips, Kim Kardashian has six times more Instagram followers than Obama, and, to take a page from fourth-wall breaking “KUWTK,” you’ve read to the end of this essay. At the conclusion of our conversation, Natles of the “Say Bible!” podcast mentions: “Most people who ‘aren’t interested’ really are. I’ve had guys who say ‘fuck the Kardashians, I don’t care about them’ turn right back around and ask me fifteen questions about who they’re dating.” Which brings us to the ultimate Kardashian formula of all: love or hate them, it’s still an obsession.