Column: The toxic femininity of the Kardashian clan
To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you watch “The Kardashians” without your consent.
However, the family is so ubiquitous that I dare you to pretend you don’t know that Kim is dating “SNL” star Pete Davidson or that the family has a new “reality” show.
I put “reality” in quotes because like the Kardashians themselves, it’s impossible to see where reality ends and fantasy starts.
Have you seen Khloé Kardashian’s face? It is strikingly different from the one she walked around with a few years ago.
Kylie’s lips, which blossomed from pencil-thin to full and sultry some years back, were the subject of endless debate until she copped to cosmetic enhancement.
And don’t even get me started on the evolution of Kim’s impossibly tiny waist and ample posterior, the unlikely combination of which has been studied by body-image researchers, who call this body type “slim-thick,” and say its idealization has a negative effect on women’s body image. (I’m guessing their research subjects were mostly white.)
For all their seeming superficiality, the Kardashians are a cultural force to be reckoned with.
Some cultural critics see the family’s transformations and relationships as disturbing on a deeper level. Their husbands and/or partners have included a number of high-profile Black men, including Kanye West (Kim), NBA stars Lamar Odom and Tristan Thompson (Khloé) and the rapper Travis Scott (Kylie). All three women have biracial children.
“The Kardashians are a prime example of multiracial white supremacy,” Ren Ellis Neyra, a Wesleyan University associate professor of African American studies, wrote in the digital magazine Public Books. “A commercial enterprise posing as a family, the Kardashians are hell-bent on extracting financial gain from Black people and Black culture, even as they stigmatize, in particular, Black women through their project of multiracial whiteness.”
I confess that the Kardashian talk I had with my 12-year-old niece recently was not nearly as intense. As I drove her to middle school and back, we kept passing a huge, extremely airbrushed ad for their new show.
“Do you know who they are?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she replied, “they’re girls with giant butts.”
“Would you like to look like that?”
“No!” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. “People think they’re beautiful.”
“Because they look plastic,” she said.
I could not agree more, but many women would love nothing more than to look like the Kardashians, who have helped create impossible beauty standards, while frequently pretending they were simply born that way.
False eyelashes have burst out of their traditional habitat of red carpets, wedding aisles and proms and into regular life.
When confronted, the Kardashians can be coy, as when Khloé recently took exception to Instagram followers who claimed that her perfectly orbital glutes are fake (“lol silly goose. It’s the seam design of the leggings,” she wrote.) Sometimes, though, they are frank, as when matriarch Kris Jenner allowed cameras to document her 2011 neck lift surgery.
And one episode of the family’s previous series, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” featured Khloé on her stomach in the exam room of a Beverly Hills cosmetic dermatologist, undergoing treatments to remove cellulite and stretch marks from her behind.
In 2015, reported People magazine, a cosmetic surgery practice in the United Kingdom said it had experienced a 73% increase in patients wanting to look like Kardashians. Specifically, patients asked for Kylie’s lips and Kim’s butt. It’s easy to believe, but probably impossible to verify claims like that.
Although it’s often been said the family is famous for being famous, it has built on the back of its exhibitionism a sprawling business empire, with nearly a dozen companies, including fashion and beauty lines, and tequila and hot sauce brands.
A couple of Kardashians have also dipped their toes into social activism. Kim, who is studying law, has advocated for criminal justice reform, and in 2020 signed a Spotify deal for a podcast about an Ohio man who claims he was wrongly convicted of murdering three people. (The podcast has yet to drop.) Kourtney’s health and wellness website, Poosh, features links to Black-owned businesses.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the Kardashians can recapture the popularity of their first reality show with the new, slicker Hulu production.
Not that they aren’t trying.
In the first episode, Kim’s 6-year-old son, Saint, shows her a pop-up ad on his iPad while he’s playing on the Roblox game app. It is, she says, a tease for a new Kim Kardashian sex tape, featuring unreleased footage from 2002, which throws her into a tizzy. “I just cannot believe this is happening right now,” she says on screen. “For 20 years, this has been held over my head.”
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But has it?
When Vivid Entertainment marketed a sex tape featuring Kardashian and her then-boyfriend, the rapper Ray J, she sued for invasion of privacy. Kardashian, perhaps best known at that point as a socialite pal of Paris Hilton’s, settled for a reported $5 million and became famous pretty soon thereafter. Biographer Ian Halperin would later claim that Kim and her mother orchestrated the leak to garner attention before the debut of their first reality show, which mother and daughter denied.
While Kim’s horror at the idea of a new sex tape is a highlight (lowlight?) of the new show’s first episode, I confess I was unable to find any such tape out there. However, dozens of stories have been written about Kim seeing the mysterious Roblox pop-up, which brought much attention to the new show. I tried to verify the existence of the sex tape pop-up, but Roblox did not respond to emails.
“I cleaned out the playroom today,” Kim says in the show’s debut. “Like, that kind of stuff gets me, makes me horny. To literally clean out my [expletive] playroom, I’m insane. Like, any mom will get that.”
I’m not so sure.
There is almost nothing about this family that is relatable to the average mom.
Which, I would offer, is the very reason we watch.
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