Here at Refinery29, we write about a lot of things as part of our mission to inform and inspire women. In the Entertainment vertical alone, you'll find articles such as Heather Wood Rudulph's recent exploration of the complicated truth about Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman. Karen Valby recently praised Amy Schumer's role in Trainwreck as a victory for women. Vanessa Golembewski delved into the world of fangirls and comic-book culture. After the ACLU announced it was launching an investigation into Hollywood's systemic sexism and the dearth of female directors, I examined whether movie critics demonstrate a gender bias as well.
We also write about the Kardashians and Jenners. Why? Because we are voracious consumers of pop culture, and they are absolutely a part of the ongoing conversation that — to borrow a phrase from our cofounder — swings high and dips low.
Last week, a link to a Change.org petition asking Refinery29 to, “Please stop posting articles about the Kardashians,” started making its way around our office. At first, we shared it furtively in Gchats and talked about it in hushed tones. It was only natural to feel a little defensive.
As the petition continued to accrue more signatures, the R29 Entertainment team decided it was time to respond. So, we’re going to tell you why Refinery29 continues to post articles about members of the Kardashian and Jenner families. All we ask is that you refrain from eye-rolling until the end. Deal? Great, here we go.
We write about the Kardashians and Jenners because they are a fascinating cultural phenomenon. They're loud, brash, and attention-seeking in a way that's decidedly American. Andy Warhol would have been transfixed by them. They’ve managed to not only run down the clock on his assertion that, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," — but also hurl that clock out the window and smash it to pieces.
These five women — Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, Kylie, Kendall — and their mother, Kris, have completely redefined what it means to be famous. In their case, no, they didn’t come to prominence because of any particular talent. Khloé even admitted to this in 2011 on Barbara Walters’ annual "10 Most Fascinating People" special. They don't really do anything except...exist. In what should henceforth be known as the Kardashian Paradox, the Kardashians and Jenners are famous because they’re talented at being famous. The New York Times put it a bit more bluntly in its May 2015 profile of family puppeteer and brand engineer Kris Jenner: "They are famous for the industry that they’ve created, the Kardashian/Jenner megacomplex, which has not just invaded the culture but metastasised into it."
It’s true: The snake is eating its own tail, but the world is watching — quite literally. According to the Times profile, Keeping Up With the Kardashians now airs in 160 countries. They have Kris to thank for that, who achieved the American dream of making something out of nothing. Following her divorce from Robert Kardashian, she and her then-husband, now known as Caitlyn Jenner, were broke with eight children between them. Kris had the idea to turn the former Olympian into a motivational speaker, and that’s also when she opened her eyes to the talent pool available in her own home. The rest, as you know by now, is reality television history.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which debuted on E! in October 2007, laid the groundwork for introducing the family to the public. The world responded. According to a February 2011 cover story in The Hollywood Reporter called "Inside Kardashian, Inc.," when the show premiered, E! was a middling cable network that ranked 13th in its target demo of 18 to 49-year-old women on Sunday nights. By season 4, KUWTK was the No. 1 broadcast in that time slot for E!'s core demographic. That season's finale drew a record 4.8 million viewers, and season 5 continued to hit record high ratings. KUTWK is now in its 10th season and has resulted in four spin-offs: Kourtney and Kim Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Kourtney and Khloé Take The Hamptons, and Khloé & Lamar, as well as the forthcoming Dash Dolls.
"These shows are a 30-minute commercial," Khloé told THR in 2011. Viewers don't seem to mind that KUWTK story lines are clearly orchestrated and contrived to sell the Kardashian/Jenner brand, though. The family's unfiltered discussions about everything from genitalia aesthetics to the trials of divorce keep audiences tuning in to watch the carefully calculated exhibitionism. If the family members ever tire of the cameras' constant presence in their lives, they don't let on. In the purest and most basic display of narcissism, they all believe that they're inherently fascinating to watch. Paris Hilton tried to capitalise on this conceit before the Kardashians minted money out of it, but her reality show with Nicole Richie, The Simple Life, actually had something resembling a concept (rich girls go slumming). The Kardashians proudly do nothing but put themselves on display. There's no need to venture outside your mansion and let nobodies share your screen time, they have learned. The first lesson of Kardashian, Inc. is that there's no better product than yourself.
Once KUWTK took off, social media networks and personal websites allowed the sisters to further amplify their brands and connect with fans. Their level of accessibility is unprecedented, and it paved the way for YouTube, Vine, and Snapchat stars like those who were celebrated last week at VidCon as 21st-century success stories.
The Kardashians and Jenners invite followers into their worlds, turning their daily existences into content for fans to consume. They have convinced the world that they are, in fact, interesting, because 2 million of us can't look away when their show airs each week. Every part of their lives is commodified, every moment a marketing opportunity. There’s a good chance that they’re all just native advertising wet dreams masquerading as people. As of this writing, Kim Kardashian West, Khloé Kardashian, Kourtney Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, and Kylie Jenner have a combined 304 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. That’s rapidly approaching the population of the United States (321 million).
Kylie is also the No. 1 most viewed user on Snapchat, while Kendall holds the honoir of having the most-liked photo on Instagram (a distinction previously held by older half-sister Kim). Kim recently published Selfish, an entire book of selfies, and New York magazine's senior art critic engaged in a very long discussion with another editor about its importance in the art world. Just like Marcel Duchamp once upended a urinal and Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s Soup cans, forcing the world to question what does and does not constitute art, Kim has somehow elevated the ordinary, now-everyday act of turning a lens on oneself into an art form. She has admitted to taking “about 300 photos until I get the perfect photo.” This declaration, of course, was made in a February 2015 T-Mobile campaign: Kim Kardashian West’s photography advice doesn’t come free.
Kim has also changed our collective estimation of the ideal female form (with Khloé and Kylie likewise embodying the same hourglass silhouette). I grew up in the '90s and early aughts, when waifish bodies like Kate Moss’ were held up as ideal. As someone who’s had hips and a butt since the day she was born, and was then bombarded with messages from teen magazines about how to minimise those hips to better achieve the boyish, rail figure prized at the time, I really would have benefitted from seeing women like Kim in the spotlight. Not only does she celebrate her curves, she dresses in a way that completely flouts every rule about “how to dress skinny.” These are age-old rules that women have been made to believe are do-or-die. And like it or not, the Kardashians have upended them.
Artifice — and the effort required to maintain it — is 100% at the core of their brand. It means that Kim squeezes in workouts at 6 a.m. Kendall and Kylie treat a casual lunch like a runway show. The media forever speculates about the veracity of their body parts. Kylie admitted to having temporary lip fillers. The fans who love and support them, though, appreciate how honest the Kardashians and Jenners are about their fakeness. Somehow, their unattainable appearances actually serve to make the women seem more real, because they're transparent about what goes into their outward aspects in a way most celebrities aren't. The sisters cleverly reposition any body changes or augmentations as "insecurities." To paraphrase Kim on the episode of KUTWK in which Kylie admitted to those lip fillers, why shouldn't you change something you're insecure about? Suddenly, millions of women watching could commiserate.
That’s another thing that strikes people about the Kardashians and Jenners — and something that came up time and time again when I asked my friends who admitted to being fans what they like about the stars. It’s obvious that the Kardashians and Jenners fiercely control their own narratives, with each life event (baby gender announcement, birth, divorce, etc.) revealed in such a way that nets ratings for KUWTK or benefits the family in some other way. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the love and support they show for one another seems genuine, even amid all that master manipulation. In the landscape of loathsome reality TV personalities who trade on being jerks, the Kardashians stand out for being likeable and, in their way, surprisingly down to earth in their relationships with one another.
Yes, there are more important things going on in the world, and many deeper concerns plaguing our society. But, give the Kardashians and Jenners credit for trying to move beyond the surface and for understanding that with great notoriety comes the opportunity for social responsibility. Kim Kardashian West marks the anniversary of the Armenian genocide every year on her social media accounts. Last week, she again used her Twitter account to comment on an event of national importance: the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s arrest, incarceration, and death. Many R29 commenters were irate that it took Kim entering the conversation for some people to care about these devastating events, but how is that Kim's fault? The fact is, there are people out there who don't follow hard news ever. So, is it really so bad that someone might learn about the Sandra Bland tragedy from a Kim Kardashian West tweet? When it comes to important issues, any knowledge is power, no matter the source of its dissemination.
Many readers also noted that Kim and her husband Kanye West have a biracial daughter, North, who might someday face the same discrimination as Bland. Seeing Kim in an interracial marriage on Keeping Up With the Kardashians provides just a glimpse at some of the bigotry mixed-race couples and their children can face. As The Week noted in August 2014, while the multiple-race population in the United States is growing, this change isn’t being represented in the mainstream media. Kim and Kanye provide a public face for interracial relationships on television, social media, and just about anywhere else you look.
The Kardashians and Jenners have also become the public faces of a family with a member who's transitioned between genders. When the world was introduced to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, her daughters expressed their love and support via Instagram. They were all there to watch Jenner receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at this year’s ESPYs. In the film that was shown before Caitlyn Jenner took the stage to speak, Kendall reminded everyone, "People forget that we're actual human beings."
That right there is why we continue to write about the Kardashians and Jenners. Because yes, they’re human beings — but my, what a warped version of the human existence they're peddling. One of the things the Change.org petition mentions is that they are not role models. Whether they are or aren't is up for debate, but who ever said being a role model was a requirement for fame?
That said, there is no question that the family is aware of who's watching and judging them. It's been fascinating to witness Kim attempt to rewrite her sordid origin story. She’s expressed regret over her sex tape becoming public. She’s declared herself a feminist. She’s number 33 on the Forbes Celebrity 100. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood was the talk of the tech world when it launched. She might just be the greatest redemption story of our time, even if it is the result of a cleverly calculated long con by mama Kris. Somewhere along the way, millions of fans bought into the narrative, and the Kardashians and Jenners have a mountain of money to show for it. The American dream is alive and well in Calabasas (the California seat of Kardashian power).
There is room on this site for all kinds of stories. Isn’t that what the push over recent years for greater acceptance, tolerance, and understanding has been about? Plus (spoiler alert), if people don’t want to read about the Kardashians and Jenners, they don’t have to click on stories about them. Eventually, Facebook's algorithm will stop presenting them in their newsfeed — it’s smart like that.
It may seem like Kim, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie, Kourtney, and even Kris are everywhere right now. But in a few years, who knows? Maybe their reign of global ubiquity will have been usurped by a family of eight from Nebraska — one that's figured out a way to organise the V.A.’s black hole of records, and has a more conniving momager than Kris Jenner and a better deal with E!. The future is a void full of unknowns.
There are some things I do know, however. I know that there will be more articles about the Kardashians and Jenners on Refinery29, and that my byline will probably appear on a lot of them. And you know what? I’m okay with that.