The Kardashians, which premiered on 14th April, has broken streaming records at Hulu. Its debut also dominated Disney+ and Star+ across global networks. Still, critics and the public alike seem reluctant to recognise its relevance, insistently downvoting the show on IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. So who are all those viewers that tuned in and why do the Kardashians continue to boast a collective Instagram following of over 1.2 billion?
This tension is exactly why I continue to post on my Instagram account Kardashian Kolloquium, where, since 2018, I’ve applied the analytical skills I practise daily as a psychotherapist to deconstructions of social media’s First Family.
You already know the Kardashians, even if you don’t want to. LA-based Robert Kardashian — third-generation Armenian and famed defence attorney of O. J. Simpson — married Kris Houghton — eventual matriarch and media mastermind — in 1978 and the couple produced three daughters and one son: Kourtney, Kimberly, Robert and Khloe. After they divorced, Kris married Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, resulting in daughters Kendall and Kylie Jenner. In 2003 Kim Kardashian began shadowing pop culture princess Paris Hilton, often appearing in the background of Paris’ paparazzi photos. In 2007 Kim’s sex tape with Ray J leaked, firing her name to the top of Google search. Not long after, her reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians debuted on E!
Since then, Kim and her big, blended family have scandalised America by ingratiating themselves in mass media and building a multibillion-dollar fashion, beauty and media empire, documenting every step of the odyssey on their social accounts and 20-season reality show, which ended in 2020.
Following a brief hiatus from TV — during which Kim and ex-husband Kanye West executed some baffling but captivating performances for the press, including a staged wedding redux for Kanye’s third Donda event, a multilayered Balenciaga campaign headlined by Kim, and the soft-drop of her relationship with SNL darling Pete Davidson — the family is back on Hulu with The Kardashians.
For some people it’s been refreshing to witness a matriarchal, multiracial, 'modern' family strive toward — and eventually conquer — the American Dream. For many others, the Kardashians have come to represent late capitalist greed, influencer vapidity and cultural appropriation. What if all the above are true? Beyond that, what if the most significant thing about them is not even who they are but the mechanisms of the media that deliver them to us?
I hear it all the time: "Don’t give them more attention – the Kardashians are the worst thing to happen to society."
The concern is understandable. 'Getting us talking' is one of the Kardashians’ primary business principles, whether they're outrage-baiting the public – see: Kim donning Fulani braids and referring to them as 'Bo Derek braids' – or delivering visually appealing tabloid fodder, like Kourtney and drummer beau Travis Barker’s recent pseudo-wedding at a Las Vegas wedding chapel.
That’s the thing. Due to repeated use of such strategies (among many others) the Kardashians are by now so irrevocably institutionalised in the media globally that I – one individual seeking to examine their project intellectually – am simply not the thing upholding their power.
In fact, that people would sooner cover their ears and eyes to such a powerful and present cultural force just because they don’t like it is in my opinion one of the worst things that could happen to a society.
The wilful denial of the reality of the Kardashians' impact — or its opposite, parasocial over-investment in the members of the family as people — is a symptom of the media literacy crisis we face today. We aren't curious enough about the Kardashian machine, regardless of whether we love or loathe them.
Attention focused on Kim wearing Marilyn Monroe's dress on the same night that Politico leaked papers suggesting that the US Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's impossible to pretend that pop culture didn't give human rights a run for their money in the attention economy that underlies every aspect of life online.
According to Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff in United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America, the media literacy of citizens has been at risk for decades, accelerating in the late '80s to mid '90s when corporate lobbyists succeeded in rolling back critical regulations like the Communications Act of 1934 (which blocked monopolisation by media companies) and the Fairness Doctrine of 1949 (which required newscasters to "provide equal airtime for different perspectives"). This is not to speak of all the questions raised about social media’s machinations by books like The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and documentaries like The Social Dilemma.
Younger generations are especially at risk: in a recent study, 82% of students struggled to differentiate between an ad and a news story. Yet social media continues to produce new platforms while remaining opaque about its algorithms, and the Kardashians are viral, front-facing figures on almost every medium.
So when Kourtney and Travis get pretend-married in Vegas, I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity to identify the situation as a 'pseudo-event', a term coined by media theorist Daniel J. Boorstin to describe the image-focused design of public-facing events made specifically for media reproduction, and encourage my followers to read his seminal book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America. The Kardashians offer us examples about how the larger media machine operates and their conveniently catchy content can be a catalyst to read and learn more.
Plus, I’m hardly the first to promote 'active' consumption of media in resistance to the passive consumption that tends to prevail today. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who famously proclaimed "the medium is the message", faced ridicule when, at the height of his work in the '60s, he insisted on the importance of studying ads. In response to the pushback, he wrote: "Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly something I’m resolutely against. It seems to me the best way to oppose it is to understand it."
bell hooks argued in her iconic 1997 talk, "Cultural Criticism and Transformation", that pop culture provides an accessible paradigm for teaching students critical thinking: "Whether we’re talking about race, gender, or class, pop culture is where the pedagogy is."
And of course there’s Brunel University professor Meredith Jones (whom I consider to be the 'godmother' of Kardashian Kolloquium). Jones' 2015 academic conference Kimposium prompted unbridled online blowback and even death threats.
I love the way she put it in this piece for The Conversation: "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 am interested in what this family can teach us about ourselves, about our cultural concerns, about how our societies are changing, about our fears and horrors."
Kimposium — which I spoke at in 2021 with Natalie Franklin of Instagram account Nori’s Black Book — featured countless critical presentations, including: "Is Kim Kardashian White? Law, Race Mutability, and the Politics of the Body in the Body Politic" by John Tehranian, "The Kardashians and Black Masculinities: Memory, Repression, and Desire" by Manuel Harpin and "Debunking Celebrity Activism" by Lida Papakonstantinou.
Even the less socially urgent takes — seemingly silly content analysis like "Pets as Narrative Device in Keeping Up with the Kardashians" by Cat Dorman and Steff Boulton — have value because, when done well, they are a practice and demonstration of critical thinking.
These deep dives demonstrate one method by which we can make meaning of the Kardashians’ cultural magnitude: a prompt for deeper inquiry about topics that ultimately transcend the Kardashians as people and instead position them as representations. Representations of the complexity of racial mutability in America, the entrenched tradition of white consumption of Black culture and the wave of social media-perpetuated performative activism that we’re all increasingly grappling with. And that seemingly silly content analysis? When done well, it can offer insight into the power of narrative, which we tend to take for granted despite the fact that narrative is a driving force behind all publicity and politics.
That’s why I’ve come to view the Kardashians as a prism, in much the same way as critic and architect Stefan Al once wrote of Las Vegas: "From self-invention to cutthroat competition to risky 'casino capitalism,' Las Vegas is a microcosm of America."
What does Las Vegas have in common with the Kardashian empire? Both are multibillion-dollar industries, massively scaled, resilient to the test of time and reliant on formulaic storytelling and flashy imagery to generate publicity. They’re not often politically correct, they set trends and they function phenomenally as cultural fractals. Sometimes I ask my detractors: would you be so mad if I were studying Las Vegas instead?
Of course, I can’t be a one-woman Kimposium, though I wish I could analyse the family from every imaginable angle.
Personally speaking, my favorite framework is a familiar hybrid of media theory and postmodernism, perfectly applicable to this week’s Kardashian news: that Kim wore Marilyn Monroe’s "Happy Birthday Mr President" dress to the 2022 Met Gala, nearly 10 years after Kanye West compared the two women on popular radio talk show The Breakfast Club. The fact that alignment to a historic icon like Marilyn accelerates Kim’s virality on the social media algorithms and expands the dimension of her own mythology. The fact that Kim had to wear the original dress and absolutely could not wear a replica because of Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura, which is to say a thing's "presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be". The fact that aura is precious in a culture of reproduction (the culture we all live in today). The fact that for Kim Kardashian to co-opt the aura of a dress — when she is the nouveau American icon, which is to say an icon of our culture of reproduction — is ingeniously poignant. The fact that all of this took place on the same night that Politico leaked papers suggesting that the US Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade, a key and longstanding ruling for reproductive rights. It’s impossible to pretend that, on that night, pop culture didn’t give human rights a run for their money in the attention economy that underlies every aspect of life online.
That’s just my way of looking at the Kardashians. In truth, there are a thousand ways to look at anything. I only care that we’re looking. Because if I’ve taken anything from my studies of the Kardashians, it’s absolute certainty that we’ll be looking back on them in 50 years much in the way we now look back on Marilyn (likely with less idealisation and far more to say).
Shouldn’t we empower ourselves by starting today?