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What the Kardashians Reveal About American Values

America’s royal family, the Kardashians, are a mirror of our contemporary values. Critics may dismiss them as just reflecting the most cynical of those values, but the Kardashians are a revealing portrait of America in our present moment: they personify an All-American sentimentality for family and the family business; they espouse an individualism bordering on narcissism through their radical embrace of the selfie, and they sell a glamour ideal that glorifies work and self-invention. While Keeping Up With The Kardashians wraps up in 2021, Kim Kardashian is reported to have officially become a billionaire, and Kylie Jenner’s social media and makeup empires are taking over the world—signaling that the power of the Kardashian dynasty will continue to morph and grow. Here’s our Take on how the Philosophy of the Kardashians reflects American ideals and why they’re such geniuses at keeping up with the culture.

TRANSCRIPT

America’s royal family, The Kardashians, are a mirror of our contemporary values. Critics may dismiss them as just reflecting the most cynical of those values — like shameless self-promotion and greed for material wealth. But the Kardashians are a revealing portrait of America in our present moment: they personify an All-American sentimentality for family and the family business; they espouse an individualism bordering on narcissism through their radical embrace of the selfie, and the Kardashian glamour ideal essentially declares that beauty is work and work is beautiful.

While Keeping Up With The Kardashians wraps up in 2021, Kim Kardashian is reported to have officially become a billionaire and Kylie Jenner’s social media and makeup empires are taking over the world — signaling that the power of the Kardashian dynasty will continue to morph and grow. Here’s our Take on how the philosophy of the Kardashians reflects American ideals and why they’re such geniuses at keeping up with the culture.

The Beauty of Work

At the 2015 “Kimposium” held at Brunel University London, academic Elizabeth Wissinger spoke about how today’s ideal body type, exemplified by Kim Kardashian, is only obtainable through a lot of work. Kim’s body is an expression of her self-conception as a hard worker above all. She’s a physical embodiment of America’s longstanding reverence for work and, more specifically, our era’s particular emphasis on hustle culture.

Whereas in the past a key part of beauty was to pretend it was all-natural, in the Kardashian world you show the labor and document the transformation, Wissinger says today we’re fascinated with “the body that morphs or changes.”

Tall, slender Kendall Jenner is the family member who most naturally embodies the classic fashion ideals of modelesque beauty, yet while this has helped make her one of the world’s top-paid models, her net worth pales in comparison to that of Kim and Kylie, masters of beauty-as-change. Kylie in particular has utterly molded herself from awkward adolescent into a self-styled beauty mogul in an act of public self-creation.

Much of the content the Kardashians share is of a “how-to” nature, from quarantine makeup tutorials to “drunk get ready with me’s.” And Kim and Kylie have made most of their wealth through makeup, apps, and fashion businesses, which sell that idea that you, too, can transform into a bombshell.

Elizabeth Wissinger: “So by showing her effort, Kim shows us all how she’s the All-American girl with an all-American work ethic. And if we just work hard too, we can make it like she did.” - KIMPOSIUM (2015)

There’s a degree to which this admission that beauty is a lot of work can be empowering and democratic. But a tension within the “you-can-be-beautiful-too-if-you-buy-my-makeup” pitch is that an obvious aspect of Kardashian beauty is body modification — which many have argued is also tied up in a problematic appropriation of blackness.

In “The Rise of the Social Media Fembot,” the New York Times’ Amanda Hess writes, “Clicking through an image gallery of Ms. Jenner’s changing looks over time… gives the sensation of a model’s upgrading.” While the Kardashians do vaguely acknowledge their plastic surgery — to an extent — they also strategically downplay how much body modification is part of their look.

In this scene, Kim tells Kylie to own up to having work done, but it feels like she’s really making this speech so she can segue into making sure it’s known that she hasn’t had any work done on her signature curves.

Kim Kardashian: “Own up to it. It is so hard. Everyone thinks, like, ‘She got her butt done, and her hips done, and all this stuff. I’m like, ‘No, I’m legit 20 pounds heavier.’” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 10x09

There’s even an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians where Kim has her butt x-rayed in an effort to prove it’s real.

The evasiveness about their body modification brings us to another American truth the Kardashians reveal:

Wealth is Beauty

The Kardashians personify an entirely material beauty — one that can be, literally, bought (through makeup, clothes, styling, personal trainers, and plastic surgery). So they conflate beauty and wealth, merging them into one combined value to chase after: Wealth is beauty, because wealth begets beauty.

It’s long been the case that the “rich girl” has been considered the most desirable match.

Teddy Barton: “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” - The Great Gatsby (2013)

But in the Kardashians, the desirability of a woman’s wealth is made unprecedentedly literal and physical. And it comes with the scary flipside that you can’t achieve this beauty without money, so inequality is encoded more than ever onto our bodies.

At the same time, the success of business ventures like Kylie’s lip kits depends on people believing the opposite: that you don’t need highly expensive and exclusive surgeries to look like them.

Wissinger labels the Kardashians’ field of work “glamour labor,” which she says involves working on both the body and the image, as well as keeping up-to-date on trends. The third piece of the “glamour-labourer’s” work — keeping up with trends — is (as their show’s title Keeping Up With the Kardashians hints at) perhaps the biggest reason that the family has such staying power.

Looking back over 20 seasons of the show, we can see how flexibly and fluidly these family members have evolved to adapt to countless shifts in our culture.

Professor Farnsworth: “They’ll reproduce without limit, consuming all the matter in the world!”

Philip J. Fry: “Like the Kardashians!” - Futurama 6x15

Kim began by mimicking her bestie Paris Hilton’s 2000s “famesque” formula, down to the sex tape she swears she had nothing to do with leaking. Most early Kardashian mentions were about Kim’s famed derrière — as the Keeping Up With the Kardashians pilot poked fun at, and the Kardashians were dismissed as derivative, undeserving celebrities. But Kim surpassed Paris because she and momager Kris were smart enough to ignore the received wisdom that a celebrity must try to act in movies or release an album, and instead forged new more lucrative opportunities as glamour-laborers.

Their family’s permanence testifies to their possession of a kind of genius. It’s not just that they’re opportunists; they possess an almost supernatural instinct for the cultural water we’re all swimming in.

The Family Business

Another key reason the Kardashians became America’s royal family is because they’re such a compelling family. Despite the clearly plotted episodes of their show, as a family unit, they’ve always had a wholeheartedly believable chemistry, natural warmth, and shared sense of humor.

Romance about family is one of America’s core mythologies and values. But arguably even more deeply Amerian is the capitalism that lies beneath our culture’s sentimentality for family.

Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” - The Godfather

And for the Kardashians, it’s always apparent that:

Family is a business

Despite their genuine family love, these are business associates “collab”-ing in the shared pursuit of wealth.

“Kardashian” is a brand more than a family name. See: when Kim decided not to change her name upon marrying Kris Humphries, when the family went to court to stop Blac Chyna from getting the Kardashian name by marrying Rob, and when Kris Jenner considered changing her name back to Kardashian

Khloe Kardashian: “Hello, Kris Kardashian!”

Kris Kardashian: “I made little Kardashians. So I have something to do with the Kardashian brand.”

Khloe Kardashian: “All I heard you say is brand, brand, brand.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 6x03

Business also mediates the family dynamics. Members who are less successful business magnates are lower in the family hierarchy. Matriarch Kris frequently sides with Kim, who was the initial source of fame on which the empire was built, and with Kylie, who’s become its biggest social media star and at times surpassed Kim as its highest earner.

You might even speculate that Kendall and Kylie were driven to become so successful in order to get more attention from momager Kris.

Kendall Jenner: “She left me at a photoshoot for 12 hours.”

Scott Disick: “And we all know her attention goes to the number one breadwinner. And that’s Kim.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 6x09

Family members also express love for each other largely through business. While they joke that they’re uncomfortable with showing traditional affection, they support each other through plugging each other’s brands, floating shared ventures, and interacting through their show or social media with humor, pranks, photoshoots, or confessionals to camera.

Family members stay in the mix by working hard to prove ongoing entertainment value and earning power and forming alliances with the star cast members.

The Kardashians are also a matriarchal family, and it often even feels that the women are more in the family than the men. One year they even considered leaving the men out of the Christmas card. And among the women, to be considered less beautiful is to be less powerful in the family, because their beauty so directly translates into wealth and power.

Motherhood is Beautiful

We can also read broader cultural significance into the particular body parts that the Kardashians are known for, from Kim’s booty to Kylie’s lips. The fetishized Kardashian features idealize a womanly form. It’s a beauty ideal centered on mothers giving birth to children to carry on their ruling dynasty.

Signifiers of fertility like waist-hip ratio have long been perceived as beautiful across different societies. Yet there have also been plenty of eras in which we worshipped icons who did not bring to mind mothering children — from heroin-chic in the ‘90s, to the flat-abs Britney Spears era and the pursuit of Size Zero in the 2000s. With the rise of the Kardashian beauty ideal, we saw a return of female desirability being linked to fertility and realized through motherhood. And in Kardashian world, babies are status symbols.

We might even theorize that Kylie’s early fixation on becoming a young mother was related to a desire to be the new Kim and secure the womanly achievements of her older sisters.

While past beauty ideals that prioritized skinniness were about fetishizing youth, the Kardashian beauty ideal — like the body modification ideal in general — might actually encourage young women to make themselves look older. While we’re in a time where more stars are embracing gender fluidity and a wider spectrum of what beauty looks like, the Kardashians’ style of perfection in some ways represents a doubling down on and exaggeration of traditional femininity.

Interviewer: “They said she has the most amazing lips, tell us her secret, how does she get these beautiful lips?”

Kylie Jenner: “I have temporary lip fillers.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 10x09

Yet because this beauty is not natural but created, you can argue it’s a semi-inclusive version of femaleness — anyone can become it (at least if they have enough money, time, and drive).

There’s also something liberating in the Kardashians’ tenet that:

Fake Can Be Better than Real

The Kardashians embody how the lines between what is fake and what is real have become deeply blurred in our society of the spectacle, where the image often seems more important and primary than the reality. The sisters are highly aware that, while the body continues to morph, the image is forever. It’s a bid for immortality and eternal beauty.

Kim Kardashian: “I’m doing this photoshoot today naked. I just want to capture my body and have these photos to last forever.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 10x01

And the Kardashians have been revolutionary in not having shame about supposed “fakeness” people used to deny — whether that’s the scripted feel of their show’s story arcs or the idea that everything about their lives can be branded and sold. And as body modification loses its stigma, The Guardian’s Emma Wiseman reports that “doctors are noticing a trend for women wanting to simply look ‘done,’” while plastic surgeon Douglas Steinbrech said to W magazine, “There’s this new mentality that if you do not look a little bit fake, then the surgeon hasn’t done his job.”

This embracing what was once viewed as embarrassing is also encapsulated in the Kardashian imperative to:

Love Thy Selfie

The Kardashians were a key agent in the cultural rise of the selfie as a form of empowerment and expression. Kim created a whole selfie book called Selfish and — when a doctor told her she needed to rest her wrist — even found a selfie assistant. And while this might sound like a wholly negative cultural shift toward narcissism, the selfie offers the photo-taker a form of power — to control the image they’re projecting — as well as to capture their experience as they’d like to remember it.

This idea of “banking selfies” also ties into the Kardashian belief in:

Making Memories

You go on vacation not necessarily to enjoy it in the moment or because you want to, but to make memories for the future.

Khloe Kardashian: “Look at how much effort and time and everything that I’ve put into this, because I really wanted all of us to hang out and build memories.”

Kris Jenner: “I love being all together on any family vacay because it’s memories we’re gonna make that are gonna last a lifetime. So, I love these trips.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 13x10

Again, this underlines the capitalist family mindset: experiences are something to achieve and put into the bank. Yet it does have logic: the more “new” experiences you have in a period of time, the longer that period seems in your memory. So pushing yourself to actively seek out novelty can make you feel fulfilled in the long run.

This external-to-internal approach is reflected in the Kardashian insistence that:

A Photoshoot Can Cure Anything

While we can’t all hire a photoshoot crew any time we’re in a conflict or a mood, the takeaway is that it can make us feel good to do something that makes us uncomfortable, look our best to feel our best, and share ourselves to push through insecurities.

Whether it’s through a photoshoot or a prank, a Keeping Up with the Kardashians episode often ends with a family member learning a lesson — another version of that impulse to “bank” experiences as complete entries in clearly ordered categories.

Kim Kardashian: “Imagine that you just got skinned, and all your clothes was your fur and your skin, and they skinned you alive… Take that robe off and go out there.”

Khloe Kardashian: “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 3x03

B** Don’t Steal My Vibe

Meanwhile, in Kardashian world, a vibe is something magical and mysterious that you have to protect from others who want to steal your ideas or ruin your mood.

Kim often uses “vibe” in relation to a look or outfit, but it can also be used to mean a place, time, material or basically anything.

CONCLUSION

As an era ends with Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Kardashian power morphs again, with Kylie and Kendall manifesting its hold on Gen Z while the baby Kardashian-Jenner-Wests represent its future in Generation Alpha. Even if you don’t buy into much of their philosophy, there’s plenty to learn from their instincts to shape-shift and evolve, their trust in the power of sisterhood, and their ability to always look ahead to where American culture will go next.

God save the Kardashians.

North West: “My mommy says you have a huge booty.”

Khloe Kardashian: “Well, your mom is not one to talk, okay?” - Keeping Up With the Kardashians 16x07

SOURCES

Berg, Madeline. “Kim Kardashian West Is Officially A Billionaire.” Forbes, 6 Apr. 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2021/04/06/kim-kardashian-west-is-officially-a-billionaire/?sh=20e5ed7921bb.

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Kissick, Dean. “Everyone Gets Their 15 Minutes of Fame but What about Those Who Make Theirs Last a Lifetime?” i-D, 23 Nov. 2015, i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xg5nv/everyone-gets-their-15-minutes-of-fame-but-what-about-those-who-make-theirs-last-a-lifetime.

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