In 2012, Kim Kardashian and her family were as ubiquitous as the air. In my senior class in high school there was a girl who, if you complimented her hairstyle, would say, “Thanks, it’s the Kim Kardashian bun”—or “braid” or “middle part” or whatever she had done to her hair that day. She copied everything, including the style of her prom dress, from Kim Kardashian. When Kim divorced Kris Humphries, she was devastated. That day, she changed her Facebook profile picture to a photo of Kim and Kris on their wedding day, blissfully staring into each other’s eyes, and kept it that way for a long while.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m looking down on this girl, because I really, really liked this girl! She was really funny and interesting and the fact that she was wayyyy into Keeping Up With the Kardashians was intriguing, but not intriguing enough to get me to actually watch it. That didn’t happen until I noticed that there were people who
I binge-watched three seasons of KUWTK in a handful of days. I have to say, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Judging by the white-hot scorn heaped upon the show by the adults I knew, the “scandalous” tag it earned on Netflix, and the tagline on the season-two DVD (“They’re sisters. Not saints”), I was prepared for (and looking forward to) something brazenly shocking and transgressive, some kind of festival of debauchery. What I got instead might qualify as “scandalous” only to the most conservative and prudish among us. The “shocking” details are these: The Kardashians’ fame was ignited by a sex tape; the daughters throw around silly euphemisms for genitalia like sausage and vagine. That’s it. Not enough to keep any thrill-seekers watching. What kept me glued, though, was the family dynamic, and watching them all deal with their newfound fame—its origins, its demands, and its repercussions.
On the show, at least, Kim Kardashian betrays no sign of guilt about the sex tape she made with in 2003 with her then-boyfriend, Ray J. “I was horny and I felt like it” is the perfectly reasonable explanation she gives her sister. But the attention she got when the tape was leaked to the public in 2007 definitely changed the way people in her life treated her, and she has said that she found the media coverage painful and embarrassing (whether or not, as rumors have it, she had a part in releasing the tape in the first place). It’s fascinating to watch her negotiate these feelings on a daily basis on TV. For example, there’s a scene in the first season of KUWTK where Kim wants to do a sexy lingerie-and-swimsuits pictorial for Playboy, but the magazine pressures her to at least take off her top and she freaks out, remembering how cruel everyone was the first time the world saw her naked. She fears that people will call her “trashy.” Her genius solution, as she explains it on the show: “I come up with this idea that I’m totally comfortable with being nude if I’m draped in diamonds and pearls.” Maybe you’re like, “Oh, so she’s materialistic, too?” But the reason she demanded that Hugh Hefner and his staff break a sweat to cover her in precious gems was that she perceived—rightly, it seems—that the public would register diamonds and pearls as “classy,” and that being naked under them wouldn’t tarnish her hard-fought new reputation as a canny businesswoman. (Though of course she’s still called trashy every day, and it still sucks, and it’s painful to watch her discomfort at being so exposed, which is a theme throughout all eight seasons.)
Another selling point used to market the show to new viewers is the apparently nonstop hijinks taking place day in and day out at the Kardashian mansion, the best example of which was the time that the family made the matriarch, Kris Jenner, accept temporary custody of a monkey in order to teach her that she didn’t really want another baby, or something. The most boring example was when the family tried to install a miniature putting green in the backyard while Kris was away to teach her about…something—or basically any time the family tries to teach Kris a lesson about anything that doesn’t involve a monkey.
Even with the involvement of a primate, though, these shenanigans are so obviously staged and designed to show us that the Kardashian home is a den of continuous wacky fun that I find them exhausting to watch. I prefer subtler interpersonal dramas among human beings, which KUWTK has in droves. On one episode of the spinoff series Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Kim and her mom are on vacation in Dubai, and a reporter asks Kim if she’d ever return with her then-husband, Kris Humphries. Kim, who’s been effusive in this interview thus far, pauses for a very long time. She’s been miserable living in New York with Kris and is already feeling major anxiety about their recent marriage. The camera zeroes in on her right hand as it nervously clasps the left one, covering her wedding ring. That one small moment was packed with so much more tension and drama than any monkey could provide.
Though, if I’m being honest, the material aspect of the show is a big draw for me. What my brother said is true! When there are no hijinks planned for the day and you’re just watching everyone play ping-pong or Kris is, for the thousandth time, passive-aggressively demanding more appreciation from her family, I kind of zone out and allow myself to be hypnotized by the beautiful people and their beautiful, beautiful things. I struggle to contain my awe as I watch Kim try on stunning dress after stunning dress and decide to buy all of them, I lose myself in the shiny depths of the sisters’ hair extensions, I feel an ice cream swirl of bliss and amazement as the camera pans over the hotel they stay at in Bora Bora, or the villa situation they inhabit in Greece. The beauty of their world is insane: I gasped when I saw a Keek where Kim was walking through the Hall of Mirrors in the dark; and my eyes rolled back into my head when, during a photo shoot, Kim casually sponged off some sweat and took a sip of water and the photographer told her earnestly that most people look progressively worse over the duration of a photo shoot, but that she inexplicably became more beautiful as it went on.
The main source of tension in every season of KUWTW is the fact that the show we are watching is part of the family business. The family members are not just going about their lives, quietly observed by us; being a Kardashian is a full-time job. And living with your co-workers and being forced to interact with them almost 24/7 is bound to cause some conflicts, especially when those co-workers happen to be your family. Kris is her daughters’ “momager” and thus has to split her maternal duties with mercenary ones, inevitably causing occasional resentment in Kourtney, Khloé, and Kim, which, in turn, sometimes hurts Kris’s feelings. Kourtney and Khloé, meanwhile, fear that Kris doesn’t value them as much as she does Kim because they don’t make as much money; Rob struggles to find his place in the family when his mother’s primary professional strength is marketing femininity; and all the kids attempt to balance their desire for autonomy and some measure of privacy with the demands that come with being a “brand.”
The show also raises philosophical questions, like when Kris asserts that there is no death, calls the state of being actually dead in a grave “living,” and then naturally becomes obsessed with planning her own funeral. Or when Kim and Kanye throw out all of Kim’s clothes to jump-start a reinvention of her personal style, and Kim starts to freak out but then calms herself down by reminding herself aloud that the point of life is evolution, which I really agree with. Sociology and anthropology come into play when the family argues over the meanings of sex, marriage, family, money, and work: Kris Jenner and Kim, who have fairly traditional ideas about marriage and family, disapprove of Kourtney’s decision to have a child out of wedlock; then they see their ideal of a fairytale marriage fall apart when Kim’s subsequent union with Kris Humphries ends after just 72 days. I was devastated when I watched Kim break up with Kris Humphries, sobbing to him that she felt like a terrible person for bringing him into her stressful world. Hearing her say that she felt like a failure for not having the marriage and family she envisioned having before she turned 30, I finally understood my high school friend’s Facebook tribute. Then, disillusioned, I began to see the practical wisdom in Kourtney and Scott’s arrangement—until I saw that their relationship has problems too, many caused by the demands that being a Kardashian has placed on Kourtney. See, love is really complicated!
The episode where the family goes to therapy to talk about Rob was especially intense, as well as the episodes where the Kardashians deal with the absence of their father, Robert, who died in 2003. I’m in this thing wayyy deep, and now I’m ashamed that it took me so long to give it a try. I get upset by the family’s lows and thrilled by their highs (Khloe marrying Lamar, the beauty of Kourtney using her hands to finish birthing her first child, etc.), and it’s been great. Keeping Up With the Kardashians is about business and pop culture and psychology and actually literally EVERYTHING EVER, and, like Kim’s face during a risqué photo shoot, it only gets more beautiful over time. ♦