Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Keeping Up With the Kardashians

It wasn’t what I was hoping for. It was SO MUCH MORE.

Collage by Caitlin H.

Collage by Caitlin H.

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 hated the Kardashians every bit as much as my friend loved them. The former group included my very own brother, who would condescendingly describe KUWTK as “more or less a show for girls who want to stare at pretty things,” as well as adults in my life who would seethe about how they “couldn’t go anywhere” or “even turn on a TV” without seeing the family’s faces. The Kardashians, according to these naysayers, were immoral, they were “trashy,” they didn’t “deserve” their fame. And what really piqued my interest was that all of these people were so mad about this. They were FURIOUS at the Kardashians, a family they would never meet who perform on a show they claimed never to watch! Who were these Kardashians, I wondered, and what was this mysterious power they possessed to make adults apoplectic with rage (and get paid handsomely for it, too)? And how could I get them to adopt me?

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. ♦

26 Comments

  • Mollie March 27th, 2014 12:09 AM

    5000% agreed

  • Gabby March 27th, 2014 12:18 AM

    this is one of my favorite things i’ve ever read on Rookie

  • Jes March 27th, 2014 12:21 AM

    ride or die for kim k

  • honorarygilmoregal March 27th, 2014 12:53 AM

    Katherine, I’ve never watched Keeping up with the Kardashians but you have convinced me to give it a shot.

  • ameliamad March 27th, 2014 2:05 AM

    *claps* Yesss! I also got the same negative reactions when i told other people how i thought the Kardashians were cool. (salty looks ) There is so much you get out of the show you can laugh, learn about sum deep stuff, watch a family in action, and go “ooh and ahh” at all of there riches. The Kardashians arent’t given enough credit for what they do. They are sort of like a 21st century version of The Truman Show except they are totally aware that they are on tv. And even if some of the stuff is staged you can really see their real personalities come out. Great article!!

    styleriottt.blogspot.com

  • spudzine March 27th, 2014 2:25 AM

    I really want to watch this show now.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • sarahnorine March 27th, 2014 7:48 AM

    YES. This. Just, yes. Very well-said

  • Isobelley March 27th, 2014 8:10 AM

    I love this article! I always get upset when my friends say they hate them, as it usually is for sexist reasons (the leaked sex tape, that it’s about mostly women who are comfortable with themselves etc), and this article brought up so many things that I love :)

  • Brodie March 27th, 2014 9:14 AM

    Kourtney pulling Mason out of her own tiny body is one of my top 5 TV moments OF ALL TIME

  • Brodie March 27th, 2014 9:15 AM

    Also
    “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.”

    YEEESSSSSSSS!!!!!

  • sloththefifth March 27th, 2014 11:28 AM

    I have never watched, nor wanted to watch the Kardashians but this article is literally making me consider how I could start watching the first season in class.

  • Kavita March 27th, 2014 11:36 AM

    i love this!!! i secretly enjoy watching keeping up with the kardashians and i think they’re actually a LOT smarter than people give them credit for

  • susanv93 March 27th, 2014 12:15 PM

    Oh my God I watched 3 seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians over spring break because I fully planned on making fun of it but I was surprised to see how much I actually care about this family now.

    I love how Kris is your OMG embarassing mom who tries to hard to be cool, Bruce is the only sane man, Khloe is the deadpan snarker, Kourtney is the level headed eldest sister, Kim is the attention magnet, Robert is the awkward brother, and Kendall and Kylie are coming into their own.

    Everything is so staged and I think that if the Kardashians weren’t on a reality show, they’d be given a sitcom. Literally, the only thing they’re missing is a nosy neighbor.

    • Ladymia69 March 27th, 2014 3:42 PM

      It IS a sitcom. It is completely staged.

  • becksbubble March 27th, 2014 2:21 PM

    Hmm… This was a good article and while I am an occasional Kardashian watcher, don’t you think that there’s something slightly disturbing and voyeuristic about the fact we watch and enjoy some of the more serious aspects of the Kardashian’s life? For example, the episodes abt the death of their father, and the obviously deep vulnerability that Kim showed abt her breakup? Maybe these bits are added in order to provoke some sort of sympathy for the stars, but don’t they seem quite invasive? Although, I did love the bit where Kourtney literally pulled her child out of her own body.
    http://dollygosh.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Ladymia69 March 27th, 2014 3:40 PM

    Another thing that does not need anyone to tout it. Can we have some more good, under-the-radar stuff introduced on Rookie, rather than shows that are already hyped up way too much? I don’t care about the Kardashians. I DO care about smart, strong, interesting, complicated, creative, sometimes dysfunctional women. Can we have more of those?

    • wat why March 27th, 2014 5:48 PM

      in my opinion, they are all of those things

    • farawayfaerie March 28th, 2014 10:08 AM

      Rookie has often introduced us (or at least me) to ‘good under the radar stuff’, but sometimes it’s nice to hear opinions on what we come accross everyday in pop culture. Also an article on the Kardashians fits Consumption perfectly. I have never cared about them and still don’t think I will watch their show (it doesn’t appeal to me – but then I don’t really enjoy any reality tv) but it’s refreshing to hear someone talk about them in a way that isn’t sexist or prejudiced.

      Rookie also has articles on Mindy Kahling – not that she is under the radar, but she definitely falls under smart, strong, interesting, complicated, creative, sometimes dysfunctional women. This is why I love this magazine.

      SPACE FOR EVERYONE, DON’T BE ASHAMED OF THE SHIT YOU LOVE.

  • Abby March 27th, 2014 4:24 PM

    I don’t know what it is, but just the whole idea of fame as it is today gives me the heebie-jeebies (sorry for sounding like your weird aunt). I just hate that we give some people so much fame and a shit ton of money to basically just live their lives, when there are a billion more important things that we could be putting our attention and money towards. There are no popular shows on tv about the lives of people in poverty, or everyday sexism and racism or just inequality in general. People who spend their whole lives fighting for justice get almost no recognition, but we worship Justin Beiber (I know he makes music and you can love it or hate it but he’s just plain rude). Why do we spend so much time and money obsessed with random people on tv when we could feed a starving country with the money we give them?

    I don’t know. I don’t mean to bring anyone down who enjoys watching shows like this… it just gives me a rock in the pit of my stomach to think of all the inequality in the world while I’m watching people get paid millions to be on camera for the rest of us to worship.

  • Cruicked March 27th, 2014 4:44 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly. I was watching the episode where they try to put the putting green in earlier with my mum. Watching KUWTK with my mum is something I love to do, and I will never stop defending the Kardashians. I love them.

  • elenaaa March 27th, 2014 10:08 PM

    I have yet to meet one person who didn’t cry at the Kimye engagement episode. (Okay, so out of a poll of 2 or 3 KUWTK fans, but still.)

  • mollysee March 28th, 2014 3:09 PM

    Preach. I recently binge watched the whole thing and even had a tiny fight with my mom about the looks she gave me when I mentioned it. They are so much more relatable than people realize but still far enough away to keep you intrigued. I am now totally obsessed with Kourtney.

    -Molly
    mollyseee.blogspot.com

  • kathryn-s March 28th, 2014 11:05 PM

    So I’m on this school trip and we went to like a “family friendly” improv show and for the first question of audience participation they asked me who my favorite celebrity is, so I said Kim Kardashian, even though she’s not my FAV but I still luv her and she was on my brain from this article and EVERYONE judged me and the jokes they made about her were lame ones about her voice and thighs and later they dissed kanye and I am OUTRAGED and everyone thinks I was being sarcastic when I said kim

  • pansycakes March 31st, 2014 11:53 AM

    i loveed this ! KUWTK will forever be my favorite guilty pleasure <3<3

    http://youareawallflower.wordpress.com/

  • taliaonair May 13th, 2014 2:11 AM

    Best. Article. Ever.