The year 2017’s reverse Midas touch—the ability to turn anything good into shit—is coming for us all, and the Kardashians are the most recent example.
Ever since the 2007 release of Kim Kardashian’s Ray J sex tape, the Kardashian family has been spinning notoriety and sex appeal into solid gold. To a legion of Juicy sweatpants-wearing 2006 pop culture devotees, Kim K was just a pretty girl who Paris Hilton occasionally went clubbing with. No one could have guessed that, more than a decade later, Kim Kardashian West would be the world’s premier source of highlighters and internet-breaking selfies. Unlike her predecessors, blonde girls with prominent collarbones who burned fast and bright on the celebrity circuit, Kardashian has established the kind of staying power that a mid-aughts Nicole Richie could only dream of. Kim has outlasted Kitson, the Ugg phase, and Paris Hilton’s singing career, transforming herself from an A-list hanger-on to a haute couture-wearing reality TV megastar who’s married to hip-hop royalty.
To oversimplify an ambitious woman’s life’s work, Kim owes her success to a cultural prescience that borders on clairvoyance. From reality television to selfie culture to “natural curves” to contouring and even emojis, Kardashian has become a one-stop shop for the looks we want to emulate and the guilty pleasure content we can’t help but consume. Aiding Kim’s ascendancy was Kris Jenner, a sexagenarian with the face, ambition, and brand management skills of a particularly manipulative millennial. With the help of her “momager,” Kim built a brand that both was and was not selfish, elevating her entire family along with her.
Every Kardashian is a snowflake: beautiful, unique, and with her own distinctive brand of merchandise. Kim is the sexy one and the famous one. Khloé is the funny one. Kourtney is the healthy one/the super mom. Rob is the boy. As soon as they graduated from puberty/fake high school, Kendall and Kylie Jenner took on their own roles in the family business, garnishing their half-siblings’ reality TV show empire with their own special flair (aka black fashion trends they found on Instagram). Kylie had big lips and a rapper boyfriend, and Kendall was a real model. Kylie wore long acrylic nails and Kendall had sleep paralysis. Kylie realized lots of things and Kendall appeared to realize absolutely nothing. With the addition of the Jenner sisters, the Kardashian brand became stronger and more inescapable than ever. This updated cast promised an era of Kardashian success and stasis: sisters and half-sisters prattling on over grilled chicken salads season after season, getting married, giving birth, growing older, customizing and re-customizing their Mercedes just to feel something.
And then 2017 hit Calabasas like a meteor, leaving a trail of escalating controversies and some abandoned Dash merchandise in its wake.
To put things into perspective, just last summer the Kardashians were celebrating the demise of family nemesis Taylor Swift, who was effectively outed for her serpentine tendencies on Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat. Following Kim’s Pulitzer-worthy work, Swift was relegated to her own ninth circle of hell: anonymity. Swift was squad-less and single and Kim Kardashian was more famous than ever, essentially dancing on her enemy’s grave in a pair of priceless custom Yeezys. Now, less than a year later, the entire Kardashian family appears to be teetering on the brink of overexposure, just like TayTay. This is the way the Kardashian world ends: not with a bang, but a potent combination of cultural appropriation scandals, Instagram revenge porn, a really bad Pepsi ad, and desecrating the memory of Tupac Shakur.
It’s hard to say if the Kardashians have been sabotaged by their lesser siblings, or are merely reaping the rewards of their own shitty seeds. After all, the main gripe that socially conscious consumers appear to have with the Kardashians is their cultural appropriation—and while these accusations have certainly escalated, taking trend cues from women of color has always been an integral part of the Kardashian brand. When Kim Kardashian was, incorrectly and ahistorically, heralded for singlehandedly making hips and butts sexy, she arguably set her family on the path to their own destruction. Ever since, the Kardashians have consistently co-opted black trends, aesthetics, and styles—everything from cornrows to, allegedly, the n-word. Sure, there’s a difference between braiding your hair a certain way because you saw a black woman doing it on Tumblr and putting your face on top of Biggie Smalls’. Then again, when you build an entire brand off of your ability to spot and repackage trends, the line between curation and harmful co-option is predictably thin. And when you’re Kylie Jenner, a 19-year-old who has repeatedly been accused of stealing things she likes without permission, the line is apparently non-existent.
Kylie and Kendall, with their apparent allergies to any form of social justice and/or self-improvement, are more brazenly offensive than Kim Kardashian ever was. Perhaps sensing that celebrity apoliticism doesn’t go over too well these days, Kim has attempted to update her brand, endorsing Hillary Clinton and tweeting on behalf of gun control legislation and Planned Parenthood. In spite of these relatively new causes, Kim is already an artifact from an age before problematic faves—a blessedly bygone era where fans didn’t have receipts, and celebs weren’t pressured to use their platforms toward political ends. The Kardashians, who are famous for doing nothing, seem to falter whenever they are asked to stand for something. Instead, they use their powerful voices to sell Pepsi to the Resistance, becoming more and more irrelevant with each cookie-cutter apology and craven cop-out.
All of this leads us to the current state of the Kardashian brand: in crisis. For a family that’s historically had their fingers on all of the pulses, the Kardashians have been increasingly breaking with reality these days, inspiring a glut of critical tweets and bad press.
Caitlyn Jenner, once celebrated as a trans icon, has recently been making headlines for her conservative politics, which have predictably pissed off and confused the LGBTQ community. Khloé Kardashian has allegedly been dabbling in the more unsavory side of the family business, and stands accused of ripping off a black female designer for her own Good American line. Meanwhile, Kylie and Kendall are under fire for their aforementioned “vintage tees,” a collection of T-shirts emblazoned with images of famous rock stars and rappers that have been obscured by Kylie and Kendall’s favorite Instagram selfies.
Last but certainly not least, consider the strange and concerning case of Rob Kardashian, a man whose sisters have made him so wealthy that he can afford to be a full-time sock designer. Instead of quietly relishing his unearned riches, Kardashian has gravitated, like a moth to a flame, towards increasingly messy drama. Most recently, he went after Blac Chyna on social media, slut-shaming the mother of his child by publishing private nude photos that she had sent to him. What Rob Kardashian doesn’t seem to get, or simply doesn’t care to wrestle with, is the fact that his entire existence was bankrolled by a sex tape—and that his older sister has been consistently shamed by the exact brand of women-hating bullshit that motivated Rob’s X-rated screed.
After years of being mercilessly mocked for having sex on screen, Kim Kardashian managed not only to make herself a millionaire, but to consistently advocate on behalf of female sexual autonomy and sex positivity. So the fact that Rob Kardashian, a man who was given everything by a group of hardworking women, has made it his mission to take down his ex by mocking her body and sharing her sexts, is a special kind of sad. What’s clear is that the Kardashians don’t really get “it”—whether “it” is Black Lives Matter, intellectual property, or even their own family history. It’s enough to bring a single, devastated expression to Kris Jenner’s face.