Kim Kardashian Isn’t the Butt of Jokes Anymore

Like leather jogging pants and Givenchy, it appears that Kim is trying on a new Kanye-inspired look: savvy self-branding, in the form of self-awareness, humor, and satire.

Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU

The recent announcement of Kim Kardashian’s upcoming book of 352 personal selfies, aptly titled Selfish, is a reminder of just how unfathomably, unquestionably famous she has become. But back in 2007, she was just another half-Armenian Barbie doll with a handful of famous friends, a budding closet-organizing business, and some loose connections to the O.J. Simpson trial. Keeping Up with the Kardashians introduced America to Kim and her Kin, a group of beautiful, family-oriented women with a small clothing store and a humble mission: to be unfathomably famous for absolutely no reason. Or, as we call it today, the American Dream.

The Kardashians started with nothing (a large family home in Calabasas), determined to launch an empire. One sex tape, two televised Kim K weddings, two spawns of Scott Disick, and four spinoffs later, here we are: Kim Kardashian is one half of the #WorldsMostTalkedAboutCouple, and her net worth was recently estimated at $45 million.

The most interesting thing about Kim’s fame is that it’s entirely unprecedented. Sure, Paris Hilton might have invented “being famous for nothing,” but she never quite managed to convert her catchphrases and love of tiny dogs into a sustainable brand. Kim has, with little more than an amazing butt and some serious business savvy, transformed herself into a product we can’t stop buying. Without a quantifiable talent or buckets of family money to fall back on, Kim made her name by eschewing privacy and practicing ultra-transparency. After all, this is a woman whose Wikipedia Life and Career entry begins “1980-2007: Early life and sex tape.”

On early episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, we watched Kim suffer all the little humiliations of an almost-starlet: the invasive press, the understaffed shoots, the constant racing from event to event in the hopes of networking and moving up. We got to see the utter pragmatism with which Kim and her family worked together to utilize Kim’s amateur sex tape as a platform for future success. It was real, it was grasping, it was a little bit depressing, and, most of all, it was a level of intimacy we’re not used to achieving with anyone outside our closest family and friends, let alone a complete stranger/aspiring celebrity.

Kim approached her career with tenacity and sincerity; any sort of coolness, remove, or privacy was not a luxury she could afford. Ruthlessness, ambition, and greed are traits we can all identify with and, paired with transparency, they made for great reality television. But these crude characteristics also wore at her celebrity pedestal—unlike, say, a Gwyneth Paltrow or an Adele, Kim wasn’t seen as inimitably glamorous or talented; she wasn’t revered, respected, or worshipped. More often than not, she was the butt of the joke.

Making fun of Kim quickly became as common an activity as watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and a far more socially acceptable one. Everything about Kim has become punch-line fodder: her sex tape, her body, her alleged plastic surgery, her 72-day marriage, and even her cry face. After Kim filed for divorce from Kris Humphries, late-night hosts had a field day. Craig Ferguson joked, “If two celebrities who hardly know each other get married for a TV show can’t make it, what hope is there for any of us?” Jimmy Kimmel went for the kill: “It’s a shame. I thought they’d be together for at least another five to 10 Us Weekly covers.” He continued, “Kim has asked that her fans give her a complete lack of privacy during this time.”

Comedians joking about Kim’s 72-day marriage is a no-brainer. But it bears noting that at the heart of this Kim Kardashian humor isn’t a good-natured takedown of celebrity nuptials. It’s a merciless mockery of the way she chooses to live her life, the audacity of her fame, and the transparency of her transactions. The implication here is that Kim isn’t really a human being—she’s the human face of an utterly calculating business endeavor.

The total “reality” that Kim offered to her fans made her brand incredibly popular, but it also made her so entirely mock-able. She was so successful in converting herself into a product that she stopped being, in the eyes of many, a person. And so we came to believe that the things we hold dear (family, love, marriage, motherhood, etc.) are for Kim only contracts, deals, and business opportunities, a reimagining that allowed us to dismiss and mock these events and relationships and, consequentially, Kim herself.

In other words, Kim Kardashian is a joke. Or at least she was. Which brings us to Kim’s most recent high-profile projects: an incredibly popular app based on her own rise to fame and fortune, and an entire book of selfies. With the advent of these two ridiculous endeavors, it’s about time we consider the possibility that Kim might just be in on the joke.

Let’s look at the facts: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West officially came out as a couple in 2012. Since then, it’s been widely known that Kanye is the architect behind most of Kim’s current looks, from the Givenchy floral print dress she wore to the Met Ball to the form-fitting, predominately black-and-white ensembles that she favors day to day. One of the few appearances Kanye has deigned to make on Keeping Up with the Kardashians shows the rapper systematically going through Kim’s closet. He trashes her old clothes with so much venom, it’s as if someone off-camera just asked him if he likes fish sticks.

In addition to switching up Kim’s sartorial game, Kanye’s also managed to change how she approaches celebrity. In an interview for DuJour magazine in 2013, Kim explained, “My boyfriend has taught me a lot about privacy. I’m ready to be a little less open about some things, like my relationships. I’m realizing everyone doesn’t need to know everything. I’m shifting my priorities.”

Kanye might be a pompous jerk, but he’s also a smart man. He’s an intensely witty rapper, as well as someone who isn’t afraid to have a political opinion. Ever since The College Dropout, he’s been a vocal commentator on race relations in America and an astute observer of the desires and prejudices that bind and divide us. Kanye’s always had a message, and Kim’s never had one—unless the omnipresent subliminal message of “Watch. Buy. Watch.” counts. Now that the two have merged as one Kimye, it appears as though someone has realized that the smartest way to be Kim Kardashian is to recognize the sheer ridiculousness and frivolity of being Kim Kardashian. And so, like leather jogging pants and Givenchy, it appears that Kim is trying on a new Kanye-inspired look: savvy self-branding, in the form of self-awareness, humor, and satire.

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Consider Kimye spawn North West’s recent modeling debut at the tender age of 1. North West’s presence in the “Legends” spread of the prestigious CR Fashion Book (as well as North West’s name in and of itself) is utterly ridiculous. It’s also the purest encapsulation of both of the young celebrity’s uber-caricatured parents. The highly publicized image is Kanye’s hyper obsession with the fashion world meets Kim’s complete inability to keep her private life private.

And yet there’s something about the arresting sight of this unfathomably famous baby sporting a Chanel brooch. It’s weird and uncomfortably attention-seeking, but it’s also hilarious—and it’s so textbook Kardashian-West that the idea of this “art” as deliberate satire can’t be easily dismissed. This unforgettable example of Kardashian ambition doesn’t make us feel embarrassed for or superior to Kim—it makes us feel embarrassed for the role that we’ve all played in creating this universe where Kim’s 1-year-old daughter models the fashion world’s classiest brand in one of its chicest magazines, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.

Not convinced that Kim is in on the joke? Look no further then Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the addictive app that generated $1.6 million in its first five days on the market. The game is deceptively simple: create an avatar and, following Kim K’s example, work your way up to the A-list. In addition to being chock-full of mindlessly fun tasks, the app, on which Kardashian was a key collaborator, is also surprisingly funny.

When you earn money, cash falls from the sky, meaning you have to scrounge on the floor for dollar bills. Human interactions are often reduced to “networking” or “flirting,” a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the Hollywood social scene, and your D-list avatar might be asked to audition for a host of unglamorous jobs, like “a background role in a commercial for a new window cleaning solution called Glassex.” Kim is mocking the entire value system on which she built her career, as well as her own less-than-savory past. Plus, she’s laughing all the way to the bank; Kim is set to earn 45 percent of the app’s net profits.

Kim might be richer than God, but at least she seems to understand the strangeness of her own celebrity, of living in a world in which a nude photo shoot could catapult you from the D-list all the way to the B-list. In addition to her stardom satire, Kim’s recently announced book of selfies, which is actually titled Selfish, seems like as apt a commentary as any on the sheer narcissism and beauty fetishization that has fueled her meteoric rise. Isn’t it sort of lovely to think that Kim, a woman who has been endlessly mocked for her ego as well as her ability to make money off her perfect set of body parts, is actually making fun of herself?

Of course publishing a book of selfies is the height of Kim Kardashian self-referential ridiculousness. But since we’re the ones who can’t look away, who are playing the Kim Kardashian app, and who will doubtlessly be hitting up Barnes & Noble come Selfish publication day, isn’t the joke really on us? Whether Kim’s recent, seemingly satirical successes are the result of sheer luck or clever manipulation is up to you. Similarly, we’ll probably never know if Kanye is ultimately responsible for Kim’s rebranding. Suffice it to say that Kim Kardashian is a self-made woman, a master of reinvention, and a really impressive businesswoman in her own right—no joke.