TEN YEARS IN
Should America Keep Forgiving the Kardashians?
The family’s many scandals, from the recurring acts of cultural appropriation to Kanye West’s adventures in the alt-right, become less forgivable as the years go on.
Last year, the Kardashian family celebrated a decade of forcefully occupying the zeitgeist. E! reality TV shows—they grow up so fast. The Kardashian 10-year anniversary special came right on the heels of a TMZ bulletin reporting that then 20-year-old Kylie Jenner was expecting. The news stunned the world, and the impeccable timing found avid Kardashian followers in a familiar position—open-mouthed at Kris Jenner’s tactical brilliance, shaking their heads slowly and whispering, “her mind…”
As the old adage goes, the devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder. The Sun Tzu of reality TV-world, Jenner has, through sheer will, pushed out a brood of beautiful, petty daughters and put them to work. She's converted her living room into an iconic set, her children into brands, and her vision of a zany, Brady Brunch-style reality TV show into cold hard cash.
But while Jenner’s winning formula has reaped dividends for a whole decade, the Kardashians’ powerful cultural hold might be waning. Kylie’s secret pregnancy and surprise infant reveal was masterful, but it’s been a hard comedown. Suddenly, the Kardashians’ regular antics feel repetitive and predictable.
Once comforting patterns of behavior—Scott Disick professing his love for Kourtney and resolving to be a better partner and father, and then going on a bender; Kris Jenner withholding some vital piece of information for maximum tabloid impact; family members poorly recreating a conversation—are now eye roll-inducing. Why are we doing this again? And when we die, will we measure our lives in the number of Kim Kardashian marriage specials we’ve DVR’d?
Given the increasingly pressing need to bear witness in our daily lives—to environmental disaster, to acts of human cruelty, to the idiocy and the apathy of the powerful and the suffering of the powerless—passionately observing the first family of reality TV has fallen by the wayside. Plus, the family’s many scandals, from the recurring acts of cultural appropriation to Kanye West’s adventures in the alt-right, become less forgivable as the years go on. Patience is a limited resource these days, and we’re collectively less inclined to let the Kardashians try ours.
While criticizing the Kardashians has always been just as much a national pastime as keeping up with them, smart, feminist critiques of the clan are really having a moment. The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil has made some particularly convincing comments, specifically targeting the gross, body-shaming products that the sisters are paid to promote on their social media. These include appetite suppressant lollipops and the ubiquitous Fit Tea. Jamil made headlines when she described the Kardashians as “double agents for the patriarchy,” accusing them of “benefitting off, profiting off, and selling a patriarchal narrative to other women.” Kim Kardashian reportedly receives up to $500,000 for each sponsored Instagram post. These ads sell her adoring, largely female fan base on the idea that they can look as gorgeous and fit as Kim does—if they spend money on dubious weight-loss techniques, and buy into the implication that they’re not skinny enough to begin with.
Jamil’s remarks, and others like them, do not slut-shame the Kardashians, or villainize them for being successful capitalists or nude selfie takers. Instead, they replace a binary of empowered Kardashians and misogynistic haters with a spectrum of badness. Yes, Piers Morgan is still the worst for criticizing how a woman chooses to promote and profit from her brand and her butt, and Kim Kardashian is well within her rights to post provocative snaps and sassy rebuttals. But the fact that she stood up to a bad man doesn't automatically make her the best.
In a world of clickbait and hastily awarded superlatives, media coverage has, in the past, quickly escalated from “check out Kim's great clap back” to “Kim Kardashian, feminist icon, has just single-handedly started the fifth wave.” The Daily Beast has certainly been guilty of this brand of over-enthusiastic declaration. But now that the Kardashians are no longer single-handedly ruling over the congested news cycle, we can take a step back and admit that maybe we do deserve something better. Better than ethically questionable Instagram ads, better than truly unbelievable reality TV acting, better than over-priced lip kits and genuinely offensive Tupac tees.
The Kardashians are, paradoxically, both too smart and too dumb for us. It’s still stunningly impressive that the Kardashian family pulled all of this off, playing the American people for what we are—superficial, content-starved sex addicts who love drama. But we’re also fickle, and tired. If the Kardashians want to keep our attention, they’re going to have to listen to criticism and evolve. Try something new, be just a little bit better. And if all else fails, Scott Disick can always get Sofia Richie pregnant.