Beautiful Thing

Why Intellectuals Love to Take the Kardashians Seriously

Kendall Jenner is the latest subject of a Kardashian hot take—in The New Yorker, no less. And now the highbrow fascination with the family has extended into academia.

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In the fallout of Pepsi’s tone-deaf ad, criticism of the soda company eventually turned toward the commercial’s star, supermodel Kendall Jenner, who was pilloried on Twitter and in the mainstream media for not speaking out about the commercial. (Alec Baldwin, ever the outcast, was her sole defender.)

The attacks grew more vicious when she emerged from her social media hiatus this weekend at Coachella, promoting a party she and sister Kylie hosted there for the dating app Bumble. In a lengthy polemic, Mashable called Kendall out for “shirk[ing] responsibility in favor of a sponsor-friendly, apolitical career.”

The New Yorker recently pontificated on “The Profound Silence of Kendall Jenner,” examining Kendall’s non-response to the Pepsi debacle through an in-depth analysis of her family’s reality TV show.

While Kylie is launching a spin-off show, Kendall has “maintained a curious remove from the earthy theatrics of her kin” until her recent PR disaster, the author notes. While Kylie markets herself with the “voluptuous élan of a social-media Vargas girl,” Kendall has “often reacted with discomfiture to her sisters’ performance of flamboyant femininity.”

In one clunker of a sentence, we learn that Kendall’s “defining quality is a commitment to providing, for near-constant consumption, a personality that, whether intentionally or intuitively, refuses to be fully consumed.”

To be sure, plenty of culture writers parse the Kardashians’ every move these days. The Daily Beast has published countless think pieces—including a few by this author—about the Kardashian phenomenon; reports on the latest developments about Kim Kardashian West’s robbery in Paris; debates about whether Kim is a feminist or a sell-out, and so on.

But beyond day-to-day cultural criticism, the Kardashians are increasingly the subject of rigorous intellectual analysis.

Two years ago, New York magazine published a conversation between editor David Wallace-Wells and art critic Jerry Saltz about Kim Kardashian’s Selfish book and “the weird fact that all of a sudden, everyone seems to be taking her very, very seriously.”

Saltz declared Kim’s Selfish the American answer to Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle, or “a chorus of [struggles], written in a personal language of compassion, infinite theater, stage sets, setpieces, ceremony, shallowness, despairs, self-awareness, sexuality, unable to curtail one’s selfishness and obsession with one’s own image.”

Indeed, academics are publishing papers and books about the Kardashians and students are writing senior theses about them. "The Kardashians represent the best and worst in American culture and society," said Selena Pruitt, who studied the Kardashians for her senior thesis at Macalester College in Minnesota before graduating last year. "I'm not saying everything they do has value, but they represent American ideals." This alone makes them worth studying, she argues, in the same way we study other pop-cultural heavyweights.

“The Kardashians all perform femininity in quite specific ways that are very much connected to consumerism,” said Meredith Jones, professor of Media and Gender Studies at Brunel University London, echoing the author of the recent New Yorker treatise. “They all continually purchase their femininity and then go on to sell it,” said Jones, who hosted a “Kimposium!” at the university in November 2015. “These women are very much in charge of every aspect of their lives, which is not a socially-minded feminism necessarily but still a form of feminism.”

At least one academic remains more skeptical of the attention the media lavishes on the Kardashians. In 2012, Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor at MIT's Media Lab, coined the "Kardashian" as a "unit of attention" paid to the Kardashians on any given day, as determined through Google search. Zuckerman's "Kardashian" was also "a unit of perspective" next to all other news.

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“They’re a very convenient punching bag—shorthand for, ‘Look at what you’re spending your time thinking about instead of thinking about Syria,’” Zuckerman said, noting that they are, of course, famous for being famous. (He also stressed that he does not study the Kardashians).

“We’ve always fancied ourselves as a meritocracy. But maybe the answer is that those most deserving of fame belongs to those who want it the most,” he said. “Kim always wanted to be famous, I would argue to an almost pathological extent.”

Asked what he thought of the New Yorker piece, Zuckerman replied in an email: “Within the lens of gigacelebrity, does the comparative absence of a Kardashian lead us to think of those written out of history? Is she the Rohingya? The Roma?

“Perhaps her comparative absence is a deeper presence than a simple presence could be,” he added, tongue firmly in cheek.