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After Ten Years, Why Are We Still ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’?


In a special that aired last week as a kind of preview to her new “Today” show, host Megyn Kelly sat down with four of the five Kardashian sisters—sans newly pregnant Kylie, who feared tough questions—and their mom, Kris Jenner, to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of their hit Bravo show “Keeping up with the Kardashians” (KUWTK).

Kelly asked some fluff questions and some hard-hitting ones—it’s not often you hear “Are you evil?” on a morning talk show—but even the pitch-perfect responses and well-coiffed women sitting demurely in a monochromatic setting couldn’t conceal perhaps the most important question about the biggest reality show since “Survivor”: Are the Kardashians good role models?

The answer to that question leads to an even more important question no one ever asks: Why are they on TV at all?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One could view KUWTK as just another reality show that hardly reflects on culture, but a glance at the popularity, ratings, and sheer social media presence of the Kardashians—most of the girls boast approximately 100 million followers on Instagram—says otherwise. Their rise to fame, mostly just for being famous, has raised some concern. Kelly, to her credit, didn’t waste time getting to the heart of the matter, particularly for parents whose kids watch the show.

“Women will say the Kardashians are ‘evil’ because [their] kid is looking at pictures of [you] and is being driven toward superficial goals that are unattainable,” Kelly said. “I’ve said publicly before, I want to ask you that question: Are you a force for good, or a force for evil?”

The Kardashians demurred somewhat at first, but Kim finally responded with a defense. “I think we’ve honestly, through our show, shown so much more positive things […] but they only want to focus on, ‘Oh, they’re superficial, oh, they’re wearing makeup, oh, they’re this,’” she replied.

Khloé added, “I grew up with sisters that everybody else was comparing me to, but I had such an amazing core base that I never felt less than. If anyone is comparing themselves to someone else, that’s your responsibility at home to teach them what core values are, and to be a good person from within.”

While Khloe certainly isn’t wrong about the importance of a parent’s role in guiding a child’s entertainment use, it’s easy to see what Kelly was implying with her question, even though the word evil is a bit strong. Kris eschewed even the concept and said Kardashian fans far outnumber their critics because the girls have so many social media followers, on whom they are a positive influence. Yet a glance at their social media posts, which largely boast their naked bodies or makeup and clothing lines, showcases both Kelly’s concern and Kris’ point: The Kardashian women do have a lot of followers and they are showing them a very specific, often sexualized, image.

Attention By Any Means Possible

That image of course isn’t just sex but beauty, and the entanglement of the two. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Since sex sells, most of this is likely marketing strategy at work. But it’s hard not to look at their beautiful pictures and ask: How much of this is real versus an image? If the Kardashians were a product, aren’t Instagram photos just the carrier? Young American women have bought the Kardashian product hook, line, and sinker, some perhaps without even attempting to identify what about them is counterfeit and what is the real deal.

During the Kelly interview, Kendall referenced Kylie’s successful business acumen as proof of what great role models they are. “My little sister has an insane business, and anyone who says they don’t want their kid to be like that and have an insane business at 19 and literally be so successful is insane to me.”

That’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, Kylie, the youngest of the clan, just turned 20 and announced she’s four months pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. While the family’s generally pro-life stance is applauded, pregnancy at 19 without marriage seems a difficult route for anyone and one that places normal women highly at risk of poverty.

Before she married Bruce Jenner, Kris was married to Robert Kardashian, known mostly for his role as friend and lawyer to O.J. Simpson but also for his savvy business deals and inherited family money. She no doubt left that marriage with a hefty chunk of change, latched onto Bruce’s then-sports fame, then parlayed that (and her children) into modeling, makeup, and then TV contracts.

No doubt the Kardashian clan works hard, but they’ve had some help getting to that point. It’s as disingenuous to pretend Kylie’s business started from scratch as it is to pretend Kardashians’ filtered and nearly-naked Instagram photos are “real life.” Knowing this changes its value somewhat and shifts the debate about whether their behavior is worth emulating.

The Curse of the Kardashian Men

Men who come within 100 miles of the Kardashian women’s vicinity seem to be adversely affected for life. Passionate observers have penned entire articles devoted to the so-called “Kardashian curse,” the women’s effect on men who dabble with the lifestyle of these rich, famous, and beautiful women. Of course, one could posit some of these men—Bruce Jenner, Scott Disick, or Kanye West, for starters—may never have been playing with a full set of sharpened brow pencils to begin with, but there’s certainly a pattern that seems more than coincidental.

West has gone from successful rapper to the Taylor Swift debacle, to being hospitalized for “erratic” behavior, to back to pregnant with Kim (via surrogate, of course). Does he want to be removed from the Kardashian narrative, or is he enjoying his crazy self? Hard to say.

When Lamar Odom married Khloe, he enjoyed a successful, professional basketball career and what seemed to be a genuine relationship with her. Sadly, no sooner had the two married than Odom began battling drug problems and eventually the two divorced. Despite separating, Odom’s problems drug problems continued and his basketball career has effectively ended.

Kris Humphries, another NBA star, lasted a whopping 72 days married to Kim before he was “blindsided” by their breakup. In the divorce, Humphries “requested ‘nullity of voidable marriage,’ on the basis of fraud.”

Let’s not forget Disick, Kourtney’s long-term boyfriend. Disick seems to boast enough of his own problems — faithlessness, drug abuse, and alcohol — sans the Kardashians. But his flaky relationship with Kourtney seems to do none of them, including their three kids, any favors. Still, every time he runs off or reappears, viewers are glued to the screen, so his misery is a boon for the show’s ratings.

Even Rob Kardashian, the girls’ brother, seemed to be a young man content to let his sisters enjoy the glare of the public eye. But he gained weight, starting mooching off Khloe, then hooked up in a bizarre relationship with Blac Chyna. Although the couple never married, they share a child and have since split romantically.

The most dramatic change, of course, occurred with Bruce-turned-Caitlyn Jenner. Winning gold in the 1976 summer Olympics, Jenner was an adored sports star and role model. Years later, he married Kris, the matriarch of the Kardashian clan, and slowly his mental health began to unravel. While Jenner claims he always felt like a woman inside, he slowly gave way to that mindset and fully transitioned to Caitlyn during his years with Kris. Whenever a man seems to touch a Kardashian woman, he seems to die a little inside. Maybe he’s just trying to keep up.

Maybe We Actually Don’t Want to Keep Up

Why did America become hooked on “Keeping up with the Kardashians” in 2007? Reality television had just become popular. Americans had grown weary of their own grainy and grisly reality. Real life is boring, tedious, and predictable. Enter the Kardashians, who were beautiful, if filtered, living in a big, white mansion bursting with sex, money, and assistants—as well as crafted salads and perfect makeup.

Americans can’t help but watch a train wreck, especially when it’s a luxury rail.

Even though everything in a Kardashian’s life eventually goes wrong—romantic relationships split, friendships dissolve, businesses grow and are lost, sex tapes are discovered, transgenders transition, fights are fought, and tears are shed—they do it all within a carefully constructed narrative, within a gorgeous bubble of Instagram filters, perfectly placed cameras, and problems they may never have had without becoming stars simply for being on television living life. Americans can’t help but watch a train wreck, especially when it’s a luxury rail with velvet seats that serves five-course meals. It’s a relief from our own life that looks so different, and that kind of therapy doesn’t seem so wrong, does it?

While the Kardashians may have learned a lot of lessons along the way—Kris and Kim both credit the show for changing the course of several of their lives—it’s still unclear what we’re learning from the Kardashians, except that with fame, fortune, and beauty come failed relationships, skewed goals, and people still asking the question after ten years, “Are the Kardashians good role models?”

I suppose that depends on what you aspire to and at what cost you will try to achieve that thing. It has come at a cost to them. How could it not affect viewers, too?