I would absolutely characterize myself as ambitious. – Kim Kardashian
The wicked envy and hate. It is their way of admiring. – Victor Hugo
Kim has been singled out by a British headmistress as a splendid example of all that is wrong with Western society.
Dr Helen Wright, the head of St Mary’s School, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Wiltshire, made her claim after one men’s magazine branded Miss Kardashian ‘the hottest woman in the world’.
A fuming Dr Wright said: ‘The hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?’
She also accused Kim of making her fortune from ‘meanness, scandal and boundary-less living’. – Claudia O’Connell, “A marriage that lasted 72 days. A TV career built on a sex tape. And a derriere a million times bigger than her brain. CLAUDIA CONNELL explains why this woman is the ‘world’s worst role model'”, Daily Mail, June 22, 2012
Among the many things pop cultural form the 1980’s bequeathed to us, it was the emergence of tabloid television. Garish, loud, based around celebrities and their lives, it spawned all sorts of children, grandchildren, and now in the Internet Age, has become a species all its own. Among the first of such programs was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, hosted by that shouting Australian Robin Leach. Originally a “reporter” for Entertainment Tonight, Leach was given a chance to declare to the world how marvelous were the lives of the famous. He offered viewers walking tours of their homes. He went along on private yacht trips, private airplane trips, stood to one side during glittering premieres, all filmed so that we the viewers could participate vicariously in lives that were presented as ideal. If you weren’t quite ready to buy that, Leach’s presentation, twenty-two minutes of declarative sentences that pushed the limits of his microphone’s range, certainly attempted to do so through sheer force.
It has often been said that, with the dawn of mass media in the early decades of the 20th century, America was offered something it had never had: royalty in the personages of Hollywood. Followed as much for their lavish, overindulgent lifestyles as the films they made, actors and actresses became targets of obsession among young and old alike, with an expanding industry dedicated to the promotion, celebration, and careful management of the images and narratives of people who, otherwise, wouldn’t merit our attention. They were “famous”, if for no other reason than most people learned their names from going to weekend movies.
While many tut-tutted the burgeoning fixation with film actors and actresses private lives, it was generally assumed that, since some at least had enough talent and a work ethic worth admiring, the attention they received was admirable. It forced some among them, at least, to curb the worst of their predilections for excesses. Today, however, we live in a time when fame is both cheap and easy to receive. My younger daughter can talk about “a famous YouTuber” without any sense of irony because, well, such persons exist. For what, exactly, are they famous? I couldn’t tell you. Probably no more than having all sorts of people watch their videos on YouTube. Any actual achievement is beside the point.
Yet, that has largely been the case for our celebrities. Actors, musicians, even writers become celebrities not because they have accomplished something unique in human experience. At least, that is not the substance of the reports on them. After all, VH1 doesn’t air a show titled About the Music. The show is called Behind The Music, in which viewers are treated to stories of sex, drinking, drugs, dysfunction, and that ever-popular cycle of collapse, reformation, and sometimes even relapse. We aren’t offered a glimpse of the hours of practice, the arguments in studios over song arrangement and production, or why one brand of instrument is preferred over another. These, the substance of a musician’s professional life, are neither here nor there. We want scandal, we want excess, we want photos of celebrities in bed with the wrong person, or better wrong persons. Do we want to see tapes of Marilyn Monroe’s acting classes? Of course not. We want endless calendars of her barely clothed.
The notion that Kim Kardashian rose to some kind of fame – or notoriety, if you prefer – because of a leaked sex tape is common. I’m just not sure that’s altogether accurate. Her father, the late Robert Kardashian, was a well-respected attorney who became a household name when he helped defend O. J. Simpson against murder charges. His children, living most of the time with their mother who had married the former Bruce Jenner, attended schools with children of celebrities as well as future fame-holders including Lenny Kravitz and Slash, the guitarist from Guns-N-Roses. Surrounded as they were by the glitz and glamour of the well-off Hollywood life, it seems little stretch to picture the youthful Kardashians trying to find ways to achieve the kind of success that, in their milieu, seemed to matter most. The sex tape itself was of little consequence; if Kim Kardashian and her large family held no interest, weren’t telegenic, and didn’t have some kind of sound business sense, even the proposal for a reality television show centering around her, her closest sisters, and her mother and step-father would have been laughed out of most producers’ offices.
This is more than a simple case of fame following on notoriety. The Kardashians, and Kim in particular, are very canny about how they manage their public lives, while ensuring that a certain measure of privacy be in place. After all, how much of their television program, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, shows her at work in her office, where she heads a multi-million dollar corporation? Like refusing to be interested in which guitar string Eddie Van Halen prefers, no one wants to watch the Kardashians actually do stuff. The show offers viewers what all such programs offer: The chance to live vicariously a life most of us could not ever experience. The root of the show isn’t voyeurism, or perhaps not only voyeurism. At heart, the show is rooted in the producers’ understanding that few things are as powerful as envy. We look upon the Kardashians and simultaneously we want what they have and we do not; and we declare them unfit to hold a position of prominence for everything from the extensive plastic surgery to the alleged moral turpitude in which they engage.
In recent years, Kim Kardashian has done the unthinkable: She rushed in to a wedding for which she wasn’t prepared, leading to divorce within a few months; she became pregnant out of wedlock by rapper Kanye West; she has since married Kanye. The fact that Kanye West is one of the more disliked musicians out there certainly hasn’t helped Kim’s acceptance among the public. That she is a white woman who has married an African-American man is also points against her in a racist society. All of these things are offered up as proof that Kim Kardashian shouldn’t be in any place of public prominence, not even something as harmless as a reality television program.
Except, of course, the very things that attract so much negative attention, from the press and the public, are a combination of common human foibles and mistakes and life-choices and carefully stage-managed image enhancement and promotion. How many among my readers have made a mistake when it comes to affairs of the heart, rushing forward when a bit more caution was warranted? I know several people who ended their marriages quickly for a number of different reasons. As for the sex tape . . . who out there has had sex? Married, not married, with the opposite sex or same sex, perhaps even with multiple partners? Come on, don’t be shy: Who has had sex? Who, perhaps in a fit of devil-may-care arousal, thought it might be fun to take a photograph or two for your own private enjoyment? Maybe even turned on that little video camera in your phone? You don’t have to say anything; I know it happens.
Imagine a woman getting pregnant out of wedlock! How horrible! I can’t believe such a thing happening! Especially to a woman who is wealthy, having the resources to care for herself as well as raise a child! How horrible is that? And only later marrying the father (I detest the term “baby-daddy”, reducing men to sperm-donating turkey basters)! I bet no one out there knows anyone who has done that! And can you believe she married a talented, successful man who isn’t afraid of self-promotion any more or less than she is?
The final refuge for most of those who enjoy denouncing the lives of the Kardashians is that old chestnut: they are role models and should act appropriately.
Seriously? If you’re a parent, and you offer this argument, you might want to consider your own life and how you model living to your children before getting all up in the face of Kim Kardashian. If you’re a teacher, a clergy-person, or otherwise interact with children and youth (such as the school mistress quoted in the epigraph) perhaps you should stop and think before denouncing the lives of others, and turn that hyperactive moral sense upon your own life. At the end of the day, the Kardashians are just people. They’re successful, sure, but many folks in America are successful in their own professions. They have a TV show, but that hardly confers some status upon them. It just means that a lot of people see their faces. They are a family of men and women and youth who are doing the best they can with the tools they have to make their way in the world; that some of those tools include ways of drawing attention to themselves isn’t their fault.
The Kardashians aren’t royalty. Nor are they “famous for no reason”, a phrase empty of meaning. They are famous because they have worked hard to achieve a particular status, using and exploiting both modern media as well as a kind of traditional American sensibility for both desiring and hating those whose perceived achievements might outshine our own. They’re very good at it. Which should make them far better role models than all those people who take the time to ridicule them on social media.