The Kardashian Decade
The big thing to consider when considering Kim Kardashian is her ass. It is The First Thing. Understand that when I say this, I don’t mean it disrespectfully, facetiously or figuratively — what I mean to say is that it’s the very first thing that is glimpsed or discussed on the very first episode of her reality program, which means that one of the very first phrases we hear on the audio track is: “too much junk in the trunk.” “Too much junk in the trunk” may well be written in Latin on Kim Kardashian’s family crest. Cogito, as Philip Larkin once wrote in a letter to Kingsley Amis, ergo bum.
“Where did that come from?” asks somebody (incidentally, it will soon become extremely clear which sister is speaking at all times, regardless of whether or not you are actually facing the screen, if you have watched all thirteen seasons of Keeping Up with the Kardashians over a very brief period. I have just watched it in five or six weeks, so believe me, I know) — another sister says: “a little cardio” and if the show had a laugh track, we’d hear it just then. We know that saying this ass came from cardio, just a little cardio, is a barefaced lie; but it’s also a lie that the program maintains for a decade. Kimberly Noel Kardashian — currently Kim Kardashian West, on husband number three — keeps, like her siblings, everything so fundamentally, emotionally real that it barely matters exactly which parts of her correspond. Knowing what a stratospherically famous person does at her GP appointments and while at the veterinarian is almost better than knowing, for certain, the scale of the work of her plastic surgeon.
Like a “scripted reality show”, an ass can be sculpted for maximum drama and still find itself approximating something like the real, and so in season one, we see Kim and her buttocks go on Tyra Banks’ talk show; pose for Playboy; host a car show; visit a favorite Armenian restaurant; mourn her father, the OJ defense lawyer Robert Kardashian, and attempt to bail her sister out of jail. In one especially absurd installment, we bear witness to the three Kardashian sisters adopting a homeless man named Shorty, whom they return to the homeless shelter with a better haircut. Kim, who says about being nude that she “does it with class, [because she’s] got a big ass”, is very beautiful and — latterly, if not immediately — very kind, which is enough for a celebrity to be without being much else aside. She is dense enough to say the odd wrong, bimbette thing, and smart enough to be worth forty million dollars.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired for the first time in 2007, the year that Britney Spears first switched from wilding out at the club to pure, unadulterated wilderness. Eight months before the first Keeping Up… episode, Britney shaved her head for photographers. Just ten days before it screened, she had been ordered to take part in regular mandated drug tests. What is odd about the Kardashian lifestyle is exactly, notwithstanding the money, how not odd it is. A lot of this show involves them fighting in restaurants; much is about whether mothers have actual favorite children — the difference being that here, the answer is: “yes, but for fiscal reasons.” A lot of it is about groups of sisters being not only sisters, but also competitors, which rings true even if we use “sister” as metaphor (there was a reason Britney Spears turned wild that year, and it was not only her medical history: competing to be pop culture’s number one girl is, quite frankly, a bitch). When Kim is reluctant to go full frontal for Playboy, Kris pushes her. When somebody has installed a stripper pole in the house, twelve-year-old Kylie play-acts like she’s some drunk, flashing co-ed; Girls Gone Wild’s Joe Francis, who is a friend of the family, calls from jail to update Kris on his business plans. One of those plans, although we do not see this on screen, is the monetising of Kim’s leaked sex tape to the tune of roughly five million dollars.
“Keeping up with the Joneses,” offers Wikipedia — and if we are discussing a thing as ersatz as Kardashian life, this does not seem an inappropriate citation —“is an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one’s neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.” Certainly, these people are keeping up with something. I don’t know if it’s culture. I do know that it appears to be twinned with Joe Francis’s business plans. After appearing on Tyra, Kim says happily: “Now I don’t ever have to hear about [the tape] again.” An audience with the benefit of hindsight might expect a laugh track there, too.
In its inaugural season, Keeping Up with the Kardashians appears to be, in the mould of Seinfeld even though it is the fundamental opposite of Seinfeld, a show about nothing. There is hugging, but there is no learning, since each conflict lasts exactly twenty minutes. The standout episode is a kind of half-baked riff on Lolita, in which Kris makes the mistake of hiring a blonde and pretty, “white trash” nanny who does not seem much interested in anything other than tanning. “Mom,” says Khloé on the phone, with characteristic candor and no real preamble, “there is a whore here watching your children. You had better get over here before your husband leaves you for this twelve-year-old bitch.” Her husband, the girls’ other parent (a woman named Caitlyn who is, for the first nine series, pre-transition and going by the name of Bruce) makes an understandably reluctant Humbert Humbert, as the babysitter smokes a cigarette and smells the garden’s roses in a string bikini, like someone from central casting. She is, I would imagine, from central casting. “Wanted: babysitter nymphette for a sitcom; allergic to clothing.” Theirs is an Adult Swim surreality, wrapped in the dumb velour of a Juicy tracksuit.
Season two of Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered in 2008, the year America elected not only its first black president, but also its first black liberal president, which perhaps explains why certain episodes were able to air without L.A. being razed to the ground; optimism seems, to me, the only discernable reason for the nation to permit an argument over a slightly late Bentley to stretch over three distinct episodes. “Yes We Can!” is a hopeful, now historic rallying cry — it’s also the cry of Kim and her various sisters, assuming it’s followed with “Do Whatever We Want”. “Sometimes,” Khloé tells the camera, as if she is trying to sum up reality TV in one single sentence, “working and having a job is boring.”
Here is the situation, as best as I can explain it to you: Kim is very excited that she’s finally able to buy herself a custom Bentley, which is all black because there is “no more pink” in Kim Kardashian’s universe (this is, I need not tell you, an untruth). She has “sacrificed a lot” and owning the Bentley is “her greatest dream”, although the same description is later applied to her filming a softcore burger commercial. When Kim arrives at the dealership, they have not yet finished the car, and her sisters, Khloé and Kourtney, scream at the staff. Kim Kardashian does not want to alienate the people who have helped her to achieve her dream of having a serious, no-more-Kimmy-K-pink Bentley, so she finds this an affront. This somehow ends in them accusing her of “only caring about things and money” and her mounting the molto-unhelpful defense: “you’re both just jealous you can’t have a Bentley!”
There are feudal arguments in ancient record that have maintained steam for far less time than this one. It totally festers. It is the very first plotline on Keeping Up with the Kardashians to warrant its own “previously on”, even though last series, there was a storyline which dealt with actual child pornography being shopped to the tabloids; when the family’s solution to healing the rift is a trip to the Alps for which each girl is ungrateful, their tantrum throwing begins to grate more than I might have guessed possible. Kim, at one point, leaves the family’s chalet and threatens to fly home because she does not feel her sisters respect her (“you seem to be having a crisis of identity,” Caitlyn, still living as Bruce, is informed in the maelstrom. “Who are you?”).
It occurs to me that it would be difficult for anybody to respect a woman behaving as Kim did then if she were behaving that way now, a near-decade later and with a rich, petulant, tantrum-prone former reality star as the President. In an earlier episode, Kendall Jenner — who is the second youngest daughter — chooses to outsource all of her chores to a smiling neighborhood immigrant; she pays the man a few dollars to hose down the family car, and then picks up the full twenty dollars as if she has done it herself. This is very American, very Kardashian, and something viewers might say fully shows her acumen. It is “entrepreneurship in action.” It shows, if nothing else, that Kardashian values are inbuilt at birth. When the K-girls fly to New Orleans and “bump into” a family who have survived Katrina in a restaurant, then agree to visit their house and their FEMA trailer in order to look at the damage, it feels like a retrofitted disclaimer for squabbling over the Bentley; though I wonder why they get a charity to pay for their good deed, rather than paying themselves. I suppose Kendall’s acumen answers my question: why do fish swim and birds fly? Why do wealthy people make up by taking a trip to the Alps? It is, as one of the daughters might say in a camera confessional, what it is. Another thing they like to say each episode is: “I could care less.” I cannot imagine that’s possible.
In 2009, the year that season three of Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired, a former reality star was involved in a murder-suicide. It was not a Kardashian; had it been a Kardashian, doubtless it would have had better publicity, which is surely what the perpetrator hopes for from a mode of death as flashy as a murder-suicide “No one could have predicted the toxic relationship between a 28-year-old swimsuit model and the 32-year-old reality show contestant would end the way it did Sunday night,” the New York Daily News reported, “when his lifeless body was discovered in a small-town Canadian motel. Ryan Jenkins was the prime suspect in his ex-wife’s murder after her mutilated body was found stuffed in a suitcase.” While nothing quite this brutal ever took place in Calabasas, there are also moments in which one can picture Kris “momager” Jenner employing a suitcase to shift a dead body. I daresay the suitcase, and maybe the body, would have a ‘K’ monogram.
Kristen Mary Jenner is a mother in the way that, say, Joan Crawford was allegedly a mother in the daughter-terror memoir Mommie Dearest; which is to say that a) her egotism led her to give all her children a name with the very same starting letter as the Kardashian surname, and b) she is nuts, and she cannot abide imperfection. By this series, all of the girls are trying harder than ever before to refine themselves. Khloé is seen considering liposuction — which is, as the surgeon tells her, “almost like you’re a sculptor and you’re whittling way, you’re contouring away,” and is also, just as Kourtney tells her, “that weird thing that Kim had done.” Kim gets Lasik eye surgery the day before a burlesque dance routine, because she’d rather risk going blind than wear a pair of glasses. Caitlyn-née-Bruce gets a facelift only because Kris desires it.
It speaks volumes that in this particular series, Khloé gets a DNA test to find out if she’s Kris’s real daughter. (Later, she turns down a test for paternity. In a klassic Kardashian move, she “could care less”.) More than any other sister, Khloé is subjected to the slings and arrows of noughties celebrity gossip, as per the year’s unethical climate in fame: coverage equivalent to the stocks; the act of “being taken down a peg” now elevated into something akin to the rack and the screw. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton had intuited, New York Magazine said, “America’s need to feel both instantaneously connected with — and in some crass and snarky way superior to — our pedestaled celebrities…7 million visitors a day might flock to a source that required only that they refresh their browser to be greeted by yet another pretty young starlet stumbling blackout-wasted from a club with a crudely drawn penis aimed at her head and little white marks (semen? cocaine? snot?) clustered about her face.”
Khloé is filmed reacting in real time to comments that call her “a man” and “a beast”. She does a shoot for PETA, nude, and almost calls it off for fear of being seen as “Kim’s fat, funny sister”. All it ratchets up is bathos. You, the viewer, know how Khloé feels (or maybe you are one of the Kims of the world, and not one of the Khloés: there is a distinction. This is to say that I have often worried about being somebody’s “fat, funny sister”, despite being slim and an only child.) Watching the Kardashian women, it becomes harder and harder to know if they’ve invented or inverted the paradigm. They are as happy as Perez to talk about semen or snot on their faces, but far less inclined to discuss their political leanings – which is either problematic or “whatever,” mostly judged on just how “woke” you prefer your TV celebrities.
If we trust the Internet, the daughters are all Democrats. Their parents are Republican. I do not know why anyone trans would support the Republican Party, but I am not in charge of Caitlyn’s life. One particular Republican who thinks that Khloé is a beast — Kim’s fat, funny sister et cetera — is the current President of the United States; who was, back when season three of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was airing, also a brash TV character. “During a 2009 taping of Celebrity Apprentice,” reported The Huffington Post, regarding the President’s deeply important opinion on former contestant Khloé Kardashian, “Donald Trump made disparaging remarks about Khloé Kardashian’s weight before firing her from the program.” He called her, they mention, “a piglet”.
“What is this?” he supposedly asked. “We can’t even get the hot one?” This is a very good question. Every sane American watching Barack leave the White House and Donald step in would have thought, I am guessing, precisely the same thing.
Certain people tend to qualify their love of Keeping Up with the Kardashians by comparing the program to drugs. These are typically very or fairly intelligent people, and quite often they’re writers, so it’s safe to assume that they know their prescriptions. “Like Valium” comes up most frequently, with “like being on tranquilisers” a very close second. (I Googled “Keeping Up with the Kardashians Valium” and the fourth-down headline shrieks: “Valium As Addictive As Drugs Like Heroin”. No word yet on, ipso facto, just how addictive Kardashians are.) “The suggestion of minor sedatives,” says the critic and provocateur Mark Greif, “is perhaps [even] less evocative than an image that comes to my mind as I watch the show: stones are thrown into a still pond — and no ripples issue.”
Part of the reason for this soothing effect is almost certainly their voices, which play out on a register halfway between Marilyn Monroe’s and JonBenét Ramsey’s. What that halfway point in the register means is explained by its end poles, exactly — a woefully unthreatening and sometimes threatened-sounding sex appeal, with the gee-shucks guile of a very young girl who knows too much, and the low, slack delivery of an adult woman who knows too little. “Sexy baby voice was probably born somewhere in the San Fernando Valley,” Tess Lynch writes at Grantland, “finding its tiny little infant footholds in reality-television stars via the sexy baby voice Illuminati, the Kardashians…it portrays the speaker as a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object.”
By this time, we know exactly what makes each Kardashian her own Kardashian: whether these types have been manager designed and honed in the style of the Spice Girls, or outright developed like actual sisters, I can’t say. I can say with relative certainty that Khloé is the brash one; Kourtney is the one so deadpan as to appear almost dead; that Kylie is the little one who longs to be as sexually objectified as Kim, and that Kendall is slim and tall and regular and maybe a lesbian, who cares, and who does not fit in with the rest of them. What I could not tell you, for some time, was who Kim actually was: which is strange, Kim being the series’ breakout star. She is exquisitely symmetrical, partly by nature and partly by nurture. She uses “lol” in her Instagram captions. She has the long and unreal hair of a mermaid, and the large, gentle eyes of — depending how you look at it, and with neither meant as an insult — either a cow, or a Disney Princess. It is entirely possible Kim is the woozy, druggy feeling’s primary source, as I have never before seen a human being exude so little real intensity of feeling before, even when she is caught in an argument.
Curiously, I have also never seen such a beautiful person exude so little sensuality. This brings me to something else odd or unexpected I have observed about Kim Kardashian, which is her early-series prudishness. “I need someone to tell them I’m not taking it off,” she tells her mother, sadly, when she’s at a photo shoot. “I’m not here to talk about my personal life.” I wish somebody would tell her that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to; I wish, when she says that she “used to be very shy”, that there were legally-sanctioned ways of stopping people like Kris Jenner. It’s astounding how many times the fact of her “selling” Kim is mentioned every series, to the point that I simply stopped writing these references down (“her ass makes money, honey!” or “go ahead — sell her to Playboy,” or “you’re afraid she’s going to have psoriasis on her moneymaker, that big fat ass, and you’ll lose your 10%,” all of which are aimed directly at Kris).
This particular season also features the show’s first whirlwind marriage, between Khloé and the basketball player Lamar Odom, which affords Kim an excuse to behave like a spinster, screeching, “it was supposed to be me!” and threatening, joking-not-joking, to call out and interrupt the ceremony. More than anything else, her “character” in these earlier series seems to be an absolute downer. Obviously, I mean this in both senses. She is given the set-up opportunity to adopt a dog and tearfully returns it the same day. She forgets a business meeting because she is slouching at home in her socks, albeit with a full and perfect face of makeup. “I am trying,” she says, “to do nothing and reevaluate what’s important in my life, and what’s not.”
The invocation of “do nothing” is either an unconscious audience softball, or consciously riffing on everything ever said anywhere on or about the Kardashians. As I was watching the show this past month, I was also intermittently reading You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, a science-fiction novel about the realities of existing in a female or feminine body. In it, there is a scene where a preacher in a cult says: “You folks understand, I am sure, that there is more to life than life itself. Namely, there is Nothing,” and a recruit of the cult asks, in kind: “Do they mean there isn’t anything, or that there is something and it is Nothing, with capital N?” “The Kim phenomenon entrances millions around the world, even as it mystifies them,” writes a journalist from The Australian, who has an assignation with Kim in a hotel she describes as being “like a gynecologist’s waiting room,” in a piece the paper calls Meeting Kim Kardashian Is Like Taking Five Valium. “‘How exciting!’ people said when I told them I was meeting her. Why, I’d ask. No one could quite put it into words. ‘Stefanie,’ came the stern reply, ‘it’s Kim Kardashian.’”
And it is; even if no one’s quite sure what “it” – that is, Kim Kardashian –actually means. “It” may mean nothing. It may, in the obverse, mean Nothing. You folks understand, I am sure, that there is more to reality TV — ipso facto to Kim Kardashian — than reality itself.
What is notable in season five is the subtle newness of Kim’s face. We know for certain that it’s new, or nearly new, because the tabloids — which are running stories on her breakup with the sports star Reggie Bush, and are therefore used in some of the scene transitions— still use their shots of her old face. What this ends up doing is producing a certain cognitive dissonance, like a celebrity “spot the difference” puzzle made to test the viewer’s keenness.
There is a sense that we are entering a period of Kardashian transition. There is also the vaguest sense that Keeping Up with the Kardashians might be heading for its midlife crisis. They have canned the introductory credits that show the family posing for a portrait, soundtracked by a Leave-It-To-Beaver-lite theme tune, in favour of something more glossy; any beavers are now, as in Kim’s old Playboy shoot, implied, unless they appear in a duologue about yeast infections. “You have a better looking vagina than I thought,” Kim says to Khloé. In the previous season, Khloé says to Kourtney, of the family gynecologist, “Don’t you find it weird that this doctor has seen your mother’s vagina, and now he’s seeing your vagina?”
When Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Rolling Stone that “[Kardashian vaginas] smell and bleed and pop out babies…which is very different than other pop-culture vaginas,” the statement was as true as it sounded ridiculous. All Kardashian vaginas also age, which means that even inside the family — even inside their insides — Keeping Up is a chore. Being in the Kardashians seems to be something like being in Logan’s Run. “I am turning 30 this year and I’m scared; it’s so old,” Kim wails. Her first grey hair is a national emergency, as if it signifies the death of the American Dream. (Perhaps it does; the Statue of Liberty never went grey, and nor, as far as we know, did Marilyn.) She deals with it by making a facemask out of avocado and, for some reason, potatoes — then by getting her “first” injectables. She is apparently “allergic”, and we all accept with a nod that she will never have Botox again.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Calabasas: “Is anyone ever gonna tell me I’m sexy again?” Kris howls, at Barry’s Bootcamp in a push-up bra. The episode is titled “Kris ‘The Cougar’ Jenner” and it is — as she notes with alarming self-awareness — “not The Graduate, Bruce.” Somehow, being a fully minted Kardashian has transitioned from looking like the easiest job in the world to appearing exhausting. That year, even The Hills stopped airing, which means something in the context of reality TV. One might think it meant that long-term, faked reality was unsustainable. It might, back then, have seemed to mean that reality TV was dying. “You get a young girl like [The Hills’ Lauren Conrad],” one of its characters-cum-real-personalities later said, “who has been on TV since she was 18, and her whole life’s exposed — how do you get an actual normal person at that point? You don’t get someone who’s down to earth and someone who’s loving and caring. You get someone who’s fucking twisted.”
The Kardashian family are, to date, the longest-running players in their genre, which suggests that whether their appeal is that they’re “fucking twisted” or that they’re “Valium,” they appear to understand exactly the things we desire almost better than we do ourselves. “You look like a cartoon version of yourself,” says Kourtney, after Kim has swollen up from her bad reaction to Botox. “I am never doing this again,” says Kim. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The Kardashian family tell us their stories in order to live in the luxury to which they are now accustomed. Kim, in season five, has a brand new mansion as well as a brand new face. Both are predictably beautiful. “She doesn’t want a huge crowd tramping outside dirt into her house,” I see I’ve written in my notes, “and yet Kris makes her. Is this a metaphor?”
Three things making their first appearance in season six are God, Kris Humphries, and Kris Jenner’s quote-unquote very traditional values. “Don’t you ever wonder if God wants you to get married?” she asks Kourtney. “It’s the natural order of things.” “My values definitely match with hers,” agrees Kim, another person who is quote-unquote very traditional. In this series, Kim is also pictured getting an x-ray of her ass.
I ought to explain: the buttock x-rays are for the purpose of proving, to TMZ, to God, and to the viewer at home, that Kim is all natural and does not have implants. As I said before, we accept these stories, knowing that the lie is better than the mundane truth. In order to show up a contrast, Kourtney — who describes the whole affair as “iconic” — is willing to offer her breast implants for x-ray, too.
Kim gets married in this season, for the second time — the groom is Kris Humphries, a towering, dull-looking athlete who seems to be more than a little unstable. He offers to punch her brother’s lights out shortly before his proposal; but at least the proposal is written in petals, and at least the wedding is, per Kim’s demands, “like a fairytale”. On a family holiday just days before, she drops a diamond earring into the sea and hysterically cries. “Kim,” sighs Kourtney. “There are people that are dying.”
Like most public women living in the age of the think piece, the K-girls provoke by existing: it’s the case that our very first perfectly engineered family is not an Aryan one, but Armenian-American, which is pleasing in as much as it must be horrifying to white supremacists. That it’s a matriarchy must be a source of terror for sexists, too. The Kardashians, as a collective, show the contradictions of women without much remorse. They are not always likable, or reasonable. They are not always moral. Their siren song speaks loudest to sisterhood, so heterosexual, masculine men understand almost nothing about them.
Kris has no idea at any point what her youngest kids are doing at school, though she does find time to put on a full face of drag and a sequined blazer for dinner at home with the rest of the family. She was desperate for Kim to do Playboy as a means of fulfilling her own “lifelong dream”, but this season she’s also been ordained as a pastor. I wonder how much pleasure she got from the fact that Kim Kardashian got married — albeit for 72 days — to somebody called Kris. I also wonder how overjoyed she was when Kim refused to take her husband Kris’s name.
“It’s a brand, like the Kennedys,” she says, with the side effect of forcing the audience to picture Jackie Kennedy getting an x-ray of her ass. “I’m always making new Kardashian products.”
“I mean,” she clarifies, “I made all the little Kardashians.”
There are supposedly only two stories in love: the first is of two people overcoming an obstacle to be together, be it familial, social, or abstract. The second is of two opposing people who begin by hating each other; and then, through exposure, completely reverse their opinions. Opposites, as people so often say before finding their way to divorce court, attract. The moment in which I started to fall for the Goddamned Kardashians happened to come when the family made the decision to plan for their burials: I imagine this would make our particular story a mixture of both strains. To love the Kardashian family if you are “smart” is to conquer your snobbery. To begin to love the Kardashian family after roughly four thousand five hundred minutes of time in their company, having initially found them dull, repellant and shallow, is like the plot of a Hollywood comedy. Like L.A., the Kardashians ably play themselves.
Some time after Kourtney pointed out those “people that are dying” to her family, it occurred to Kris Jenner that some of those people might eventually be Kardashians. It’s a trip to think how a Kardashian body might decay, if only because it is not clear which parts are decayable; it is, therefore, wholly a trip to see five Kardashians making a literal trip to the cemetery to talk about dying. “You guys could all be buried where Marilyn Monroe is buried,” their grandmother tells them, “and then people could go there at Halloween, and say: ‘Oooh, here are the Kardashians!’”
The cemetery is called — perfectly, delusionally — Hollywood Forever. What Kris wants is to “do the right thing”, which she happens to think is a family tomb for twenty, based on both the Armenian mountains and Mount Olympus. “You want to ‘do the right thing?’” Kim hoots, like Jerry Seinfeld. “You die, you get in the coffin! That’s the right thing!” She is hardly incorrect.
A thing the family has not agreed is a “right” one — by which I mean maybe a just one — is Kris Jenner’s memoir, Kris Jenner…and All Things Kardashian, through which Khloé, Kourtney and Kim have learned about an affair their mother had when they were children. This year, 2012, was the year of the open-wound confessional essay; for women in particular, writing about death, abortion, fertility, failed sex, divorce, cheating, drinking and drug addiction turned lucrative. If Kris Jenner had followed the trend, she had also, in sharing her family’s everything, helped to set it in stone. “Sometimes,” Sarah Hepola wrote in The New York Times that summer, “I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far [on confession]. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void. Maybe it’s how old-school feminists feel when they see half-naked girls grinding on a pole in a dark bar: Really? This?”
These particular half-naked — or at least soul-naked — girls do not reach a decision about what to do when they’re dead, although discussing what to do with your body is, as it turns out, great for pop psychology. Either you are bombastic about it, or not. Either you are practical about it, or not. Maybe you hope to die prettily. Kris would like to have “a black shiny coffin like a baby grand piano, with a white pearl inlay”. Kim would not like a white pearl inlay, as she worries her make-up would rub off. Every time the girls are seated ready to do their “glam” in an episode, I can’t help but think about how weird it is that I sometimes say “put on my face” in the morning. Being Kardashian, all of the sisters put on — or else have put on them — a face that is half theirs, and half not. Does a funeral parlor cosmetologist know how to contour? I guess so; or Hollywood could not promise to be forever.
Kim Kardashian wants to eat a placenta, as she’s heard that it “makes you look younger”. It’s as good a justification as any for softball self-cannibalism; and Kim is now, luckily, heavily pregnant by self-described, me-described genius Kanye West, which makes it a reasonable folly. There is a metaphor in there about the placenta and cannibalism and Kim, but I’m not going to reach for it, since life is not telegraphed as witlessly as TV.
Until this particular season, Kim Kardashian has always been a woman who gets the things she’s hoped for: but believe me when I say that she works for them. Sometimes these are things that Kris has decided she should hope for, and sometimes they’re not: an all-black Bentley, for example, or a course of laser hair removal. Playboy’s cover; two rich husbands; credibility by virtue of the second husband, and a legendary marriage — done, finito, in three months — as if she were Elizabeth Taylor, her heroine. Like Liz, Kim is never short of diamonds. We are shown around her closet as if watching Cribs in perpetua. Everyone’s houses get bigger and bigger, and Kim and Kanye work on theirs like the Winchester Mystery House. There are now three things that Kim has done and described on the show as her ultimate dream: the burger commercial, the Bentley purchase, and appearing on Oprah. These are fair and appropriate dreams. They are the spoils of an esoteric and Kardashian-specific war. The other side in the war is never clearly identified.
Still, there are visible skirmishes. At some point, the balance begins to tip on the K-enterprise, so that real life — what one might call, though not in the spirit of this family, “untelevisable life” — starts to bleed in and stain it all horribly. Kim gets viciously ill with appendicitis during her pregnancy, and the baby almost dies. She screams in agony and “wants to take a knife and slit [her] throat” and appears to really mean it. (Twenty minutes earlier, we see her saying that: “not knowing where you’re going to live in three months’ time is the most stressful thing that could happen”, so we know that the program is made by a team with a good nose for irony.) Caitlyn, still living unhappily as Bruce, is tested for a tumor. Kourtney’s boyfriend and the father of her children mentions that his father needs a heart transplant, and will probably die. Then, he dies. A relative has cancer, and the K-girls shop for wigs.
Their brother Rob no longer shows up much: they speculate that Rob is bipolar, which seems to be plausible. Caitlyn-née-Bruce talks about buying the youngest sisters guns, to ward off a threatening atmosphere. Things begin to look, like Kim’s beloved car, extremely black. Kris and most of her daughters claim to believe in God. This is about the point at which you start to wonder whether God believes in the Kardashians. If you want my opinion: I don’t think He watches the show. I do remember that — having at first complained that they were starving —the Israelites later also complained about only ever eating the same old manna from heaven.
In a storyline that I assume was scripted by a genius, Kourtney and her boyfriend Scott inherit a painting that’s either by Modigliani, or else a good fake. It turns out, of course, to be fake. Whoever came up with the idea of adding a subplot whose drama hinged entirely on the idea that a beautiful and covetable object might be mocked up in order to raise enough money to purchase a family jet is not, I would assume, a big fan of this family. “For every authentic version,” somebody says dismissively, “there are a trillion people making copies.” Someday, I believe this plotline’s author will publish the Great American Novel; in the meantime, a novelization of the Kardashians’ lives would suffice.
This season, Kim and Kanye also make the cover of U.S. Vogue. The weird thing is: unlike the burger commercial, she never once says that the cover of Vogue was her dream, which merely leaves me admiring Kim’s priorities. Khloé’s husband, in another plotline other shows might see as not exactly TV-friendly, has developed an addiction to both crack cocaine and freaky, extramarital sex. The two decide to separate: or rather, she decides, as he is too high and too often absent. There is not much to say about it that isn’t too tragic to riff on; these are not especially scripted problems. They are not Modigliani problems. There is, likewise, not a script for anyone — Kardashian or otherwise — to read from when confronting them. In a genuinely tender scene, we watch Khloé watching I Love Lucy; and she wonders, not exactly casually, just how many years the show was airing for. Other questions are implied, but left unsaid. It feels as though Khloé Kardashian may be trying to comprehend how long she has to do this for. She is trying to discern, I think, where the end of the line might be.
“This has been a fucked-up year for everyone in this family,” she says to her mother. “It’s like somebody put a spell on us.” Later, she tells Kim: “I’ve been in hiding because I’m afraid of people. I can’t look people in the eyes, and I’m not even the one who did anything.” As it happens, Lucille Ball filmed I Love Lucy for nine years, which means that Khoé Kardashian — all the Kardashians — have by this point reached about the two-thirds mark.
More than any other set of reality TV celebrities, the Kardashians show what can happen when you are all-in on broadcasting every major and minor event in the family calendar. They have normalized the very idea of performing normality, so that we are supposed to believe that a family worth a collective one hundred and fifty million dollars is more or less the same as our own, give or take the odd mansion. This seems more untrue than ever given the fact that Kim is now married to Kanye West, who is one of the last great pop eccentrics in the mode of Prince: but then what do I know about normalcy? I admit that I’ve often wondered whether they ever lose track of what is and is not a “real” scene. I’ve also wondered whether reenacting an argument causes the issue to suppurate. It is difficult to parse what “normalcy” for a Kardashian actually means.
One thing that allows the family to acquit themselves well — and I mean it, truly — is the way they deal with Bruce transitioning into Caitlyn: which she finally does this season, in a two-part episode that’s mostly filled with vox pops and is titled, technically incorrectly, “About Bruce”. Prior to this pair of episodes, we see the girls discuss the easiest way to wipe your ass or squeeze a pimple with a claw-length manicure; their respective menstrual cycles; whether or not Kris Jenner should send a suggestive gift to Keanu Reeves. We see Kris thoughtfully look at a picture of Kim Kardashian’s cervix, and Kourtney’s boyfriend shave her bikini line. How, then, do the episodes that form “About Bruce” manage to be the most intimate we’ve ever seen? Whether I was suckered in by writerly magic or not, I can say that I never once felt I was watching a script, nor did I feel that anybody was acting. If they were, the Kardashians are more than capable actresses. Khloé fumbles over her pronouns. Kim is deeply impressed that Cait does a neat pedicure. Kendall falls apart, though not because she has any real issue with Caitlyn’s transition — only because, in a sweet, simple way, she does not want to lose her old, carpooling nerd of a dad.
And it’s something that middle America has never seen before. This is a new kind of normalcy. Like it or not, the Kardashian family have made, with these episodes, social and broadcasting history: they have turned the public on to discussing trans step-parents. They are hearing five young women say, proudly and openly, “she is my father”. When the fact that Cait is using the ladies’ bathroom is questioned, and Khloé spits back, “Of course she’s using the ladies’ room; she’s wearing a Tom Ford gown,” the scene is of such a specifically, deeply Kardashian strain of acceptance, I almost feel tearful. There are arguments, and fallings out, and misunderstandings, but there have always been arguments and fallings out and misunderstandings between these women. Now, they have a new woman to bicker with. There is a new Kardashian bitch with whom to bitch.
It makes sense that Khloé’s first act is to buy Caitlyn four pairs of stilettoes, because this is also a quintessential Kardashian gesture: it’s an initiation into the world of high-maintenance glamour they’ve either invented or chosen to live in; I can’t decide which. The very idea of Keeping Up with this family becomes, as their wealth and their fame increase near exponentially, more and more abstract. What “About Bruce” does is offer a new possibility — it suggests that the viewer learns to keep up with their level of tolerance. Which is, I need not point out, a left-of-field development.
“There’s this company that makes dolls that are so realistic that people can have sex with them,” Kris tells Kim, in the very first episode of the series. “We should go to the factory in Shepton Mallet and get one.” There is such a thing as giving a person too much rope with which to hang themselves; and the show’s producers seem to offer this family miles and miles, until what coils around them is more public sculpture than noose. “I feel like our brand is known for being sexy,” Kim — who is pregnant again — laments, before comparing her body to Eddie Murphy’s fat-suit in The Klumps, “and there’s nothing sexy about me. Kourtney doesn’t bring the sexy, I’m not gonna lie.” She is obsessed with staying thin while pregnant, even though she’ll also fly to New Orleans to eat a beignet whenever she feels like flying to New Orleans and eating a beignet. Like I said, I sometimes twin with Kim’s priorities. I can’t help but love a girl with an appetite — Kim’s is kolossal.
In the Kardashian family, I have noticed that the primo compliment is “you look skinny”. Next, it is “you look pretty”. Third, “that’s cute”. This season, Kim says she is proud of Kourtney, and then follows it up with “because it’s just so hard to work out every day,” as if each daughter hadn’t also built their own empire — these are women who are, whether you like it or not, dominating in business. Their glamour distracts them occasionally, being a thing as time consuming as it is lucrative. Businessmen are rarely contoured. Wouldn’t it simply be easier — I am sorry to say — to be, rather than the actual Kim Kardashian, just a realistic doll of Kim Kardashian, made in Shepton Mallet?
No doll has ever worked out, hard or otherwise. No doll has ever gained fifty pounds on beignets. No doll’s ever been abused on Twitter for having cellulite. Several years ago, I interviewed a collector of life-sized, life-like Real Dolls, who owned nine ‘girls’ in total. What seemed odd to me at the time was that none of these dolls had been made to resemble celebrities: one, he seemed to think, had been based on Alexis from Dynasty, but there was no Britney or JLo or Kim. This struck me as a totally wasted opportunity, since we expect all these women to look doll-like anyway. (I don’t know why I keep coming back to Britney Spears, but maybe it’s because she is — for a millennial, i.e. for me — emblematic: a doll of Britney Spears would never have shaved her head, or grown too old for a schoolgirl’s uniform.) He said, at any rate, this:
“The doll I’m most attached to is [the first doll I got]…She is the most beautiful and the most real, to me, at least. I have found that I take a fancy to one for a few days or weeks, and then I am attracted to another…They make me happy, because they sort of resemble perfect science-fiction characters, so I give them their own personality; they become a part of your life in a way so that you wish them a good day when you leave for work, and greet them when you come home from work again…They look so beautiful that, as superficial as it may sound, they lift your spirits by their presence alone.”
I mean — no comment. I will say that I think the Kardashians soothe by proximity, too. I will also point out that Googling “Real Doll Kim Kardashian” only pulls up pictures of…Kim Kardashian. Understand that I don’t say this as a criticism, only by way of a business suggestion. All this aside, I’ve also made a note of the fact that I feel especially seen by the storyline in which Khloé is writing a book called Strong Looks Better Naked — “I just want it done,” she howls. “I want it out of the way and done. I had no idea how difficult writing a book was.”
As the kids supposedly say: “extremely same.”
It’s astounding that although the last full series of Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired across the U.S. Presidential campaign and election, there is never any mention of Donald Trump. There is never any mention of Hillary Clinton, either. I don’t know if this is a scheduling issue, or a hedging of Kardashian bets. One might argue that people had voted for Trump because, like the Kardashians, they saw the “real” Donald Trump on their televisions, and accordingly liked what I would euphemistically call his earthiness. “Keeping it real,” in certain sectors, includes old-school, classic sexism; it includes racism, just like the racism that mamma used to make. Kim, in case you were wondering, later confirmed that she voted for Hillary.
I have mentioned that as a family, the Kardashians show admirable self-awareness around their trans stepfather. It is also the case that they fuck up quite often. Kylie has transformed herself from the whitest girl alive into somebody, frankly, non-Caucasian-looking. Khloé “popularised” the already-popular box braid to little acclaim, and Kylie responded by wearing a du-rag. (Per an evergreen tweet by the writer Doreen St. Félix: “Everybody wanna be a black woman, but nobody wanna be a black woman.”) One of the most extraordinary episodes of the series to ever have been filmed is one in which Kylie, Khloé and Kendall are made up in movie prosthetics in order to, as they say, “look more like regular people” — they go on a Star Maps tour in order to hear what the tour guides say about the Kardashians. He barely mentions them. They never mention that all of their lives are spent changing, upgrading or shucking identities anyway.
There is something about this footage that’s more surreal than real. It skews recursive. Kendall and Kylie get large noses, as if never having had a nose job is the wildest thing that they can possibly think of; Khloé is made to look old, as if only “regular people” get old. They notice Kylie looks, in the mocked-up nose, like the old, pre-transformation Kylie. “He can make you look like anyone you want,” she tells her sisters, of the make-up artist. “Do you want a big ass?”
By the end of this season — on the subject of tremendous asses — Donald Trump had been elected President. All of the optimism underscoring prior series vanished into something like despair: what remained was the jagged shape of a society more like a war zone than the Valium-gentle, girls- together, slumber-party-with-catfights melée of the early Kardashian era. It became, as consequence, less and less clear who the family — as individuals, and as a family in toto — should want to be or embody, aside from maybe the girls with the most ass. It is strange that they have to employ prosthetics in order to come at all close to understanding our lives; although not having had their more permanent upgrades, it’s also the case that their lifestyles are equally alien to those who do not resemble a beautiful alien.
Other moments of note: Kim is asked to describe herself in three words. “I think ‘sexy’ is one of them,” she eventually decides. “And in ads like [the “Got Milk?” ads] I like the ones where the girl is dripping milk on herself and she’s wet.” We never find out what the other two words are. Khloé gets a new pair of more permanent prosthetics, because — as she says — “we’re in LA, where people get their boobs done like they fill up a car with gas.” These two things are not exactly unrelated. I’m also surprised by the fact that I’m not surprised to learn that Kim dreams fairly often about car crashes.
In the thirteenth, as yet only half-aired season, Kendall Jenner — lately a spokeswoman for both Pepsi-Cola and white, famous privilege — utters the phrase: “The fact that everyone’s lives revolve around a show…is the most sad. Depressing. Thing.” While it’s true that the show she is describing is a boring spin-off starring their unhappy brother, Rob Kardashian, it is also the case that it gives her sisters ample opportunity to speak in code: they feel free enough to say that “the show” can sometimes help a person get their shit together; that “the show” can get a person out of bed in the morning. That they say this, Kendall correctly observes, is “the craziest ever”.
Also in the thirteenth season: Kim Kardashian is brutally robbed at gunpoint at a Paris hotel, and her diamond wedding ring is stolen. Due to the fact she is Kim Kardashian, the ring has a value of 4.8 million dollars, and due to the fact she is Kim Kardashian, people joke that they wish she had been killed on Twitter. Filming schedules mean that this is the very first episode; the footage is genuinely a) disturbing, b) affecting, and c) unlikely. I don’t mean “unlikely” in the sense that I believe it didn’t happen — what I mean to say is that real life, the real quotidian grind, does not often comply with the rules of a TV drama. This is why we have already seen Kim visit a veterinarian, get her teeth cleaned, and decide to try an aluminium-free deodorant; and why an episode, in full, is dedicated to a psychic visiting Khloé’s house, and having a vision about her father’s necktie. It seems cosmically cruel that this episode offers the family a memorable TV episode — it seems, too, like an act of Kris’s God that Kim’s trauma is just what the script doctor ordered. The ends distinctly do not justify, by any stretch, enduring the terrible means.
After a decade —after three full days and nineteen hours of footage, not counting the spin-offs and specials — the question would seem to be not whether we need the Kardashians, but what exactly it is that we need them for. At some point, the answer might have been “their relatability”. It might once have been aspiration. It may still be aspiration, for some individuals: all of the violence and humiliation of Kim’s attack and robbery, however, would appear to make the case for a darker answer. “Kim was bound and gagged,” said the talk-show host Conan O’Brien. “Then the robbers broke in.” In the week of the robbery, searching “bound and gagged” on Twitter brought up a clutch of other, unrelated home-invasion murders from various locales with female victims, and a slew of jokes about Kim Kardashian. Mostly, she was accused of faking it. “It really is hard when people sometimes don’t treat you like you’re human, and you’re going through such a real, raw experience that’s really traumatising,” she says in the episode: bare-faced for real, and in tears. “It just really sucks when you’re getting judged by the whole world.” If this is faked, then Kim Kardashian may be our greatest living actress.
Martyrdom is typically defined as requiring virtue as a condition, meaning that in the new age of celebrity, actual martyrdom may yet be extinct — I hate to sound like Stephen Marche, calling Megan Fox an ancient Aztec, but I’m going to do it anyway. It has never been more clear what Kim Kardashian is for, in the eyes of heterosexual white men, than when the robbery was publicized. I cannot, in my wildest moments, guess at why a woman might decide to live this way. I also can’t imagine Kim, at this point, has much power to stop it. In the episodes after the robbery, she’s not only barefaced but also near dowdy, in skate shirts and leggings, in bombers and out-scaled sweaters and cycle shorts: a hoodie like a teenage stoner boy’s, with the hood pulled up to hide her fearful symmetry.
She looks incredibly sexless, and also incredible. She looks totally unlike Kim Kardashian. Somebody who does resemble the former Kim Kardashian more and more each day is her younger sister, Kylie; with her pornographic, Crawford smear of a mouth, and her own reality series starting over the summer, she’s now Kim mark two. What was that other thing Larkin said, about man handing misery to man? It might as well be “woman”. I have trouble Keeping Up.
Photograph by Keeping Up with the Kardashians