We have spent almost a decade trying to keep up with the Kardashians. Kris, Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall and Kylie first burst on to our TV screens in 2007 like loud, glossy exclamation points with their reality TV show, commissioned after a homemade sex tape of Kim leaked online. With its family feuding and slapstick, fine glassware and glitzy clothes, Keeping Up With The Kardashians has become a diamanté-studded yardstick for tastes that go beyond shoes and skirts. And with their pomp and pageantry, the show’s heroines have become cultural mediators of a bawdy kind of glamour that seems sculpted for Instagram. The Kardashians are a kollective force of nature, epitomizing everything that is both galling and beguiling about our image-driven age. Think-pieces and articles about them range from dismissive to hysterical. But it is time for a balanced appraisal. After all, it’s their specific beauty ideal that is contoured over the faces of women from Los Angeles to Lahore. And it is the notoriously prickly fashion industry that has fallen hardest for their charms. “Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney Kardashian aren’t just sisters, they’re fashion icons,” reads the tagline to their clothing collection K-DASH by Kardashian for the shopping channel QVC, which tries to push celebrity style on to curvy women. Their designs are ordained as “eclectic, flirty, edgy and glam.” They are commercial, upbeat, approachable and vulgar. “I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical; I think we could use more of it,” the venerated editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Diana Vreeland, once advised her reading public.
Some decades later, with their vacant eyes, bulging curves and ever-increasing affluence, the Kardashians have become unlikely saviours of raw, vivid opulence in an increasingly puritanical world. With every outing, they remind us of the simple truth that together, money and beauty equals great power. In fashion it is often only the picture that matters. Screw reality. The Kardashian look embraces the very art of falsehood. The pictures served up by Google after a search of their name are an education in what it means to be ‘flawless’. Pouting and silent, their look is constructed to represent a type of womanliness that has gone in and out of fashion but is rooted in the hormonal, sexual rulebook. Kim is presented as radiant, an hourglass more than half full. With their curvaceous bodies, dark skin and self-serving ways, they counter the Pilates-honed, anxiously ethical career woman represented by actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman. The power and polish of Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor has been replaced by Hollywood’s surprising earnestness. At last year’s Oscars, the question “Who are you wearing?” was banned from the red carpet. Reporters were policed via social media and urged to ask women the ‘right’ kinds of questions. The hashtag campaign #AskHerMore soon gained popularity, promoting its own kind of armchair activism. Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon all refused to put their hands in E!’s mani-cam at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards too. In light of such grumpy solemnity, the Kardashians triumph as artistes for a new, albeit more superficial, age.
Aspirational and appalling, they are complicit mannequins— forever displaying themselves for our entertainment. They are, with their full mouths and stunned, stony eyes, like walking autoerotic dolls for a new generation that are happy to be seen and little else. In 2007, speaking to New York Daily News about her decision to pose for Playboy, Kim said: “I did it because I’m not one of those stick-skinny girls you see. I felt like girls today need to see a normal body.” The Kardashians are regularly both lauded and lambasted in the press—fashionably body-shamed, then fashionably draped in the latest garments. Their closest collaboration has been with designers who celebrate the high-octane woman. Take Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, one of the first designers of a luxury house to launch a personal Instagram feed. It has allowed him to reach out directly to fans of the label’s flamboyance. The chief fashion critic for The New York Times Vanessa Friedman, described his offering for F/W 2016-17 as an “orgy of 1980s excess,” adding that “the clan Kardashian in the audience certainly seemed happy.” It is this commitment to overabundance that has cemented a long-serving alliance, one that has seen the sisters star in numerous promotional campaigns and public appearances for Balmain. Like Gianni Versace before him, Rousteing claims that with his sexually aggressive, flashy clothes he blurs the link between luxury and popular culture— something the Kardashians do with aplomb.
In 2014, a young Argentinian-born artist Amalia Ulman caused a sensation in the art world with her live photographic performance of spoof selfies designed for and shared on Instagram: “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman,” she told The Telegraph. “Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it—and it’s very funny.’ The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.” The Kardashians exemplify this fabricated mode of womanhood. The charge often thrown at the Kardashians is that they alone have nurtured a culture obsessed with body image. This is unfair. Since Narcissus, human beings have been bewitched by their own reflection. Now the small cameras we each carry in our pockets allow us to be movie stars 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are all perpetuating an idealised version of ourselves every time we choose one filter over another. With perfumed machismo, the Kardashians flaunt their looks and aspirations. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: “The narcissist’s generosity is profitable to her: better than in mirrors, it is in others’ admiring eyes she sees her double haloed in glory,” Beauvoir foretold the instagramming millions. In 2013, Kim presented us with a new expression of her own making: ‘Belfie’ (bum selfie), after she posted a selfie posing in a white swimsuit, presenting her notorious posterior to the world. Kim’s butt is her buck, so much so that at one point, tiring of online speculation, she offered an X-ray of the area to prove her curves were not the result of artificial implants. The #Belfie hashtag brings up a plethora of sad-looking bottoms each trying to usurp the Kardashian rump. Butt augmentation procedures are on the rise as implants and lifts are administered all over the world as if they were no more than a trip to the hairdresser. This reflects a wider shift in pop culture that has in recent years become obsessed with the behind. Shops now boast bum-lifting jeans and padded underwear. The ass has infiltrated the contemporary landscape like no other body part.
The Kardashians are crying out for kontext. Their life is in a sense so contrived that each Instagram post, tweet, TV episode and appearance seems to take on an independent reality. The family, with their bickering, their beauty and their banality, speak to a wide demographic that traverses race, language and location. Perhaps their colossal influence says less about them and more about how we assess relevance in today’s selfie age. Extremely complex ideas have to be broken down to 140 characters on Twitter; on Instagram and Snapchat, a picture really does try to represent thousands of words. We have become as superficial and as glossy as the screens we are swiping, disinterested in the inner life of the people we follow. This obsession with the self has encouraged thousands of boring, beautiful faces to take to their phones. Pop culture is no longer stuffed with revolutionary thoughts or kinks or fetishes—it is full of mute women whose beauty ideals are based on mass acceptance. The Kardashians race through a series of expensive couture outfits, changing looks day-to-day in order to keep us and the paparazzi gorged, but their appeal lies not in their creativity but in the fact that they are caricatures for our entertainment. With a combined social media following of more than 300 million on Instagram, their TV shows, cosmetics lines, clothing and jewellery collections, and endorsements for energy drinks, weight loss pills, arousal oils, nail polish and lip gloss, their entirely pointless fame has become entirely self perpetuating. Female beauty has been an enigma that has excited scholars, philosophers, artists and poets for millennia. Today we are suspicious of, and at the same time obsessed with, the carnal, primordial brand of beauty like the Kardashians’, which foams in 300dpi. In his book Feminine Beauty, Lord Kenneth Clark wrote: “Classic beauty, which reached its climax in ancient Greece, depends on symmetry, established proportion, and regular features.” Today, hundreds of beautifying apps prepare women for internet stardom with the straightening, mirroring and balancing of otherwise unremarkable features. Clark continued: “Characteristic beauty treats the features with greater freedom and will allow a retroussé nose and small, sparkling eyes, provided that they give the face greater animation.” The beauty look of our time rejects this very need for character, favouring a pantomime of perfection instead of an oversized nose or off-set mouth. The Kardashians are endlessly entertaining, eschewing the intellectual neurosis and self-loathing of Lena Dunham for eyebrows that are on fleek, plump lips and sponsored nipple pasties.
They are polarising mainly because they upset the status quo of everything we are led to believe is good taste. They radiate a visceral pagan quality and do not fit in with the slim, pale, flatchested line of models who parade seasonal fashions across billboards and magazine covers. Thrown into the fashion world, they represent a new archetype of women whose bodies are full and tanned, primed for lascivious battle in our highdefinition judgment of Paris. Their astonishing media empire has made sure that the Kardashians are now placed in a position of royal power that extends to much more than getting a good table at Nobu or wearing new-season Givenchy before everybody else. They have unwittingly become role models. But before we blame them for what they have become, we must remember that we are the ones with the power to look elsewhere. Every time you turn on the television to watch KUWTK or one of its numerous spin-off shows, every time you pout in the mirror as you swipe Kylie’s plumping lip gloss across your mouth or use a Kimoji of a bare bottom to tell a friend how your date went—you are once again keeping up with the Kardashians, keeping them right where they are. By all means, carry on escaping with their gorgeous, silly, entertaining vulgarities but please, stop expecting them to be virtuous. Stop expecting them to be spiritually enlightened, philosophical, well-read, fascinated by politics or deeply concerned about Syria. We have Angelia Jolie for that.