Kim Kardashian didn’t become Kim Kardashian because of her brain, but it’s amazing how sharp the thing can be: Almost four years ago on the series premiere of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” she said of her family, “There’s a lot of baggage that comes with us. But it’s like Louis Vuitton baggage — you always want it.” And how!
In its currently airing sixth season, the show documenting the lives of the California-residing, blended Jenner-Kardashian family has averaged close to 3 million viewers per episode. Along with its three spinoffs, it has redefined its network E! from star-watcher to star-maker. E! figures viewers’ appetite for the Kardashians is so voracious that the network will turn Kim’s wedding to basketball player Kris Humphries (taking place this weekend in Montecito, Calif.) into a four-hour programming block that will air over two nights in October. And then there’s the intense amount of Kardashian merchandising saturating the market (Silly Bandz! A Sears line! Diet pills! A deal with Vegas’s Mirage to put the sisters’ photos on room keys and carry their products in the hotel’s mini bars!). If the Kardashians had a line of actual baggage, it’d probably end up outselling Louis Vuitton — and have better-placed ads.
Their legion of admirers notwithstanding, there is something about the Kardashians’ brand of celebrity that disgruntles those who aren’t riding their train. Kim’s pre-“Keeping Up” claims to fame consisted mainly of occasionally appearing in public with Paris Hilton and a leaked sex tape. As Kris Jenner, the family matriarch who’s credited with starting and maintaining her family’s career, told ABC’s “Nightline” this year, “We’re not actors, we’re not singers, we don’t have musical talent, I can’t dance to save my life. So some people will say, ‘You’re famous for being famous.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, no we’re not: We’re famous because we have four television shows.’ ” Yeah, and Picasso was famous for his canvasses.
Imagining a world without the Kardashians isn’t difficult. Because so much of what the family shares is none of our business in the first place, we’d have one less distraction. The Kardashians don’t merely adopt a too-much-information aesthetic, they present it as a lifestyle. The smut that the show was founded on (Kim’s sex tape with R&B singer and fellow reality star Ray J “leaked” about eight months before “Keeping Up” began its run) has proved pervasive. All of the show’s four principal, of-age women — Kris and her daughters Kim, Khloe and Kourtney — have had story lines involving nude photos of them. Almost all of them have relieved themselves on camera. Kris’s face-lift was documented, as was Kim’s cellulite-lasering and Botox injections. Kris’s husband, Olympic gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner, had a colonoscopy on the show. Kris’s youngest daughters, Kylie and Kendall, once played “Girls Gone Wild” by lifting up their shirts and yelling “Woo!” while their half-brother Brody Jenner’s manager filmed them with a hand-held camera. At the time they were 9 and 11, respectively.
All of this may sound outrageous, but the Kardashians are just one clan in a nation of over-sharers. They are a symptom of their time, not a disease, and as such they seem ultimately benign. The most we can give them credit for innovating is further loosening cultural mores. They’ve destigmatized the concept of the pushy “momager” (Kris embraces the former epithet), sex tapes, child labor (“My 13-year-old works more than some of my adult friends,” Kris told Yahoo’s OMG! site, referring to Kylie) and contrived reality programming (a disclaimer ran before the third-season premiere of “Keeping Up” chronicling Khloe’s DUI and stating that some scenes were reenactments). Their show is a self-perpetuating machine: It made these family members famous and got them deals and endorsements, which then provide story lines for the show, making them more famous, getting them more deals and endorsements, etc. It’s so neatly self-contained, removing the Kardashian empire would be a snap.
The Kardashians, however, do perpetuate a bigger machine as well, although you can see how if they didn’t, someone else would: With an estimated $65 million banked by the family in 2010, it seems to prove that reality TV could be a great career, and that every facet of life down to the tweet can be monetized.
To remove the Kardashians from our cultural equation could erase the notion that becoming a millionaire takes little more than raunch, chutzpah and savvy. E! might be forced to continue to make brash and fresh programs that critique and skewer, as opposed to ones that just . . . aim to present the next Kardashians. Without Kim, Ray J probably wouldn’t have gotten his own reality shows on VH1 (“For the Love of Ray J” and “Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business”), but they’re both over now and who remembers the particulars of them, anyway? A different family would play the rope in the audience tug-of-war over the talentless. The similarly shockingly sturdy cast of “Jersey Shore” would have one less group ally in the war against short shelf-life expectations.
Without the Kardashians, we’d have one less group of people to complain about. And if Kim never managed to eclipse her famous frenemy’s celebrity, you’d probably be reading an essay envisioning a world without Paris Hilton.
Rich Juzwiak, a senior editor at TVGuide.com, has contributed to This American Life, the Village Voice, the Daily and Spin. He blogs at fourfour.typepad.com.
READ MORE: Kim Kardashian marries Kris Humphries