How To Commodify Your ‘Life’: The Kardashian Media Empire & Influencing As A Profession
This paper was originally published in April 2017 for a graduate seminar in Media Culture & Diversity with Dr. Peggy Kreshel at the University of Georgia. It has since been edited for clarity and relevance.
Kim Kardashian-West and the extended Kardashian-Jenner family are known as the family ‘famous for being famous’. I actually think they are famous for commodifying the performance of postfeminism in American neoliberal society, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Through the Kardashian’s media presence, including a reality television show, extensive social media profiles, and personal websites/apps, they have successfully commodified a staged existence.
In a similar time frame as the Kardashian’s rise to household name, young women in American and greater Western society have begun to document, package, share, and monetize aspects of their livelihood using social media and blogging platforms. This phenomenon has turned into an emerging profession known as fashion and lifestyle influencing. I want to argue that the Kardashian-Jenner family has influenced the rise, structure, and normalization of the fashion and lifestyle influencer profession. I will do this by drawing parallels between how the Kardashians ‘live their lives’ as highly visible celebrities and the way lifestyle and fashion influencers ‘live their lives’ as a profession.
Overview of Kardashian Family
The Kardashian family has always been in close proximity to fame, both literally and metaphorically. The family has roots in Beverly Hills, California, right next to Hollywood, AKA the epicenter of the Western entertainment industry. This is where Kris Jenner and Robert Kardashian met, married, and raised their four children — Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob. Kris divorced Robert in 1991 and married Olympic medalist Caitlyn Jenner shortly after (Mead). Kris has two children with Caitlyn named Kendall and Kylie.
Kris Jenner, the matriarch and ‘momager’ of the Kardashian-Jenner family, is the driving force behind much of the family’s fame and notoriety. As an executive producer of the family’s reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians, manager of all six of her children’s careers (plus her own) and the head of media company Jenner Communications, Kris has successfully built and sustained a media and lifestyle empire through the production, packaging, and distribution of her family member’s lives.
Kim Kardashian-West, the second child from Kris’ marriage to Robert, is inarguably the most famous member of the Kardashian-Jenner family. She initially enjoyed time in the limelight as Paris Hilton’s (Hilton Hotels heiress and noted Hollywood socialite) best friend and stylist/assistant in the mid-2000s. What catapulted her to fame however, was the release of a sex tape filmed by Kardashian and then-boyfriend rapper Ray J which caused national controversy. It was in 2007, shortly after the release of this sex tape, when Keeping Up With The Kardashians first aired on E! (“Kim Kardashian-West”). Since then, Kim has featured on hundreds of magazine covers and virtually lived her life for all to consume and comment on. As an early adopter of social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram, she amassed a large and dedicated following on the internet. Her video game Kim Kardashian Hollywood, line of personalized emojis, and countless physical merchandise lines have generated millions of dollars for Kardashian-West. The trailblazing efforts of Kim (and momager Kris) have set the rest of their family up to earn a living in the same manner.
Nineteen year old Kylie Jenner, the youngest child in the Kardashian-Jenner family, has become much more of a subject of public interest in the past couple years. This is because Jenner has most closely followed the blueprint of celebrity which half-sister Kim laid out before her. Literally growing up on TV, Jenner has lived her life in the public eye since Keeping up With The Kardashians first aired when she was nine years old. In her teenage years, she was highly public on social media, posting pictures and videos of herself and her day-to-day activities. Jenner has also amassed multiple product lines including a makeup line called Kylie Cosmetics, clothing line and pop-up retail store The Kylie Shop, and a video game and clothing line created jointly with her sister Kendall (both titled Kendall & Kylie). This summer, her spin-off reality show called The Life of Kylie will air on E!.
The media production and monetization machine of the Kardashian-Jenner family is quite a phenomenon. The way they have commodified their very existence using media outlets both old and new is remarkable — not always in the most well-received ways. Their very public lifestyle has been viewed as a model for women in America to emulate and they are doing this in mass amounts.
Fashion and Lifestyle Influencing as a Profession
In the past ten years, alongside the Kardashian-Jenner family’s rise to fame, social media and blogging platforms have created a generation of young women entrepreneurs attempting to use these Internet tools in a similar fashion as the famous family. A field of blogging known as fashion and lifestyle influencing has emerged from this media phenomenon. Similar to the way in which the Kardashian-Jenner women use old and new media to construct a ‘life’ narrative for consumption by the mass public, fashion and lifestyle influencers use websites and social media platforms to construct a version of their life with the goal of gaining an audience to consume the content so they can then monetize their online presence.
There are many niches in the blogging community other than fashion and lifestyle influencing, but I wish to focus on these two sectors for a few reasons. Both are heavily dominated by women, as is the Kardashian-Jenner family. Kris Jenner is a woman, five out of six of her children are women, and after divorcing Kris in 2015, Caitlyn Jenner publicly came out and announced her transition. This provides a distinctly feminine backdrop for the media empire they have created and closely resembles the feminine-dominated world of the lifestyle and fashion influencing industry.
Because the influencer industry is relatively new, there are not yet strict requirements/denotations for what it means to ‘enter’ the profession. However, I have come up with some benchmarks present among most career fashion/lifestyle influencers after personally following this community for years as well as working alongside an influencer correspondent at a fashion company.
The actual media assets held by the influencers are the most important part of their legitimization as a blogging professional. Many professional influencers have a website which they (or their team) manage and update regularly with content such as pictures, videos, and writing. Professional influencers must have a robust social media presence on a combination of platforms which include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter and others. The social media content includes repurposed content from their blog websites as well as original content tailored to the nature of the platform.
It is required that professional influencers update their following regularly throughout the week, even the day. This includes posting original content, commenting on and re-sharing content from other online media outlets, and engaging with fans and followers through digital communication. For audiences of influencers, it is viewed as unacceptable to go more than a couple days without some sort of update. If the influencer’s job is to constantly share what they’re doing, most find it ‘unprofessional’ to neglect this crucial activity.
Of course, in our American neoliberal society, no matter how much time and effort you put into an activity (both on and off the computer screen), the only way you are a true ‘professional’ is if you can successfully commodify your actions for monetary gain. In the fashion and lifestyle influencing world, there are patterns of commodification followed by many.
The primary content posted by fashion/lifestyle influencers is pictures/video of themselves, scenery, or activities in which they take part. When commodified for monetary gain, these pictures/video include links to online stores where you can shop either the exact clothes they are wearing or similar styles for the audience to mimic their favorite influencers’ looks. The links are often generated for the influencers by a digital platform serving as the middle-man between bloggers and brands which provides commission to the bloggers based on tracking link clicks and online purchases by audience members.
In addition, many (but not all), of the events influencers attend and create content about are monetized occurrences. Influencers often partner with brands and organizations in exchange for any combination of compensation, mutual exposure to each party’s audience through digital content, or free travel and event attendance. It is primarily top-tier influencers who are offered free travel and event attendance, but much of a professional influencer’s content revolves around these partnerships with brands, all of varying capacity.
Because the influencing industry is so new, it is difficult to regulate these business transactions which legitimize the profession. For instance, it is required that influencers disclose to their audience when receiving gifts or compensation from brands and organizations, but many high-profile influencers fail to follow through with the requirement. This disclosure is easily accomplished with a hashtag like #ad or #sponsored on social media posts but regularly eschewed by influencers in favor of producing what appears to be a more ‘authentic’ image for their viewers consumption.
Professional fashion and lifestyle influencers requires constant exposure online through a cycle of brand partnership, digital content creation, and monetization. This model of business is almost identical to the media empire the Kardashians have created for themselves.
The Kardashians, Professional Influencers, and Postfeminism
Using the framework of postfeminism as related to contemporary media culture outlined by Rosalind Gill in the final chapter of Gender and the Media, I will draw parallels between the Kardashian’s commodification of ‘living’ and the rise of professional fashion and lifestyle influencing which have both taken place from the mid-2000s onward.
Gill describes postfeminism as a sensibility to be critically applied to contemporary media culture in order to understand early 21st century gender representations. In this case, we are able to simultaneously analyze the Kardashian-Jenner family’s media empire and fashion/lifestyle influencing using the themes of a postfeminist sensibility.
The first theme Gill explains is “Femininity as a bodily property”. This phenomenon includes the presentation of the body:
“as women’s source of power and as always already unruly and requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodelling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever narrower judgements of female attractiveness.” (Gill, Gender and the Media).
The Kardashian-Jenner family has staunchly upheld this principle of the body ‘as a source of power’ since the initial release of Kim Kardashian-West’s sex tape which immediately and simultaneously put her naked body on display to the public for consumption/commentary and catapulted their family to national notoriety. Since then, Kim and the rest of the Kardashians have generated millions of dollars in revenue from pictures and videos of their physical bodies in the media.
As discussed previously, professional fashion/lifestyle influencers also rely on the concept of the bodily property of femininity through the requirement that they create and publish content highlighting their physical body. Both influencers and the Kardashians are known for advertising beauty, health and style products all revolving around the maintenance of their physical selves. All of these women emphasize the transformative power of the products they promote by putting forward a narrative of goal-attainment and personal satisfaction.
Because these women put their physical bodies on display for consumption and monetization, an intense level of maintenance of the body is perceived as necessary. The Kardashian-Jenner women have all, whether they’ve admitted it or not, paid for extensive plastic, cosmetic, and dermatologic surgeries and procedures. Following in the steps of the Kardashians, bloggers with enough capital will resort to similar procedures in order to impress their followers and fans as well as keep up with the beauty status quo. (Which is now ironically often put into place by the Kardashians.)
Where these surgical procedures fall short, the internet offers software like Photoshop and ‘Facetune’ to digitally alter oneself. The Kardashians and influencers alike regularly receive backlash from the general public and their own fans for altering the ‘authentic’ photos and video footage they post. When a woman’s livelihood involves presenting her body to the public for consumption, they will go to great lengths to maintain an ‘acceptable’ physical self.
Another relevant theme of Gill’s postfeminist sensibility is the “Self-surveillance and discipline” doctrine. The Kardashian’s have commodified their self-surveillance since the advent of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, by literally filming, editing, and producing versions of their ‘lives’. As new media platforms emerged, they acted as early adopters of social media and personal apps, where they continue to share ‘personal’ moments through the performance of their lives. From their family TV show to their individual social media accounts, they must always present a cohesive, branded identity to the public in order to continue to make a living. While many decry that this act of living publicly takes no effort, the time and energy put into these acts in fact requires great discipline.
The concept of ‘identity as a brand’ is something popularized by the Kardashians which has also trickled down to the profession of lifestyle and fashion influencing. In fact, ‘identity as a brand’ is the very backbone of this profession. Many influencers use their own names as brand titles, or come up with a name revolving around their identity. It is literally their job to discuss the in-and-out of their everyday lives. Doing so under a title of their name/identity, requires a certain level of self-surveillance which constrains these women to act in a specific way for their audience, ultimately shaping a narrative that acts as their public persona.
The postfeminist and neoliberal concept of “Individualism, choice and empowerment” outlined by Gil resonates with the narrative the Kardashians promote when discussing their own fame. In an editorial by the New York Times, Kris Jenner states:
“‘There’s a lot of people that have great ideas and dreams and whatnot, but unless you’re willing to work really, really hard, and work for what you want, it’s never going to happen. And that’s what’s so great about the girls. It’s all about their work ethic.’” (Brodesser-Akner, New York Times).
This narrative completely disregards the social, political, and monetary capital required to achieve fame of this caliber. The Kardashian family would not have reached this level of stardom without the late Robert Kardashian’s fortune, their physical proximity to the entertainment capital of America, or their social connections.
Similarly, many professional influencers cite their hard work ethic and dedication to their craft as sole reasons for success in the industry. In reality, the small percentage of people who succeed in making a career out of influencing are usually economically affluent to begin with and are often located in or near a major city, positioning them close to opportunities for partnership with brands and organizations.
Gill also cites the need “to render one’s life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and autonomy — however constrained one might actually be.” It is unpopular for these women (both Kardashians and other influencers) to acknowledge the difficulty inherent in maintaining this fabricated image of livelihood for the public.
The Kardashians have built a media empire around the presumption that they are just ‘living their lives’ for consumption through old and new media outlets. Because of this, the public has historically viewed the family members as not having true careers. In reality, it actually takes extensive time, capital and emotional labor to create a curated self-image using the media. The Kardashian’s massive amounts of capital provide them with a large team to assist in their postfeminist goals of bodily femininity, self-surveillance, and neoliberal goal attainment: the backdrop to their success and commodification of media.
Though mid-tier influencers often only have themselves (and maybe an assistant) to create their curated ‘life’ in the media, the Kardashian blueprint of postfeminist media commodification has provided a road map for these women to create a career from the online consumption of their ‘lives’. The Kardashian-Jenner fame phenomenon has created a trickle down effect through contemporary media culture that has brought about the ‘profession’ of fashion and lifestyle influencing.
The current media landscape of celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’ and influencers trying to make a living through their day-to-day actions are strongly intertwined. By using aspects of the postfeminist sensibility described by Rosalind Gill in Chapter 8 of Gender and the Media, I was able to draw parallels between the feminine-dominated industry of fashion and lifestyle influencers and the feminine-dominated Kardashian family. All of these women have commodified aspects of Gill’s postfeminist sensibility through old and new media.
To find out whether this commodification has been intrinsically beneficial or detrimental to these women? I guess we will have to ask them off-camera and offline. (Good luck with that.)
Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. “Where Would the Kardashians Be Without Kris Jenner?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 May 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
Gill, Rosalind Clair. Gender and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013. Print.
“Kim Kardashian West.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 06 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Mead, Wendy. “Robert Kardashian.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 08 July 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.