The Kulture, explained
Setup for a joke: I reviewed Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies…
Punchline: …for The Spectator!
Except it’s not a joke. I really have reviewed Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies for The Spectator. And I did so not in jest, but as a dedicated follower of fashion. It’s now eight years since Kim rode to fame, as it were, on the back of a sex tape that had been filmed four years previously. Eight years since her family’s reality teevee show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, first spread itself across the airwaves. And yet, as the past few weeks have demonstrated in surplus quantity, she and they are still expanding their celebrity. In the gossamer world of show business, that level of durability is no laughing matter.
Admittedly, I didn’t always think this way. I didn’t think at all. When I started watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians, about five years ago, it was done mindlessly. Here were pretty girls in tight dresses sashaying from sun-lit poolsides to strobe-lit nightclubs in the ritzier parts of Los Angeles. Every scene was short, sweetened with party music, and scripted for dramatic effect. It was easy to switch on to then switch off.
And these plastic attractions remain. The Kardashians might even be genetically designed to attract our collective gaze. It began with Kim’s butt, which has become the appendage of our times. But it continues with her 19-year-old half-sister, Kendall Jenner, a catwalk model who is one-third hair and two-thirds legs. This younger generation of the clan, which includes 17-year-old Kylie Jenner, already has the format nailed. Their lives are a flipbook of Instagram photos with Cara Delevingne and Justin Bieber and Harry Styles and bikini bottoms and lip gloss and yachts. They keep the Daily Mail sidebar in perpetual motion.
But the more I watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the more I saw in it and them. These are some of the best characters on television. Don Draper and Walter White? You can keep ‘em. I have Kim’s mother, Kris, who is the cornerstone of the entire Kardashian hyperstructure. She recently applied to trademark the word ‘momager,’ for that is how she sees herself — both mom and manager to her children. But can the roles really coexist comfortably? This is the tension at the core of the show. It turns Kris into a complicated protagonist; her life into a mad form of performance art.
By way of an example, here’s Kris writing, in her 2011 autobiography Kris Jenner… and All Things Kardashian, about her eldest daughter becoming pregnant for the first time:
‘Kourtney revealed her pregnancy on the show, and the second season finale had 3.6 million viewers.
Spinoff show: check!’
That kid is now 5 years old, and appears on the show quite frequently, a grandchild turned cast member. Perhaps Kris should set her lawyers on trademarking the word ‘grandmomager’ too.
My favourite character, though, is Scott Disick. He’s the man behind that tele-pregnancy, as well as two more children with Kourtney Kardashian. Outwardly, Scott is King WASP. His hair is swept back with expensive styling products. He wears those shirts with white collars and pinstriped bodies. He’s the guy spraying Cristal over the table next to his, and laughing as though we all see the funny side. Naturally, Bret Easton Ellis wanted him to play Patrick Bateman in a new film adaptation of American Psycho.
But inwardly? Even in the unreal reality of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, there seems to be a different Scott. It’s the one who, during a trip to London for Season 7 of the show, was made a Lord, in his own eyes, in the upstairs room of a pub. The ‘investiture ceremony’ involved him wearing a fur cape and beaming as a child-size sword was passed from one shoulder to the other. This is no Bateman. This a buffoonish but strangely endearing man; the Falstaff of our play. ‘I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought.’
Or perhaps another of Falstaff’s lines is more appropriate: ‘I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.’ For then there are those moments when Scott himself appears sunk. Not just the scenes of him in hospital after a night of pills and alcohol, but the brief and terrible flicker in his eyes that says: what the hell am I doing?
It was another pop titan who made me watch the Kardashians in this way. Katy Perry’s 3D extravaganza Part of Me, which I also reviewed for The Spectator, contains one of the most affecting scenes in recent cinema. There she is, with her marriage to Russell Brand declining to its end, crying and howling in her dressing room before a concert. The tears flow all the way to a platform under the stage. And then, from nowhere: she forces a smile on her face, whirly discs start spinning on her candy dress, and the platform raises her into the rapture of her fans above. These awesome collisions between mass culture and individual torment used to be invisible to us. Now we see them in high-def on our phones.
Keeping Up with the Kardashians hasn’t delivered anything quite so poignant, but it’s getting there. Its ten seasons have spanned the failures of three marriages: Kim’s to the basketball player Kris Humphries; her sister Khloé’s to another basketball player, Lamar Odom; and Kris’s to the father of Kendall and Kylie, Bruce Jenner. The first two, in particular, were made and broken under the cameramen’s lighting setups. The weddings were televised specials. The divorces became plotlines. Turns out, this horrible thing that people endure every day is no less horrible when celebrities endure it — but it is many times more Hollywood.
Then there is Bruce Jenner, or Caitlyn Jenner now that she has revealed herself on that incandescent Vanity Fair cover. The recent two-parter about her transition was moving and, for a know-nothing schlub like me, informative television. It also dismantled the parameters of a show that, at that point, had been running for 139 episodes. Were you to go back and watch some of Bruce’s pre-Caitlyn appearances, you’d see the same cantankerous personality that was there before, but now you might see it differently. Here is a man apart — or was. Let us hope that Caitlyn is more comfortable.
Caitlyn’s experience also dramatises one of the most insistent doubts about the show: how much is as it appears? Was Bruce’s character a reflection of how he felt, or was it simply demanded by the screenwriters? Were those marriages just for ratings?
There have been the beginnings of answers — when, for instance, a script leaks to the entertainment press — but no ends to them. Which is strange. Critics have spent almost sixty years debating which parts of John Cassavetes’ film Shadows were written and which were improvised; whereas the eight-year-old corpus of Keeping Up with the Kardashians passes by almost entirely undissected. It probably suffers from similar misunderstandings to those that hobble professional wrestling. The fiction of the show is enough for people to dismiss it as ‘all made up’, when the fiction of the show is actually what makes it interesting.
I’m eager for someone close to the Kardashians to write a book dividing the acting from the actual, if that’s even possible at this point. In the meantime, the rest of us shall have to do our best. My own contribution to the science of Kardashianology is appended to this article: an infographic, prepared by the mighty talented Matt Smith, on the contents of Kim’s book of selfies. It might not mean anything that she’s in more photos with Kylie than with any other member of her family, or that we see more of her engagement ring than of her baby daughter. Or it might. These are the scraps we have to feed off.
And I’m hungry, ever hungry, for more. There is something about Keeping Up with the Kardashians that undoes my normal metabolism. It ought to be disgusting, these rich people baring their vanities, and sometimes it is. But, as I put it in my Spectator review, it reaches a point where you almost come to admire them. How many articles have we read celebrating some Tinseltown hoofer as ‘the hardest working person in showbiz’? Well, the Kardashians appear to be among the hardest working people in showbiz. It’s just that their work isn’t singing or acting, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s their lives.
That is quite some burden, or it could be for anyone who isn’t wired the right way. Which might explain the sad case of Rob Kardashian, the son of the family. He used to be a regular on the show. Now he is basically a recluse from the cameras and the public. The newspapers tell of depression. Long-distance lenses probe at the weight gain he keeps underneath baggy t-shirts and basketball shorts. It’s like they say: if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and his sisters do just that — on Instagram, on Twitter, on a thousand billboards. But what happens if you haven’t got it?
This modern conundrum confronts all of us, in one way or another. We rush to the social networks to flaunt our best photographs, articles and witticisms. But the rest tends to be held back, in our homes or in our heads. The Age of Sharing only goes so far.
And the Kardashians are the great paradigms of this Age. They share so much with the rest of us, from their holidays to their bodies, but still the essential truths remain obscure. It used to be the case that stars cultivated an air of mystery, so that we didn’t think they were as ordinary as the rest of us. Now they cultivate an air of ordinariness, but this just puts the mysteries into starker relief. How much of what we’re seeing is fiction? What don’t we know? Eight years after Kim’s sex tape first set the Internet aquiver, and despite all of the many interviews and photoshoots since, these questions still hover above her head.
What we do know is that there will be more. The work of the Kardashianologists continues with the news that Kourtney has split up with Scott. Kim is expecting her second child with Kanye West. Caitlyn’s new television series begins at the end of the month. And on and on into a future full of new spinoffs, product launches and cast members. The Kulture never ends.