⏱ 19 Minute Read ✍🏻 December 2017
Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, Kendall and Kylie. Like an alliterative roll-call of Disney princesses, the five sisters of Kris Jenner’s powerhouse have become the ultimate fantasy for Millennial women. With a combined social media following of 700 million impressionable young people, the Kardashian-Jenners now influence the equivalent of 9% of the population of Earth.
A decade in, their Reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ has been the most watched series on the ‘E!’ channel for 7 years, airing in 167 countries and spawning 9 spin-off series. It hit its peak in 2011, with coverage of Kim Kardashian marrying Kris Humphries attracting 10.5 million viewers (they divorced a few months later). In its 14th season, KUTWK still draws over 2 million viewers per episode, while E! have recently paid the family £115 million to commit to 5 more seasons.In essence, the Kardashian-Jenners have developed a formula to monetise their lives through the manipulation of mainstream and social media.
Leveraging their fame at every opportunity, they have cashed in on product endorsements, clothing lines, cosmetics, books and apps, building a £250 million dynasty in the process.Family frontrunner Kim Kardashian-West has an influence on modern culture that is as difficult to overestimate as it is to comprehend: on Twitter alone—arguably the most cerebral of the social media networks—she has more followers than the BBC, CNN, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bill Gates. Variously described as a reality TV personality, socialite, model, and entrepreneur, her combined social media following now stands at 189 million, while her personal fortune sits at around £130 million. In 2015, Time Magazine named her as one of the most influential people in the world. As a role model and major authority within youth culture, hordes of youngsters around the globe mimic her behaviour and seem to share her world view.
Little sister Kylie Jenner is catching up fast. At 20-years-old, she is Kim’s junior by 17 years. Featured in TIME Magazine’s list of ‘Most Influential Teens’ last year, her combined social media reach of over 150 million followers makes her one of the highest profile media personalities of all time. Often described as reality TV star, style icon, fashion designer, entrepreneur and author, her app debuted at number one on the iTunes store, while Kylie Cosmetics posted revenue of £320 million in its first 18 months and is on track to be a billion-dollar brand within five years. And that’s just Kim and Kylie. Kendall Jenner, for example, is reportedly paid £280,000 for a single Instagram post.
Simply put, the Kardashian-Jenner sisters are a living, breathing global brand, the likes of which has never been seen before. Together, they are the highest profile members of the most famous family on Earth, appealing to women in a way that no other celebrities have been able to.
Dismissed by many as a reflection of a sick society and heavily criticised for being underserving of their fame and material success, the reluctance of the wider community to take the Kardashian-Jenners seriously overlooks one fact: they are the kingpins of a cultural phenomenon that is likely to have far-reaching effects in terms of the values that an entire generation grow up to embrace. But how has this happened, and why?
In our mega-connected society of information overload, change often happens faster than we can understand it. It is easy to forget that widespread use of the internet only began some twenty years ago, and that over 80% of the developed world are online on a daily basis. The flood of information has produced a major cultural shift, not only in how we view ourselves and value others, but also in how we define what it means to be an inspirational person. Looking back to the 18th Century, an individual became a celebrity only as a by-product of outstanding achievement. Charity workers, political reformers, innovative thinkers, scientists and doctors: these were the people literally celebrated by the public because their actions improved the lives of their fellow human beings. Parents encouraged their children to follow in the footsteps of these celebrities for evolutionary reasons: it made it more likely that their offspring would benefit the human race. Fame served a positive purpose.
Nowadays, the relationship between fame and sociological achievement has weakened to the point of being practically non-existent. The five most famous people in the world are made up of four heavily manufactured pop stars and a footballer. Through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, this handful of celebrities regularly reach and influence over a billion people. In this era of connectedness and scientific progress, we might expect the values of society to develop in parallel. Why is it then that the exact opposite is true? Why does an entire generation seem to ignore the members of our society who improve our world, yet hero-worship those that are so blatantly narcissistic and self-serving?
Part of the answer lies behind the curtain of hyper-capitalism, because the cleverly concealed reality of modern fame is that it is the Siamese twin of consumerism. It is no coincidence that in olden times, when people became famous as a result of genuine achievement, consumerism didn’t exist. In his book ‘Sapiens’, Noah Yuval Harari explains that the Industrial Revolution – the transition to mass production through the use of machines – created a previously unimaginable situation in which the supply of products exceeded demand:
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.
Before consumerism, whenever supply exceeded demand, producers would reduce supply until balance was restored. But harmony was no good for the capitalists, so they artificially stimulated demand instead. With their ability to manipulate consumers proven, it quickly become a game of choice and competition. As Harari puts it:
An entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?
For the advertisers tasked with ensuring that all the stuff would be bought, the more pressing question was: ‘who is going to sell it?’. Fast forward to modern times: the explosive growth we’ve seen in the demand for celebrities has been driven by the ever-increasing amounts of stuff that need to be sold. Understood this way, celebrities of the Kardashian-Jenner variety can be viewed as puppets that received the breath of life from Reality TV. The rise of this format of entertainment goes hand in hand with the promotion of rampant consumerism.
As the quantity of celebrities has rocketed to meet demand, so the quality of celebrities has plummeted. Imagine an enormous motor show featuring endless amounts of every model of car known to man. Not every car can be a head-turning Lamborghini – huge numbers of Ford Ka’s jostle for position too. How do you get a Ford Ka noticed? A crude but undeniably effective method is to drive it straight into a brick wall. This is what ‘Reality TV’ is: a platform where ordinary people can appear extraordinary, providing of course that they are willing to degrade themselves in some – preferably every – way. The juicier the celebrity’s life story, the more embarrassing, outrageous, overtly sexualised and pseudo-tragic it can be made to sound, the greater the public fascination. Whether the celebrity happens to possess any talent is irrelevant; talent is no longer a pre-requisite for public fascination. The greater the celebrity’s following, the more fundamentally worthless and overpriced stuff they can sell. In this way, Reality TV can be seen as a production line of generic celebrities – it churns out walking, talking advertising boards to be exploited by the capitalist puppeteers who pull the strings from behind the curtain.
Perhaps the reality of (un)reality TV is an inconvenient truth that the puppeteers never want the audience to understand: those who operate the levers of society only award fame to those who can sell products on their behalf. The modern celebrity is merely a commodity to be traded, the thriving marketplace our artificially created consumerist ideology. The personalities of the Kardashian-Jenners are contrived to manipulate the emotions of their viewers, their primary goal is to whet the appetite for consumption. Modern fame, then, is an illusion: without anything to sell, the ‘famous for being famous’ breed of celebrity would simply vanish in a puff of bronzer.
The architects of hyper-consumerism tell us that ‘winning at life’ amounts to owning supercars, wearing diamonds, spraying enormous bottles of staggeringly expensive champagne into swimming pools and spending £10 million on a wedding. In order to normalise the absurd, they cast celebrity actors such as the Kardashian-Jenners as weapons of mass consumption, perfectly positioned to hypnotise their punters with the cartoony illusion of what life could be like if money and morality were no object. And who would deny that the puppeteers have been incredibly successful? We are all good little consumers who buy endless amounts of goods that we don’t really need, cannot really afford, and perhaps, deep down, don’t even want.
Generalised insecurity works wonders for stimulating market demand. Part of the fascination with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner comes from the compulsion to covet the unattainable. The problem is that it is unattainable because it is not real: airbrushing, reshaping filters, cosmetic surgery, makeup artists, personal trainers, dieticians and the endless, unwavering distortion and denial. This is precisely the moral problem with celebrities who project media fantasy as their objective reality.
Though the phenomenon of celebrity per se can be explained this way, it does not necessarily explain why the Kardashian-Jenners in particular have become the most famous family in the world. Ironically, part of the appeal may be related to their perceived ‘family values’. In a modern online world, where family bonds are increasingly strained and a lack of community is evident everywhere, the Kardashian-Jenners do come across as a tightly knit family unit on screen. Enhanced by their relentless self-documenting on social media, this seems to give their followers a real sense of connectedness – almost as good as the real thing.
Postfeminism has played a part, too. In 2016, Durham University student Eliza Cummings-Cove chose KUTWK as the subject of her sociology dissertation. Although her choice of subject matter initially raised some academic eyebrows, the dissertation won her a first class honours degree. In it, she explored whether the ongoing drama of the public lives of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters constitutes a postfeminist fairy tale. In explaining the difference between the traditional fairy tale and the postfeminist version, she wrote:
Unlike the one dimensional fairy tale Princesses of the past, the heroines of these new tales embody the ideals of postfeminism – they are beautiful, intelligent, sexually liberated, wealthy, successful in their careers, and still able to catch a Prince Charming.
She also argued that the fairy tales have always served an important purpose in shaping society:
…to inspire individuals and provide a framework they can apply in constructing their own lives and selves.
As far as the majority of Millennial women are concerned, the Kardashian-Jenners certainly seem to ‘have it all’: fame, money, beauty, career, close family and loyal friends. As the saying goes: women want to be them, men want to be with them.
Time and place have also been a major factor. To mark the beginning of 2007, Time magazine awarded their famous annual Person of the Year to ‘You’, thereby placing readers in the same bracket as recent winners Bill Gates, Bono and George W. Bush. The ‘winners portrait’ was an image of a computer screen with a mirrored surface, reflecting the face of the reader:
In his book ‘Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us’, Will Storr argues that Time had correctly identified that the internet was morphing from an open source of information into a social arena:
Its platforms would flatten hierarchies further, giving every ‘I’ a voice, a character, a presence, a brand. It would ride on top of our increasing sense of individualism, taking the neoliberal game of life to previously unimagined places, pitching self against self in a ceaseless competition for followers, feedback and likes.
Between 2006 and 2008, the number of Facebook users grew from 12 million to 150 million, boosted by Steve Jobs unleashing the iPhone in January of 2007. In the space of a year, Twitter went from hosting 100,000 tweets per month to 25 million. The arrival of social media and its integration with Reality TV made the Kardashian family the first candidates for 24/7 voyeurism (Kim Kardashian’s sex tape was released at the peak of this communications revolution). With the cultural landscape in flux, a concept like KUTWK fulfilled society’s need for a public drama to reflect modern aspirations. The stage had been set, a lead actor was required, and a fame-hungry Kim Kardashian was willing to bare all for the spotlight.
Increasingly these days, there is a mentality amongst the younger generation that they are special, naturally deserving of a luxury lifestyle, too good for ordinary work and entitled to public recognition for their inherent extraordinariness. This goes hand in hand with the demand for—and expectation of—instant gratification. The Kardashians fed directly into this; their unremarkable CV’s propping up the new fantasy that anyone can become rich and famous, even in the absence of any discernible talent and without the many years of hard worthwhile work that yields genuine achievement. Ultimately, the sisters stole the show because they were so apparently undeserving of it all, which made them all the more relatable.
The stars were now perfectly aligned: Consumerism, Hyper-Capitalism, Individualism and Post-Feminism, all coming together in a universe of deeply dissatisfied Millennials. As a result, the family has become a symbol of the 21st Century zeitgeist, in which wholesome values have been erased and narcissism has been normalised to such an extent that it can be openly and unashamedly admired.
One of the dangers in this strange new landscape is rooted in the fact that humans are social creatures by nature. Raised in groups, we have evolved to learn by imitation; by watching and subconsciously copying other humans. In psychology, this is known as mirroring – something that begins in infancy when babies start to automatically mimic those around them.
The importance of mirroring cannot be underestimated: when it fails, its absence is one of the key indicators of autism and other social disabilities. At its core, mirroring enables the transfer of information between people and down generations, bypassing the painfully slow process of genetic inheritance. This is one of the reasons the human race is able to develop so much faster than other animals.
Mirroring differs from straightforward imitation in two ways: it is unintentional, and the people involved tend to be unaware of it. To an outside observer however, mirroring can be seen in people who subconsciously imitate the body language or speech patterns of others, particularly in the company of friends or family. If you have ever noticed someone’s accent changing to fit in with the person they’re talking to, you have witnessed mirroring. Similarly, its most basic and spontaneous form can be seen in contagious yawning. Its function is to develop empathy and human connection.
A key driver of mirroring is the subconscious need to be accepted, and it is at its strongest in young developing adults. This is a good thing for human evolution, provided that worthy human traits such as kindness, integrity and honesty are what is being mirrored. As a form social learning, its mechanism is so powerful that it leads to the development of traditions, which helps to weave the fabric of our culture.
Increasingly today, our social environment is as much online as it is physical: a recent study found that the average person now spends 8 hours per day consuming various forms of digital media, 4 hours of which is on their smartphone, with over 2 hours spent actively engaging in social media. This is an increase of 9% from 2016 and 13% from 2005. Given that we are only awake for around 16 hours a day, this means that we now spend half our lives consuming digital media. As a result, human social networks have transcended physical interaction, expanding to a global level through the virtual world of the internet.
In any social environment, humans automatically mirror people that they view as ‘successful’. Each generation defines success according to its culture. Thanks to consumerism and hyper-capitalism, most Millennials measure success in terms of beauty, wealth and fame. Undoubtedly, these characteristics are the hallmarks of the typical celebrity image.
As levels of mirroring increase in line with exposure, so digital media exposes us to a never-ending barrage of celebrities, particularly through their social media platforms. When a fan follows a celebrity on social media, they feel an emotional connection, as though they are following an actual friend. This creates a kind of one-way relationship known as parasocial interaction (parasocial as in paranormal, whereby para means beyond). This phenomenon goes into overdrive when the fan is given what appears to be an intimate look into the personal life of the celebrity, which is a key strategy of Kim Kardashian, and particularly Kylie Jenner. The resulting false familiarity creates a real sense of ‘knowing’ the celebrity, creating the perfect social conditions for mirroring. Incidentally, though not accidentally, this also creates trust – the essential ingredient in any successful product endorsement.
Media mirroring is not confined to doting teenage fans; fully fledged adults are susceptible too. The phenomenon occurs across all age groups and levels of intelligence. This is precisely how fashions, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes become popular, and is why celebrities are often called ‘influencers’ and ‘trend-setters’. Given that as many as 700 million fans are watching and mirroring the Kardashian-Jenners, whose every move is documented for endless streaming broadcast from their iPhones, does it not make sense for society to be concerned about the message they are transmitting? I think it does.
The message, it seems, is this: to be beautiful, rich and famous is to be a success. To be anything else is to be a failure. In other words, external values are more important than internal values – augmenting your appearance, having lots of money and being publicly known is more important than nurturing meaningful relationships, community spirit and helping the less fortunate. Nothing illustrates this mentality better than the Twitter backlash that followed Kim Kardashian’s most infamous naked selfie (taken, rather aptly, in the mirror).
Here we see Chloë Grace Moretz duly recognising the responsibility that comes with the platform celebrities are given. Having used her own platform to voice her concern over the message that Kim Kardashian’s behaviour might be sending to her impressionable young followers, she is subjected to abuse. Rather than engage in any meaningful debate about the issues raised, Kardashian attempts to justify her behaviour with her earnings, before seeking to belittle Moretz for being less famous. It could be argued that this brief exchange gives an insight into Kardashian’s system of values: image is everything, a non-famous person has less worth, and collateral damage to society is an acceptable consequence of the accumulation of wealth.
If the driving force of celebrity culture is rising hyper-capitalism, and if hyper-capitalism prioritises the material and the superficial over the meaningful and sincere, mirroring is almost certain to have knock-on effects on the lives that the younger generation lead.
An indicator of what those effects might be comes from a study by the University of Rochester, New York, which set out to establish whether the attainment of good looks, wealth and fame can improve quality of life. Using in-depth psychological surveys, the researchers assessed participants in key areas, including satisfaction, self-esteem, anxiety, stress, and the experience of positive and negative emotions. Aspirations were identified as either ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’, with the participants—all young adults—being asked how much they valued having ‘deep, enduring relationships’ and ‘helping others to improve their lives’ (intrinsic goals) versus being ‘a wealthy person’ and ‘achieving the look I’ve been after’ (extrinsic goals). Respondents also reported the degree to which they had attained these things.
As with earlier research, the study confirmed that the more committed a person is to a goal, the greater the chance of success. But unlike previous findings, this analysis showed that achieving certain goals may not actually make a person happy. As lead researcher Chris Niemiec explains:
There is a strong tradition in psychology that says if you value goals and attain them, wellness will follow…but these earlier studies didn’t consider the content of the goals. What is striking and paradoxical about this research is that it shows that reaching materialistic and image-related milestones actually contributes to ill-being. Despite their accomplishments, individuals experience more negative emotions like shame and anger and more physical symptoms of anxiety such as head-aches, stomach-aches, and loss of energy. By contrast, individuals who value personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, and physical health are more satisfied as they meet success in those areas. They experience a deeper sense of well-being, more positive feelings toward themselves, richer connections with others, and fewer physical signs of stress.
The study concludes that intrinsic aspirations make people happy because they fulfil their core needs, adding that striving for wealth and adulation does little to satisfy these deeply human requirements:
Craving money and adoration can also lead to a preoccupation with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – upward social comparisons that breed feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. Intrinsic aspirations seem to be more closely related to the self, to what’s inside the self, rather than to what’s outside the self.
In a culture where people increasingly judge a book by its cover, rather than its content, the looming problem is obvious.
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