[15 October 2008]
That peculiar form of celebrity known as the reality TV star seems to be reaching its zenith. No longer does reality TV merely mean people humiliating themselves for a cash prize, but now includes those who have a considerable amount of money themselves and varying degrees of fame (or former fame) using reality television to become even bigger stars.
Rich young women who seem to have no form of employment or talent have become ubiquitous not only in reality shows but on the covers of celebrity magazines. The celebrity for celebrity sake phenomenon, whose ring leader Paris Hilton’s fame catapulted when she starred in her own reality show, seems to have suggested to every wealthy girl with loose star connections that she too could achieve fame merely by having cameras follow her around her privileged life.
Hilton’s former pal Kim Kardashian, whose claim to fame is a sex tape she made with D-list R & B singer Ray J ,and whose father Robert Kardashian got his 15-minutes of fame as one of the O.J. Simpson trial lawyers, is the latest of these dubiously talented wealthy girls to get her own reality show. Keeping up with the Kardashians is ostensibly about Kim’s large extended family of siblings, mother/manager and stepfather Bruce Jenner, but it’s really a showcase for Ms. Kardashian in order to thrust her further into the spotlight.
The show bills itself as a “modern day Brady bunch”, but really highlights the eccentric habits of the wealthy and celebrity ambitious in Los Angeles. As Kris Jenner, Kim’s mother says when the sex tape is mentioned, “As her mother I wanted to kill her but as her manager I knew I had a job to do.”
As far as plot goes, it’s hard to imagine anything more boring. Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney, all in their late’ 20s, pal around, argue and fight with one another, and occasionally with their brother Rob – and that’s about it. They take care of and probably negatively influence their 12-year-old half sisters Kylie and Kendall, while their mother Kris (notice all the K’S!) plays best friend to all of them, living it up with the three older girls in Vegas for example, while Bruce Jenner plays the straight man, continually befuddled by the wackiness around him.
Yet even with all of the attempts at wackiness—hey let’s have another shot of the sisters rolling around on the ground together!—the emotional heat of the show never gets higher than lukewarm. Much of the show can feel opaquely scripted. In one especially cringe-inducing episode, Kris Jenner hires a nanny to look after the young girls. The nanny is obviously an actress hired by the show to takes her top off while lounging poolside and – you guessed it—she steals jewelry from the house. One episode where Khloe is arrested for drunk driving even included a disclaimer at the beginning “contains recreations of actual events.”
But perhaps even more annoying is the dullness of the “characters” themselves. The monotone California twangs of all the girls, the repetition of phrases, such as “I’m literally…” (As in “I am literally going to strangle her and beat her with a bat”), without breaking from expressionless gaze and the way all of the women look, that is, essentially the same with their heavy kohl eyes, sheer glossy lips, large handbags and expensive jewelry. It’s all so dreary! Yet, according to Nielsen Media Keeping up with the Kardashians is hugely popular among women aged 18-34.
The larger question is, why is this entertaining? Public humiliation as on American Idol provides a kind of perverse pleasure, but why do some enjoy watching rich people shop for purses, drink, eat, and talk on the phone? Much like the girls on The Hills—a more sumptuously shot but equally as vapid reality show on MTV—the Kardashians have “jobs” in only the loosest sense of the term; they own a clothing store with their mother but nary a customer is ever seen.
Part of the allure of this show, and indeed of the endless coverage of all of the “celebutants”, is the fact that they seem to be living in an alternate universe from the rest of us. They are hardly ever seen working. These vain women are rather like modern day Marie Antoinettes, boozing and flitting away their days inside gilded cages oblivious to the outside world. I suppose they hold appeal for some much like cotton candy does.
Yet the show peddles not merely in aspirational envy (wouldn’t you like nothing to care about except what lip gloss color to wear?) but conversely allows the viewer (probably unintentionally) to have a kind of smugness about their own values. It’s hard to believe anyone watching would actually think it is, as the Kardashian sisters and their mother claim, “classy” that they pose in bathing suits for Girls Gone Wild, or applaud this decision when it incites their pre-teen younger sisters to make a home video showing them swinging on a pole and mimicking Girls Gone Wild.
Indeed, there is something a disturbing about the Kardashians’ intense hunger for fame. But even worse—it is downright boring to watch this family live out their tedious lives.