[20 January 2009]
On the surface, Kath and Kim—the show and the lead characters—are definitely superficial. Both Kath (Molly Shannon) and Kim (Selma Blair) seem to care more about hair, fashion, make-up, gossip, and themselves than anything else. And, really, there isn’t much more than this in their lives. However, as shallow as the characters and show may be, the superficial only barely veils the show’s critiques of consumerism and our desire to belong.
Kath and Kim aren’t “dumb”; but they are clueless. They have an idea about the life they want but they don’t have a clue about how to get that life. Instead, unbeknownst to them, they settle for a shallow imitation of a lifestyle that is becoming more and more difficult for middle-class Americans to sustain (and more difficult for some of us to stomach). Both Kath and Kim fall short of full “citizenship” in the lifestyle they desire, emulate, and imbibe. For Kath this means that her at-home hair business is only a shadow of those “real” businesses at the mall and that she must compete for the prom market, for instance.
When her new fiancé, Phil, finagles Kath a spot at the “Promenade”, a mall event where stylists can display their talents, the mall management puts her in a corner, by the dumpster, far away from the rest of the Promenade. Phil—and, ultimately, Kath’s stylish “wedge” hairstyle—save the day and Kath has her moment of glory, before mall security carts the three of them away. This is but one way that the mall controls the lives of Kath and Kim—through rules and regulations as much as through the lure of consumerism (which has its own rules).
On the surface, Kath is insecure about her age and her appearance, but she is also simultaneously confident and in charge of herself and her life. Up to this point she has managed to raise her daughter and support their shallow little piece of life. She is happy; and Phil Knight is the topping on her cake. However, Kath’s insecurities don’t come from doubting herself; they are securely linked to her consumption of popular culture.
For instance, in one episode she decides that she and Phil don’t know each other and a magazine quiz on the subject helps to cement these feelings. However, the magazine only acts as an excuse for drama; the real issue is that Kath (according to Kim’s flippant observation) is “weak and desperate” because she lets Phil feed her strawberries despite her allergy. Kath takes this “inconvenience” for love.
While exaggerated, Kath’s actions are certainly a commentary on the kinds of insecurities that pop culture begets. And she attempts to save herself, again and again, through pop culture. For instance, when she thinks she is too old to get married (aided by a wedding expo where it is suggested that she try the “mature brides” section where she can find a “wedding suit” instead of the fairytale she envisions and by Kim’s caustic teasing), Kath dons a “young” Hip Hop outfit which prompts Kim to ask if she’s “going to Snoop Dogg’s house in like 1996.” Not only has Kath missed the mark of “youth,” she also misses the mark of cool since such Hip Hop appropriations are as out of style as Kath’s appropriation.
As is typical for many Americans in their 40s, Kath is stuck in the style, fashion, and language of the ‘80s and ‘90s (hence: her workout thong) while she is simultaneously well-versed on contemporary tabloid gossip and trends. This is perhaps because her daughter, Kim, knows no other reality. Despite Kath’s claim that she raised Kim “with manners”, and Kim’s agreement (“uh yeah”), Kim is hardly the embodiment of decorum. She struts around in too-short shorts and a too-tight shirt, with her g-string panties and midsection prominently displayed, demanding what she wants when she wants it. Like Ranch dressing, a cinnamon roll, Doritos, waffles or a new outfit for speed dating. Kim’s consumption is literal and is aided by her mother, who buys her everything from clothes to food and makes her breakfast from scratch, and by her husband, Craig, who does the same essentially.
And Kim is certainly “dumb” as much as she likes to judge the stupidity of other people. And, really, this is all Kim has to do. She’s “too busy being a trophy wife” to work and spends most of her time at the mall shopping, eating, and bugging Craig at his electronics job. Like her mother who sees herself as an accomplished business woman, Kim sees her accomplishment as her “trophy” status even though she partially maintains this status by moving back in with her mother, or as Kim says it she is “exstranged” (only one of the words she mixes up Jessica Simpson style).
Kim’s alternating expressions—between coy/cute/sexy and disgusted/annoyed—are her mask and every once and a while we see through this mask when she lets us. For instance, when she realizes, after trying to prove a point through speed dating, that she really wants Craig or when she slips, like when she briefly smiles while watching her mother dancing and happy. Kim’s masked persona is convenient for her delusions of grandeur but it is clearly also a façade that lets us see at least some of the cracks.
Ultimately, as dysfunctional as these two women are, they are also a kind of model family—a mother and daughter who share their lives, as empty and meaningless as we might judge these lives, and these women, to be. We don’t have to like Kath and Kim. We don’t have to find them to be redeemable characters. In fact, we can just sit back for a half hour and laugh at their short comings and delusions, with or without examining our own.