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10 September 2020

How the Kardashians commodified authenticity

A commitment to complete exposure made one family the most powerful celebrities of the social media age.

By Emily Bootle

In February 2016, the celebrity feud of the decade reached its peak. Kanye West released a song containing degrading lyrics about Taylor Swift, with whom he had traded jibes since 2009. The song not only bragged that “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex”, but also claimed West “made that bitch famous”. Swift said she was humiliated.

West said she was lying: that she had, in fact, previously approved the lyrics. His wife, Kim Kardashian, quickly came to her husband’s defence. She said she had tapes of the call in which Swift had consented to the lyrics being used. The saga continued for months for a captive online audience – Kim becoming more the protagonist than Kanye – with statements and social media announcements from both parties.

As Anna Leszkiewicz wrote for the New Statesman at the time, the feud represented a battle between not only two versions of a story, but two different types of storytelling. Kardashian came out on top not just because of the strength of her case but the credibility of her approach. Swift, a celebrity in the traditional mould, shared her “real” life relatively sparingly with fans. Kim Kardashian bared all from the moment she became famous, having launched her career with a sex tape and cemented her fame by inviting television cameras into her home for the E! reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK), which has been documenting the lives of Kim, her sisters and her mother since 2007. By 2016, the public felt they had known her intimately for almost a decade. Kim Kardashian calling someone a liar was a statement to be taken seriously.

This dedication to “authenticity” is perhaps the guiding principle of Kim Kardashian’s career, which has risen in tandem with the explosive growth of social media. This week, the family announced on social media that Keeping Up with the Kardashians would end in 2021. “After what will be 14 years, 20 seasons, hundreds of episodes and numerous spin-off shows,” Kim wrote to her 188 million Instagram followers on Tuesday (8 September), “we are beyond grateful to all of you who’ve watched us for all of these years – through the good times, the bad times, the happiness, the tears, and the many relationships and children.”

The public has witnessed the Kardashians’ narrative arcs in real time, but this enterprising family has found ways of making this experience multi-dimensional. The TV programme is a surface layer behind which further layers of “reality” – behind-the-scenes shows, paid-for content and social media – are arranged. The very existence of each of these layers throws into question the supposed authenticity of the last, and then gives an answer, by providing more performative ingenuity. Different versions of the Kardashians as individuals have grown, become tangled, and have been discussed and dissected by their followers, always in the full glare of the internet’s attention. The Kardashians have helped us become addicted to a flawed notion of the authentic.

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In doing so they have enjoyed not only huge commercial success but a global influence on how we dress and present ourselves. They are the reason for the 2010s make-up trend of “contouring”. Their penchant for flat, neutral tones in skin-tight matte fabrics created widespread demand for that type of clothing. And the Kardashian body-type – an exaggerated hourglass without a shred of fat – has, over the past decade, become a new feminine ideal.

Because their baseline is baring all on TV, they have been able to maintain that their unnatural appearance does not preclude their innate authenticity. Kim’s large butt attracted so much attention, in the first few years of her fame, that in a 2011 episode of KUWTK she had it X-rayed to prove its size and shape had not been created by synthetic implants (years later, tabloids are still publishing articles claiming it was not strictly natural; she’d had fat transferred from her legs). Her youngest sister, Kylie Jenner, protested for years that the dramatic transformation of her lips was simply due to the use of “lip kits” from her own make-up range, before eventually conceding, in May 2015, what everyone knew already: that her remarkably full lips were loaded with injectable filler. She was praised for her honesty, and some cosmetic surgeries reported that enquiries about lip filler increased by 70 per cent after the news broke.

In the essay “Always Be Optimizing”, which appears in the 2019 book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes of “the ideal woman”:

“The work formerly carried out by make-up has been embedded directly into her face: her cheekbones or lips have been plumped up, or some lines have been filled in, and her eyelashes are lengthened every four weeks by a professional wielding individual lashes and glue. The same is true of her body, which no longer requires the traditional enhancements of clothing or strategic underwear; it has been pre-shaped by exercise that ensures there is little to conceal or rearrange.”

[see also: How Instagram transformed our personal lives]

When somebody thus renders themselves “ideal”, they are outwardly “authentic”. They have nothing to hide – and the fact they have nothing to hide only contributes to their perfection. Similarly, that a Kardashian has, in a sense, been “pre-filtered” by the work of a surgeon is acceptable – as long as they confess it. The Kardashian family’s various admissions of their cosmetic surgery (for example, “momager” Kris Jenner getting a facelift in a 2011 episode of KUWTK may mean we know that their faces and bodies are not strictly real, but they have been honest about it, and that – for the purposes of both their brand and our moral satisfaction – is all that matters. (Kim, whose appearance has changed over the years, has never admitted to any surgical intervention.)

Just as the rise of social media allowed everyone else to share in the illusion of authenticity, photo editing apps and Instagram filters have allowed millions of women to make themselves more Kardashian-like as their picture is taken, increasing the “Instagram vs reality” divide that causes body image and self-esteem problems for many women, especially young women, online.

[see also: How Instagram’s plastic surgery filters are warping the way we see our faces]

The Kardashians’ commitment to sharing every aspect of their unreal, doctored lives even extends to the “authentic” sharing of social media updates – sponsored content – which, they are legally required to explain, are not real. Their audience does not mind – confession is the moral and aesthetic imperative on which KUWTK was modelled.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians has played into the common misalignment of authenticity with relatability. The all-encompassing nature of the show means viewers feel they are exposed to the “bad bits”, and can therefore identify with the characters. Over the course of the show, memes of the women crying, fighting, saying vacuous things (Kylie Jenner once made the profound prediction that 2016 would be a year of “realising stuff”) and eating salad proliferated online. “[The Kardashians] can make news by buying Coca-Cola or cleaning their refrigerators,” wrote Zan Romanoff in a 2019 article for Buzzfeed News.

In a sense, this appeals to our more conventional understanding of celebrity: we are thrilled when we find out that famous people are like us. The act of simply existing is commodified, and in witnessing any mundanity we assume we’ve seen it all. But the Kardashians know that there is always something more that can be shared.

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