Wednesday 18 September 2019

Kardashian Kulture: How the reality TV family's influence extends into politics, technology and business

You might not keep up with the famous-for-being-famous clan, but according to sociologist Ellis Cashmore, they're shaping your world in ways you might not even realise, writes Tanya Sweeney

We should be sick of (l-r) Kris, Kylie, Khloe, Kim, Kourtney and Kendall by now, but their appeal shows no sign of waning
We should be sick of (l-r) Kris, Kylie, Khloe, Kim, Kourtney and Kendall by now, but their appeal shows no sign of waning
Kim has led the way with her penchant for selfies

Tanya Sweeney

Love them, loathe them, lust after them, or want to look like them - there's little getting away from the Kardashian phenomenon. One of them, Kylie, is the youngest self-made billionaire in the world; another, Kendall, is the highest-paid supermodel working today. Both can command around $250,000 (€225,000) for a single Instagram post.

At the centre of the dynasty is Kim, worth a reported $370m (€333m). Taking a wily swipe at her own penchant for selfies, Kim even released the book Selfish, along with an eponymous personal app. As of today, she has a 200 million-strong following across her various social media channels. And to think it all started with a friendship with Paris Hilton and a sex tape. It defies the laws of celebrity - or at least, the old ones.

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The numbers are impressive in its own right, yet a new book, Ellis Cashmore's Kardashian Kulture, reckons that the influence of the Kardashians, and famous-for-being-famous celebrities like them, extends far beyond their young fan base into the worlds of politics, technology and business.

On a subconscious level, the Kardashians have been influencing society without us even realising it. From transgender acceptance to how we spend our money, it isn't easy to spot this on the surface because the Kardashian influence is so subtle and calculated.

"They've put social media and monetising themselves together in a way that made business leaders, CEOs and professors of management scratch their heads and wonder, 'How did they do that?'" the author observes.

Sociologist Cashmore, an Honorary Professor at Aston University in the UK, has already written books on Elizabeth Taylor, fame in the digital era and celebrity culture. Yet the Kardashians, he admits, were hard to ignore.

"The first question everybody asks is: why should we know these people?" he says. "They don't sing, act, dance or do any of the things conventional entertainers do. But we're fascinated by them. That's the whole point of the Kardashians: they're not restricted by any of the boundaries because they don't actually do anything apart from appearing - and even then, mostly online - and selling, which they do more effectively than any group of people in history. This makes them a unique and relatively new phenomenon. And I mean phenomenon - a unique and remarkable presence, the likes of which we've never witnessed.

"Anyone who keeps an eye on contemporary culture must realise how much of today's culture has been touched in some way by the Kardashian family: sex, money, race, fame, our bodies, the way we think about ourselves and others and, of course, the manner in which we engage with social media," he adds.

Cashmore's book is a deep academic dive into some of the biggest questions surrounding the clan.

Are they the symptom of a vacuous, money-grabbing culture, in which every aspect of one's life is up for scrutiny and up for sale? Or do they embody a new, female-empowered kind of meritocracy?

Much as it may seem that way, the Kardashian phenomenon didn't happen in a vacuum. Some celebrities paved the way so Kim could climb to global prominence and parlay a 2007 appearance in a sex tape into a multi-million dollar empire.

"In a great many ways, Paris Hilton provided Kim with a pattern, design, what you might call a template," observes Cashmore. "She was ridiculed for being talentless, but canny enough to realise she could monetise that reputation.

"Before her, Madonna in the 1980s showed how the kind of scandals that Hollywood stars and other entertainers tried to avoid could be a valuable resource. One of Madge's most important lessons was: forget you ever had what used to pass as a private life - the audience want to know everything about you! Paris learned. Kim learned even better."

Cashmore cites the Kardashian clan as changing the very nature of consumerism, "by transforming themselves into living, breathing products". "In the past, well-known actors, athletes and singers endorsed products," observes Cashmore. "But with the Kardashians, consumers are effectively buying them [Kardashians] through the products. This is something that advertising theory hasn't quite got to grips with yet: consumers don't buy because they think Kim, Kylie, Kendall or any of the others seriously like a product; they know they are being paid for it. But they buy it to reduce the social and emotional distance between them and the Kardashians."

No one can deny that the idea of personal privacy has been eroded, thanks in no small part to social media. Cashmore doesn't want to blame or credit the Kardashians with that development, noting that the disappearance of what we used to regard as privacy started back in the 80s with Madonna.

"But it seems clear to me that we no longer have privacy, at least not in the way people over, say, 45 understand it," he says. "People are unafraid to share their most intimate details with people they probably don't know. Social media has supplied the hardware, but we have supplied the content. Kim and the others didn't make this happen; it was already happening when they came along. They merely accelerated it. Kim, in particular, is a totally public person: her followers, in fact all of us, think we know everything there is to know about her. Whether we do or not is irrelevant: we think we do."

Kardashian Kulture grapples with one of the biggest questions surrounding the family. Have the Kardashians and their kind really empowered young women? Is the online narcissism they are famed for seen as a group of beautiful women owning their sexuality?

Or, as many believe, are they complicit in the overall objectification of women, and the reduction of women to their physical selves?

"This is probably the hardest question to answer and I know readers will be equally split," acknowledges Cashmore. "I believe the way we understand empowerment has changed. The kind of power fought for by women in the 1970s has morphed as culture has morphed, and women have either responded or stuck to their guns. In the book, I draw on lots of thoughtful - and some not-so-thoughtful, but still influential - women before I draw my conclusion."

One of the most fascinating things about the Kardashians is the public should certainly have tired of them by now. Yet it has held firm.

"Let's face it, the Kardashians should be past their sell-by date," agrees Cashmore. "They're not. In fact, they still seem box-fresh. Love or hate them, you have to appreciate they have their fingers on the pulse of today's culture and will probably continue to dominate. We will get sick of them; there's no doubt about it. But as we speak, I see no signs of the Kardashians sinking from view.

"They shape-shift all the time - as culture changes, they change," Cashmore surmises. "I have no crystal ball, but my guess is that, in five years' time, we'll still be trying to... well, keep up!"

Kardashian Kulture: How Celebrities Changed Life In The 21st Century by Ellis Cashmore is out now via Emerald Books.

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