Reality Television, although greatly fabricated by producers for social appeal and entertainment ratings, acts as a very explicit window into the lives of elite members of society that dictate the popular culture of that society. For consumers of western media, there are no pop cultural icons bigger than The Kardashians. The TV Show Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been documenting the lives of sisters Kim, Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, and their other immediate family, for the past eleven years. Each episode is filled with rich ethnographic insight into modern American pop culture, family structures, gender roles et cetera.
For the scope of my essay, I have chosen to analyse the first five minutes of the fourth episode of the thirteenth season (S13E04) titled ‘The Aftermath’, aired on March 26th 2017. In the onset of the episode, before the title sequence, we are shown a scene from ‘Khloe’s House’ in Los Angeles, where Khloe Kardashian, the youngest Kardashian Daughter, is seen sitting and chatting with her younger brother Rob Kardashian and her older sister Kourtney Kardashian’s ex-husband, Scott Disick. Within the first minute of the episode, we are shown a conversation between the three that is heavy in expletives, and sexually explicit in nature about Rob and his girlfriend with whom he is having a child. We are thus portrayed a joking relationship between Khloe and her brother, as well her ex-brother-in-law. The fact that Khloe is friendly with her ex-brother-in-law itself depicts how taboos against divorce are slowly evaporating in western culture. That is not the only non-traditional value we witness about marriage in the first minute of the episode, as we also learn that Rob’s girlfriend, Blac Chyna, the soon to be mother of his child, is African American, whereas the Kardashians are of white European descent. We see that this modern, iconic, American family does not adhere to racial endogamy nor do they follow the tradition of having children within monogamous, legitimate marriages.
The next three minutes of the episode take place in a shooting location for a photoshoot of previously shown Khloe Kardashian and her youngest step-sister Kylie Jenner. The scene is full of professional make-up artists and hair stylists surrounding Khloe who is seated in front of a dresser. This is the image that consumers of media typically associate the Kardashian clan with, as rich girls who spend all their day indulging in artificial self-beautification and being used to promote consumer goods. The T.V. show certainly glamorizes the lifestyle of such celebrities by portraying them in position of luxury, however, from the conversation in the scene we are given details about Khloe’s personal life that again normalizes her as ‘any other person’ whom the audience can relate to. We see Khloe sitting in her chair during her hair and makeup practicing Spanish for her Spanish classes. She is also surrounded by friends, and they make mundane conversation about Spanish lessons. It is revealed that the photoshoot is for Khloe’s own clothing line, ‘Good American’ that makes denim-wear for a diverse range of sizes, that are conventionally called ‘plus size’ in mainstream commerce. In this scene, Khloe who was earlier shown in a family / home environment, is depicted as a powerful businesswoman who also wants to make a social statement about body expectations from women through her work. This portrays the increasing feminism in American culture, and shows that some women (of course with privilege) have the chance for social mobility and reach spaces, such as business, dominated by men.
The entire episode (and T.V. show) is in fact very feminist, contrary to popular belief (Dumas 2011, “Michelle Obama on vanity, chocolate and how the President doesn’t like daughters to watch the Kardashians," Daily Mail UK, October 19, 2011). It is easy to mistake the glorification of make-up and sex for misogyny, however, through the show, and even in the first five minutes of this episode, we are constantly shown a family that is quite matriarchal in action, despite being patriarchal in technicality. For example, even though the Kardashian sisters have inherited their biological father’s last name, all the property shown in the show is owned by the female members of the Kardashian family. When there is a shot of Khloe’s house, the shot is titled “KHLOE’S HOUSE,” similarly, Kris Jenner, their mother, owns the main family house, and all of her daughters own and live in their own property. The house that is inhabited by Kim Kardashian (the second daughter of the Kardashian family, and the most famous), her husband Kanye West and their two (in later seasons, three) children, is also owned by Kim and depicted in the show as “KIM’S HOUSE.” The entertainment empire that the family runs is also managed by Kris Jenner, and not some male member of the Kardashian clan.
Right after the professional photoshoot scene charged with female empowerment, we are shown a scene from ‘Kourtney’s House’ with Kourtney Kardashian and Kim Kardashian West, the two oldest Kardashian sisters. They are shown in the kitchen playing with North West, the daughter of Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West. This is a scene that the audience would be able to relate to about mundane domestic life. Here Kim is seen playing the conventional role of a mother to her daughter, she helps her open a bottle of juice, and encourages her daughter to share juice with her “Auntie Kourtney.” We witness traditional that celebrities popular for their unconventional and ‘immoral’ lifestyles, actually uphold the same traditional family values in their private lives. They use the same kinship terms, and fulfil the roles of socializing their children into cooperative social and family life. Kourtney and Kim in this scene talk about their children, Kourtney discusses her son’s life at school, and Kim discusses how she would like to have more kids. We are thus brought to realize that females who can be empowered in public spaces can also willingly choose to conform to traditional domestic roles within the home. This concludes the first five minutes of S13E04 of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
The first five minutes themselves took the audience through the major current life events of the three Kardashian sisters, as well as their brothers and their step-sisters. It combined their private lives and their professional lives, depicting different roles played by them in different spaces of society. Contrary to the popular opinion that the T.V. show is a negative portrayal of the female gender, the episode actually portrayed women in many positions of power. It further demonstrated the mechanics of modern family structures such as live-in relationships, inter-race marriage et cetera. Further, it showed family ties between siblings, and gave somewhat the essence of a modern family-run business through the cooperation between Khloe and Kylie.
Seacrest, Ryan, prod. 2017. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Season 9, Episode 04, "The Aftermath.” 28/03/2017, E! Entertainment. https://www1.fmovies.se/film/keeping-up-with-the-kardashians-13.ojy8z/2xlqy4