Keeping up with the Kardashians no more: the complicated legacy of reality’s first family

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
(L-R) Corey Gamble, Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian-West, Kanye West, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott arrive for the 2019 Met Gala celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)
(L-R) Corey Gamble, Kris Jenner, Kim Kardashian-West, Kanye West, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott arrive for the 2019 Met Gala celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)
  • Like all prominent figures, the Kardashians are hated and loved, as well as emulated and despised.
  • In addition to informing perceptions of motherhood, the Kardashians have had a huge impact on perceptions of womanhood and notions of beauty.
  • The show may be ending but the Kardashians will certainly continue make headlines. 

The Kardashians, particularly Kim, have been at the centre of cultural debates and controversies for 13 years. Like all important figures, they are hated and loved, respected and mocked, emulated and despised. They have influenced major contemporary debates and will leave a lasting and complicated legacy of social change.

READ MORE: A quick timeline of Kim Kardashian's cultural appropriation antics 

When the show first aired in late 2007, the world was introduced to a family of six women and two men, headed up by self-titled “Momager”, Kris Jenner. The family is a matriarchy — and many critics dislike this intensely.

Kris is repeatedly characterised as a kind of wicked witch, exploiting her children for her gain. But her presentation as a strong matriarch and businesswoman is an important part of the Kardashian legacy. As the seasons rolled out, men became less and less important to the storylines. Now, each sister except Kendall has embraced motherhood and, as their partners and husbands have come and in some cases gone, they continue this matriarchal power in their own families.

Kylie Jenner

Kylie Jenner. Getty Images/Gallo Images 

Kylie Jenner, the youngest, chose to become a single mother at 20, and in the same year emerged as a business mogul via her Kylie Cosmetics brand, with a net worth of $900 million (about R14.8 billion). (She was named youngest self-made billionaire by Forbes but that has since changed.)

READ MORE: Did Kylie Jenner lie about being a billionaire? Forbes revelations, forgery claims, her response 

The pairing of single motherhood and great financial success – two statistically contradictory things – sends a radical message about motherhood and autonomy.

Since the show began, many new little Kardashians have appeared. These offspring have helped to normalise modes of conception not normally discussed publicly via what popular culture academic Kim Allen calls “mediated maternity”. This is the media focus on celebrity pregnancy and birth via images and stories.

Kim and Kourtney Kardashian have given birth on television, and Kim’s youngest children came about via surrogate. Khloé Kardashian has frozen her eggs and Kylie Jenner planned motherhood independent of marriage or even partnering at the age of 20.

The Kardashian body

As well as changing perceptions of what it means to be and become a mother, the family has had a huge impact on perceptions of womanhood – particularly notions of beauty.

The global idea of the “perfect” mainstream woman’s body was, until recently, narrowed (although not limited) to tall, stick-thin, blonde and white. This ideal was impossible for most women to emulate.

READ MORE: Kim Kardashian criticised for dressing dark-skinned model in black face mask for 'nude' SKIMS promo 

Now, in 2020, the pendulum of perception has swung away from that and rests firmly on a more curvaceous archetype of womanliness. Along with Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian has certainly been a leading driver of this change – not so much by advocating it but by embodying it.

From the very beginning of the show, Kim was proud of her butt and breasts. The media scholar Alexandra Sastre has written that Kim’s body is “a site where both her ‘realness’ and artificiality lie” – the realness coming from her natural curves, the artificiality from her embrace of various glamorous enhancements.

Although they may have changed body ideals, trying to closely emulate the Kardashians’ bodies and faces can still be oppressive. Their looks have dramatically morphed over the years and this promotes its own damaging ideals.

The Kardashian body style, in its current form, is difficult to achieve without continual grooming, dieting and gym work, as well as various plastic surgeries. While, in some ways, it is perhaps more accessible, it too has created unrealistic body ideals and pressure to emulate the trademark skinny waist, big butt body ideal.

That said, fashion and beauty academic Gemma Cobb has noted that Kendall Jenner, the supermodel sister, is lauded for her thinness and compared favourably to her sisters.

READ MORE: 10 new beauty brands and ranges launched by the Kardashian/Jenner sisters in 2019 alone 

Social media queens

Much of the Kardashians’ ability to shape perceptions of beauty have been bolstered by their adept use of platforms like Instagram. They were early adopters of social media and have amassed millions of followers, to the point where the television show now plays second string to their Insta feeds.

They were at the forefront of making social media our most important communication tool and their brands are envied by the business world. Kylie’s is particularly notable, as she was able to leverage her huge Instagram following (nearly 190 million) into a successful beauty empire – with nearly every product becoming an almost-instant sellout.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 13 : Kim Kardashian speaks w

Kim Kardashian speaking at The White House, during an event on second-chance hiring programs for felons following incarceration. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images 

The show may be ending but the Kardashians will certainly continue to dominate cultural conversations. Kim, in particular, will keep making headlines, but maybe not the ones most expected, as other recent news shows.

Kim has become a strong advocate for criminal justice reform. She has used her influence to gain direct access to Trump and start conversations about reforming the incarceration system. Most notably she helped several women get their sentences commuted. She is also studying for a law degree and plans to set up her own law firm.

While her husband is the one currently running for office, it is not such a far-fetched idea that she too one day will enter the political arena. The U.S. currently has a reality star for president, and Kim K is certainly far more qualified, liked, aware of social issues, and connected to contemporary concerns than the incumbent.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.  

Follow us on social media: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Sign up to W24’s newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our stories and giveaway.

The Conversation

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
23% - 1172 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
9% - 455 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
49% - 2526 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
1% - 68 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
18% - 913 votes