It was a late Thursday night and I was casually scrolling through Twitter. “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” had aired its final episode hours earlier. I had missed it, but the amount of condescending commentary I saw on my Twitter timeline rubbed me the wrong way. And I thought: “Are y’all really gonna make me defend the Kardashians?”
After 14 years, 20 seasons, over 250 episodes and 13 spin-offs, The Kardashian era on E! network came to an end on June 10. Many on Twitter expressed pride in never having seen an episode of the cultural phenomenon and slammed reality’s First Family.
Comedian and writer Guy Branum’s tweet perfectly expressed the off-putting feeling I got from these comments: “Bragging about how you don’t know who the Kardashians are is my least favorite posturing. Cultural illiteracy doesn’t mean you’re smart.”
Even though I am a pop culture junkie, I also have never seen an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” In fact, I used to be one of those haters. During the height of the “famous for being famous” era, I was highly critical of the woman famous for being in a sex tape with Brandy’s brother and her sisters riding her coattails for their own 15 minutes of fame.
But over the past several years, I’ve really come to respect the Kardashian-Jenner family, especially Kim Kardashian. They made significant contributions to pop culture and their influence on culture in general is undeniable.
The Kardashian legacy has been thoroughly examined in recent months. Even the New York Times noted that “the influence of ‘K.U.W.T.K.’ on celebrity, beauty, entrepreneurship and status can be seen on magazine covers and social media, in shopping malls and e-commerce and on people’s faces.”
I glossed over all of it. Then my aversion to all things Kardashian slowly began to wane. It may have been around 2012 when Kanye West entered their orbit. Love him or hate him, West is a lyrical genius with a lasting imprint on music and the entertainment industry. I had to accept the fact that Kim was now breathing the same air as Queen Bey (Beyonce).
Kim’s Forbes magazine cover in 2016 sold the deal. The “mobile moguls” issue featured celebrities that had amassed a fortune through mobile apps. And Kim was atop the list. She had reportedly pocketed $45 million from her game, “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.” The cover piece highlighted her deep involvement in the continued development of the game, meticulous about everything from clothing to eyeliner. She was literally playing the Hollywood game and winning.
“#NotBadForAGirlWithNoTalent,” Kim tweeted when the Forbes magazine was released.
I respected the hustle Kim and her family had to achieve international fame and run successful businesses. They were the first to really monetize themselves in a digital and social-media driven era and build an empire. This takes business acumen. And it’s clear that the five sisters and Rob Kardashian — remember Arthur George socks — have inherited their momager’s knack for business.
Kris Jenner tucked away any embarrassment she may have held when her favorite daughter’s sex tape leaked in 2007. She saw the opportunity presented by the tabloid interest and pitched a reality show about her family to Ryan Seacrest. It was an instant hit and Kris pushed Kim to talk about the sex tape in the first episode. It was this openness into their lives that viewers — and eventually social media followers — connected with. But it also showed each one of her kids that mama knows best and that she could masterfully navigate the Hollywood landscape and lead them to a billion-dollar pot of gold.
Just three years after Kim’s cover, Kylie Jenner landed her own Forbes cover and was named “the youngest self-made billionaire.” Her company, Kylie Cosmetics, had been valued at $900 million, pushing her total fortune over $1 billion.
(Forbes later reduced Kylie’s billionaire status due to discrepancies in the financial documents she submitted. But Kim made her billionaire debut in 2021 and the Kardashian-Jenner collective net worth is estimated to be $2 billion).
The youngest of the family, Kylie made her “K.U.W.T.K.” debut as a thin-lipped 9-year-old. By her late teens, she had fascinated us all with her sudden plump lips. She monetized the interest and introduced “lip kits” to the world. With a combined social media following of around 770 million, the influence of Kylie’s lips and the Kardashian-Jenner aesthetic on beauty and fashion is evident in virtually every fan and influencer attempting to replicate the Kardashian formula.
However, the Kardashian’s signature contoured make-up and enhanced curves and posteriors can’t be mentioned without acknowledging their cultural appropriation. For over a decade, they have profited from attributes and aesthetics that have long been used to stigmatize Black women. And now women are eagerly paying for plump lips and a plump booty.
“The white mainstream popularization of Black style” by the Kardashian/Jenners, Cady Lang recently noted in Time, “presents a sobering paradox: while it shows that beauty and body standards are shifting as they’ve always done, this change comes by way of white women, ultimately to the detriment of Black women.” They get to profit from Black aesthetics without living the Black experience.
Being repeatedly called out may have inspired Kim to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. In recent years, she has used her platform and connections to bring awareness to prison reform. And it’s been effective. She was instrumental in the clemency of Alice Marie Johsnon, a grandmother in her 60s who had served 20 years for a nonviolent drug offense. Kim works with a team of lawyers to fight for clemency for others, pay the legal fees of clients and appeal to politicians to support reform.
The “Legally Blonde” jokes are easy. But Kim seems sincere in wanting to make a difference. She currently has a four-year apprenticeship at a law firm in California, one of the few states that does not require a degree to take the bar exam. Though she has yet to pass the exams, she remains committed to becoming a lawyer and helping wrongly convicted inmates.
With the exception of both seasons of “I Am Cait” (I tried to support you, girl), I have never seen an episode of “K.U.W.T.K.” or any of its other spin-offs. I wrote them off early on and they have surprisingly turned this critic into a supporter — fan might be pushing it. They’ve earned their place as cultural icons and gave rise to a new form of digital entrepreneurship. Their legacy should not be diminished just because they wear form-fitting clothes and have an annoying penchant to vocal fry.
Put some respect on the Kardashian name.
This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.
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