February 5, 2021 | Arts and Culture
a reason to love the internet today
the kritique and mystique of @Kardashian_Kolloquium
The Instagram post shows an image of Kris Jenner, matriarch and momager, standing with arms on hips, wearing stripes, a beret, red suspenders, and classic (except for the burgundy lipstick) mime makeup. Above her, a title reads: “‘Life on a Stage or Staged Life? The Chicken or the Egg Dilemma of Reality and Unreality on Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ Calabasas University Press (2018).” The poster, @kardashian_kolloquium (note the “k” in “kolloquium”) writes in the caption: “The visibly genuine affinity @krisjenner has for clowns and mimes I somehow find to be very illustrative of this fairly abstract concept.”
I have stumbled across the post by chance and some successful algorithm-targeting on the part of my digital overlords. Though my interest is piqued, I’m puzzled. What, I ask myself, is this? According to the account’s bio, this is: “A Kompendium of notes/reflections/theories [brain emoji] [peach emoji] Researched by @mjcorey Works Cited: Hulu, E Network, et al.” The best description I can come up with is a series of academic theses in various stages of planning, ranging from mere titles to elaborations so long they surpass Instagram’s caption word-limit and must be continued in the comments. The topic of the theses, of course, is in the Instagram’s title.
As of November 2, the account has 10,000 followers, a milestone celebrated in the caption of a video clip taken from an early season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK), in which Scott Disick is out day-drinking in Las Vegas and slurring his words. The subtitles read: “Yello! Wouldn’t mind a little drink here. Not talking to you, Balzac.” As @mjcorey, the sole owner and author of the page and a self-proclaimed millennial cat-lover, lesbian, writer, and psychotherapist from Brooklyn, deftly points out:
“Either he said ‘ball-sack,’ and Hulu closed captioning interpreted it as the French novelist whose stylistic fusion of romanticism and realism anticipated literary modernism – or Scott really did inexplicably call that unsuspecting stranger ‘Balzac.’ Either way, an absurdist win.”
As a long time KUWTK-watcher (I’m still unsure if I wish to identify as a fan), as well as a Modern Culture and Media concentrator and borderline-Gen-Z member of Ivy League academia, I could not be more smack in the middle of @kardashian_kolloquium’s target audience. Any MCM student at Brown can tell you that the world carries meaning even in the most inconspicuous places. In the words of French semiotician Roland Barthes, “the cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry-detergent commercials and comic-strip character[s]”—and by the Kardashians. As one might suspect, finding @kardashian_kolloquium was the moment I had prepared for all my life.
The Kardashian-Jenner family and their reality-TV show KUWTK, now in its twentieth and last season, are a touchy subject. This is surprising if one considers that all the Kardashian women appear to be, are a group of women capitalizing on their beauty and lifestyle via mass media—a description that applies to an entire industry of model-it-girls, influencers, and YouTubers. It is all the more astonishing in light of their immense following online and the fact that KUWTK remains one of Variety’s 100 most-watched TV shows of the 2019-2020 season.
To my parents, the Kardashians represent the ultimate perversion of 21st century celebrity culture. Either famous for being famous, or famous for an impressively explicit sextape, their wealth and status lack traditional justification. Watching the show, according to my mother, kills brain cells.
To many of my friends, the Kardashians are equally distasteful. Everything the family embodies can be summarized by the word “problematic” in the year 2020. They are cultural appropriation repeat-offenders and engage in black-fishing. They continuously promote diet culture for profit, all the while championing the famous, surgically-enhanced “Kardashian figure” which has become America’s current beauty standard.
Then there was the reveal that “Kylie Jenner lips,” which were sold to fans in the form of lipsticks (and harshly judged after the emergence of the “Kylie Jenner lip challenge”), were the product of lip fillers. There was Kendall’s notoriously inappropriate Pepsi commercial, Kim’s husband Kanye’s Trump endorsement and, recently, his own presidential campaign, in the course of which he publicly revealed he had wanted to abort the pregnancy which produced their daughter North (as a result of which the couple is reportedly in the process of getting a divorce). There was Caitlyn Jenner’s car crash resulting in the death of another driver, the revenge porn Robert Kardashian posted of the mother of his child, Blac Chyna, and, of course, the immortal rumor that Kim’s sex tape wasn’t revenge porn itself at all, but a marketing ploy devised by her mother Kris (as we like to say on the internet, “the devil works hard but Kris Jenner works harder”)—the list of offenses, amassed over the better part of the last two decades, is almost infinite.
You see why I hesitate to call myself a fan. But despite the disapproval of boomers and the ethical condemnation of millennials, the Kardashian-Jenner clan have indisputably achieved success of gargantuan proportions (a quick Google search will tell you all about Kylie’s latest controversy, which alleges she doctored her Forbes net worth to be one billion, instead of just under 900 million). I have yet to meet anyone at all, including my German, octogenarian grandparents, who haven’t heard of them. They are the closest thing to omnipresent, besides (perhaps) Beyoncé, that currently exists in American culture. I cannot help but find them fascinating.
I often find myself doubting, for example, whether Kim and Kanye’s family photoshoots, which are also unofficial Yeezy advertisements, have crossed the boundary into capitalist-materialist performance art. I had a near-existential crisis about the nature of education in the 21st century when I realized I’d learned more about giving birth from Kourtney and Khloe’s televised labours than from three years of sex-ed. And who could forget the cultural impact of Caitlyn Jenner’s public coming out in 2015 as a 65-year-old medically transitioned transgender woman on the cover of Vanity Fair?
For @kardashian_kolloquium, unpacking all this is a playful yet undeniably intellectual calling. The page’s content ranges from new media theory analyses of the show and psychoanalytic readings of the family’s dynamics, to speculative dissection of their marketing strategies. On a paparazzi photo of Kim and Kanye arguing in a drive-thru after the aforementioned abortion-debacle, the account comments:
“Our roles elevate from ‘audience’ to inspectors of authenticity […] the fundamental formula of the show’s power is its #dialectics […] It’s possible that these photos are both real and staged at the same time. If that’s true, what does it mean to us?”
The caption of a screenshot of the news story “Kylie Jenner keeps Kris Jenner’s personal wax figure at her house” reflects on the family’s comfort with the uncanny, writing: “The #adlerian psychotherapist in me wants to point out that it is the #baby of the family who keeps a figure of the #mother in her home.” Finally, the academic examination of the Kardashian-phenomenon (or -simulacrum, in @kardashian_kolloquium’s terms) that it deserves.
Though the account’s number of followers is relatively low, especially by Kardashian standards, it has found a dedicated and engaged fan base. The page could easily be a pseudo-publishing house for the creator’s takes, but instead acts more as a discourse forum for a group of interested part-time cultural critics. The comment section is frequently the place of dynamic civil discussion. In an Instagram poll depicting a 1950s craft-making book which remarks on the uniting potential of a parent-child “project in doll making,” MJ asks: “Did Kris and Kim uniquely and deeply bond while co-creating Kim’s image?” 93% of respondents voted “Yes.” Follower @alixzbee comments:
“When a mother helps create the doll of desire, there’s so much less fear of shame, because it’s a joint birth between mother and daughter, fostering/valuing/supporting the new identity. […] An iconic empire built on familial support systems is a fairly unique narrative outside of royalty.”
Ever since I first became co-admin of a Harry Potter Facebook fan page bizarrely named “I’m holey Fred, get it?” – George Weasley at the age of thirteen, I have loved the internet. Going online, to me, feels like being a child let loose in the Grand Canyon—the freedom and abundance of potential discoveries are exhilarating! @kardashian_kolloquium illustrates what the internet can make possible. Not everyone, of course, is interested in earnest intellectual discussion of the Kardashians, nor in the occasional existential Kardashian memes the page provides. But if an interest so niche can give rise to stimulating and inspiring discussion, and to something which I can confidently call a community, then anyone can find what they’re looking for online: discourse, the self, imagined realities. Though the internet often breeds the bad and the ugly, @kardashian_kolloquium convinces me it can equally breed the good, the beautiful, and the fun.