Loving, hating and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, as the cult show ends

The Kardashian/Jenner clan will be leaving our TV screens, but that doesn't mean its reign is over.

The Kardashian/Jenner clan will be leaving our TV screens, but that doesn't mean its reign is over. Photo: Instagram/Getty

Keeping Up with the Kardashians has announced it will end after its 20th season airs in 2021 – much to the dismay (or delight) of fans (and haters) around the world.

Depending on who you talk to, the Kardashians either represent the first family of popular culture, or talentless, greedy women who would sell their souls to the devil for a pay day.

(In this scenario, the devil may or may not be Kris Jenner.)

Whether you worship the ground they walk on, or can’t stand the sight of them, we cannot deny the fact that since their emergence into mainstream culture the Kardashians have profoundly changed the world.

The female-focused family has kept much of our mainstream media entranced since they burst onto screens in October 2007 (or February 2007 if we count Kim’s foray into the world of adult entertainment).

Dr Jessica Ford, an expert in feminism on screen from the University of Newcastle’s school of humanities and social sciences believes that people love the Kardashian/Jenners for the same reasons they hate them.

“They exemplify a lot of the key things we are anxious about as a society: Consumerism, bodily femininity, hyper femininity and the blending of those,” Dr Ford told The New Daily. 

“You either admire and celebrate their extreme wealth and their extreme performance of wealth. 

“It’s not that they have a lot of money – Bill Gates has a lot of money, it’s that they perform wealthiness.

They’re such a high-profile family unit that is deeply interracial, deeply intergenerational, but there are critiques coming from black communities about the Kardashians’ appropriation of black culture, which are very valid and need to be acknowledged.

“Whenever you see Kim these days, she’s got kids hanging off her … she’s normalising a very different version of motherhood and maternity that we haven’t seen in the past.

“She’s not a Betty Crocker mum.”

The business of making money …

Before the Kardashian obsession, the world was obsessed with Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag on The Hills, and before them it was everyone’s favourite early 2000s socialites-turned-farm girls, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on The Simple Life.

Like their popular culture predecessors, part of the reason the Kardashian/Jenner clan elicit such strong responses from society is the assumption that they are ‘famous for being famous’.

“Lots of people are famous for no reason – why is Gordon Ramsay famous? Why are some chefs famous and others aren’t? Why are some sportspeople famous and others aren’t?” Dr Ford said.

“Why are some reality stars exceedingly famous and others disappear into obscurity or oblivion?

“It has to do with the extent to which they can capture the zeitgeist and capture the cultural imagination of the time.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who researches gender, pop culture and the media at the University of Melbourne’s school of social and political sciences, agrees that the Kardashians’ fame is anything but accidental.

“There’s a naivety in assuming that [fame] just came to these women – well, why these women and not others?” Dr Rosewarne told The New Daily. 

“Once upon a time the paparazzi and the fashion magazines made the money from photographing the beautiful people.

“Here we have a family who have been able to successfully make money off something that people hadn’t in the past, and that in itself is a fascinating business case study, even if you’re not interested in the family.”

Do it for the ’gram

There are many ways the Kardashians have accumulated their wealth, that go beyond their careers in reality television.

You name it, the Kardashian/Jenners have made money from it.

But their metaphorical cash cow is actually much more accessible to us commoners.

“They have really understood the appeal of Instagram, and understood how to use Instagram in ways that a lot of celebrities are only just figuring out now,” Dr Ford said.

“They knew there was an interest in their personal lives, and they knew there was an interest in how they constructed themselves – either through fashion, or make-up, or through filters, or shapewear – they knew there was a fascination there and they really capitalised on that through social media in a way that maybe more traditional movie stars have yet to even figure out how to do.

“Reese Witherspoon is figuring it out, but she is nowhere near the kind of cultural penetration that Kylie Jenner has managed to amass.”

Their impressive, billion-dollar empire didn’t just fall into their Gucci-clad laps, but required a keen understanding of what people want to see and how to monetise it.

Talentless or trendsetters?

More than their enormous wealth, the Kardashians have also had a notable and pervasive influence on our standards of beauty and consumer trends.

Although they are as equally known as style influencers as they are for their appropriation of other cultures, the Kardashians have undoubtedly altered our perceptions of femininity, beauty and family dynamics.

“They don’t comply to the standards of beauty that, up until that time, we had in society,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“Now the flip side is that much of the demonisation of them was caricatures of body parts and … commentary on the amount of work that was needed to get them to look that way. 

“But that’s also part of their appeal: These women have shown us what work goes into looking that way.

“Be it the waist-trainers, the slimming tea, the exercise routines, the extensive and elaborate make-up routines – all of this shows the work of looking the way they look.

It’s not as though they’re saying, ‘I just woke up like this’. They’re not selling that image. They’re selling the image of laborious and expensive beauty regimes and femininity regimes.

But the end of the long-running reality show will have little impact on their brand and notoriety.

Whether you see them as style icons, or women who made millions ripping off the cultures of marginalised communities, the Kardashians are here to stay.

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