Are The Kardashians Really Entering Their Flop Era?

Breaking the internet isn't as easy as it used to be. Words by Reena Gupta

By Reena Gupta, 26/5/2023

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It wasn’t long ago that The Kardashian family permeated every aspect of American culture and, as is the law of the land, bled into Australian culture, too. 

The Kardashians were inescapable. If you’re a person who’s been alive in the 2010s then it’s unlikely you’ve been able to live a life without hearing about them – I, at least, have definitely tried. But their impact on our broader culture, whether on fashion, surgery trends, make-up routines, or body ideals, has been wide-reaching and unrelenting. But in 2023, is their influence starting to wane? Could a world without the Kardashians actually be possible?

Is Backlash Against The Kardashians On The Up? 

A lot has gone down lately to suggest that the Kardashians’ currency could be dropping in value. Kim Kardashian whipped up controversy when she boasted about speedily losing weight to get into Marilyn Monroe’s dress at last year’s Met Gala, amassing criticism from dieticians, historians, Marilyn Monroe dress fans, and more. She also drew an impressive round of pushback when footage of her saying that women in business need to “get [their] fucking ass up and work” in an interview in Variety, a call to a brand of feminism that prizes ‘hard work’ to the point of near delusion.

Then there was Kylie Jenner’s outfit at the 2023 Schiaparelli couture runway – you know, the one where she was schlepping around the head of a (fake) lion. Her appearance attracted criticism for glamorising trophy hunting, and while I maintain that a lion’s real head would’ve really brought the point home, a good round of outrage still ensued. Memorably, her half-sister Kourtney Kardashian, also copped heat for partnering as a sustainability ambassador for the fast fashion brand Boohoo, which, given the Kardashian family’s reputation for being one big environmental red flag, didn’t go down too well.

But what’s actually the expectation, here? That we all evolved so profoundly during the pandemic that we’re collectively going to decide that the Kardashians are actually quite bad, after all? Because as far as I can tell, none of us have really learnt anything. It’s been almost three years since COVID-19 was at its crest. If the Kardashians were going to disappear, wouldn’t they have gone by now?

To be fair, the pandemic may have done some damage to the Kardashians’ particular brand of excess, where Kim’s tweet about jetting off to a private island during the depths of the pandemic — where she and her “inner circle” could “pretend things were normal for just a brief moment in time” — made people very, very angry. It also inspired a very funny meme.

So to some degree, the pandemic did do damage to the Kardashians’ trademark brand. But with respect, aren’t the nature of the family as “not serious people” kind of the basis of their appeal?

“We need to keep in mind that social algorithms flourish in negative or conflict-oriented engagement,” MJ Corey, a psychotherapist who uses media theory to analyse the Kardashian empire, told Vulture. And while an uptick of social consciousness in 2020 could have brought about a “greater sense of urgency”, being ridiculous is arguably what the Kardashians do. “Scandal has fuelled the Kardashians’ journey to where they are now,” she said, “and I believe it will keep them there.”

A Shift Away From Bodily Fame 

In October this year, Kim Kardashian will turn 43. As we know, she’s worked hard over the years to amass fame and fortune by single-handedly selling an ideal of beauty and womanhood that can be summarised by Jia Tolentino’s phrase, “rootless exoticism”. But as she moves through her 40s and beauty trends shift towards a more ‘natural’ look favoured by Gen Zs, she’ll become visually less marketable.

Kim obviously knows this, which may explain why she’s pivoting into the role of businesswoman. Late last year, she made moves in zhuzhing up her business empire by launching a private equity firm, which as of this year has already hired a dozen employees. Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2022, her viral shapewear brand SKIMS hit a net worth of $3.2 billion.

Corey stressed that the power of the Kardashians isn’t on decline, but in transition. The family still, she notes, has a total of a billion followers on Instagram – more than 10 percent of the global population – not to mention billions of actual dollars. “They’ve got the capital,” Corey explained. “As far as the influencer economy goes, they’ve got social capital.”

And while the hyper-curated world of The Kardashians is a far cry from the halcyon days of Keeping Up The Kardashians (Scott Disick, anyone?), their presence on reality TV isn’t really as crucial as it used to be. After all, they’re already famous. Describing their TV ventures, Corey says their presence on reality TV is basically just an ad. “It’s connective tissue to all their different stories, their different endeavours, and their enterprises but it’s really just a commercial. It’s always been a commercial, but it’s a commercial for Kardashian brands, which are very successful.”

So while the Kardashians probably won’t leave us in peace anytime soon, what could shift is the kind of influence that they have. They will still wield huge financial power but hopefully Kim Kardashian’s infamous bodily modifications, whether she decides to be skinny or curvy, white or brown, will not shape the aspirational aesthetics and disordered eating patterns of an entire generation. A girl can dream.

Still, I can’t help but notice a sudden whiff of desperation in just about everything that the Kardashians do. From Kim’s recent transformation to being skinny and blonde, to Kourtney Kardashian’s marriage to Travis Barker being milked for everything it’s worth (exactly how many times will these two tie the knot?), to Kendall Jenner getting her whole bum out at this year’s Met Gala, the Kardashians seem anything but secure about still being relevant in the years to come. Breaking the internet ain’t as easy as it used to be.

As Season 3 of The Kardashians drops in Australia this week, a week after the news that Season 4’s been renewed for 20 episodes, it’s hard to imagine the Kardashian machine breaking down. But this could just be dumb luck — as writers strikes continue in the US, it’s unsurprising that networks would be scrambling to pump out episodes of reality TV. Memorably, the 2007 writers’ strikes made way for the success of The Celebrity Apprentice – a reality show spin-off that established Donald Trump as a bona fide celebrity. Many say that this was what paved the way for Trump to become President a decade later. So who knows what fresh hell a new season of The Kardashians will bring?

Reena Gupta is Junkee’s Deputy Editor. Follow her on Twitter @purpletank.

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