Break the Internet Kim Kardashian

The Kardashian-Jenner Expository Empire

15 minutes to read
Bibi Bonten


In the past few years, social media has become a very real and important part of our lives. As boyd (2010, p. 93) points out, “[s]ocial media has affected how people interact with one another and, thus, it has the potential to alter how society is organized”. Recently, an entirely new sector of careers has risen to the (online) surface of our society: the influencer profession. Thanks to social media, the word influencer has acquired a new meaning within a short period of time: an influencer is now “someone who affects or changes the way that other people behave, for example through their use of social media(Cambridge Business English Dictionary).

A multitude of individuals are now earning a living off of their online media presence, through the promotion of various brands and products to the thousands, or millions, of followers on their platform oftentimes Instagram, which counted one billion active users already back in June 2018 (Statista, 2019). They share their lives with the world in the form of online content, and in return get many admirers and sometimes even business deals out of it.

Kardashians and the origins of influencers

The rise of the influencer phenomenon is an intriguing and complex development with various social and commercial aspects and implications, which need to be considered. Identifying how some of the first influencers have managed to build up their careers online might be the first key to understanding the social developments which have taken place in the past few years.

Perhaps the most well-known family of influencers in the world is the Kardashian family. Their lives are closely followed by millions each day, and the family members present themselves on social media on a frequent basis. It is not necessarily for the Kardashians' special talents that millions tuned in for the first season of their show Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWTK); it is for their lives and how they live them, their looks, personal matters, relationships, drama, emotions, careers, and so on. In short, they are famous for merely being who they are, and for seemingly sharing everything they do in their very existence.

Their empire-creation would not have been as successful if they were not "The Kardashians". This identity label made them who they are, and made people interested in them for it, from the first moment of their success with KUWTK in 2007. Sixteen seasons later, it seems that people are still highly interested in them despite them not being famous for any specific talents, as some would argue.

This paper discusses how the Kardashians and their careers can be seen as a representation of the changing approach to and the valuing of, presenting oneself. I will also discuss the way in which they have set the stage for influencers to emerge, and reflect on the social changes regarding privacy and publicity that contribute to the effects of (online) celebrity presence and influence.

The Kardashian history

Before their reality series Keeping Up With The Kardashians, parents Robert Kardashian and his ex-wife Kris Jenner both already had some connections in Hollywood; America knew Robert Kardashian through the televised OJ Simpson trial of 1994 and 1995. Their daughter Kim Kardashian became a stylist for Hollywood stars at the age of 24, and worked her way up to be Paris Hilton’s "clothing assistant", appearing briefly folding clothes and doing other chores in Hilton’s reality show, which aired back in 2006. Kim and her sisters Kourtney and Khloe opened a luxury clothing store in California in July 2006. In February 2007, Kim's sextape was leaked, catapulting her to fame, and Keeping Up With The Kardashians aired for the first time in October 2007. Kris Jenner succesfully pitched the reality TV concept to Ryan Seacrest: Her family life with husband Bruce Jenner and their 6 kids, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob Kardashian, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner. That was the start of their success. In December 2007, Kim debuted in Playboy, and less than half a year later the TV-series was renewed thanks to its high ratings. Conveniently for the family, this ascent towards fame occurred in the same time frame as the emergence of social media.

"Whereas we once viewed privacy and dignity as necessary ingredients for a fulfilling life […], today we tend to view them as market goods, as commodities that are to  be bought or sold in a marketplace."

One might say that the Kardashian's reality show was an attempt "to reclaim the copyright of their own lives" (Koskela, 2004, p. 206) after Kim's tape leaked; to undo the negative image attached to the Kardashian name, which was created by the press. At the same time, "[t]he choice to present one's private life publicly can be understood as a form of exhibitionism." (Koskela, 2004, p. 205) Exhibitionism refers to "extravagant behaviour that is intended to attract attention to oneself" (Lexico by Oxford). In the era of social media, this practice seems to have become more common, and the Kardashians have arguably done some things that might be seen as forms of exhibitionism such as Kim's sex tape, the publishing of semi-nude content, and their openness with regards to private matters. This can be seen as part of broader societal developments, as described by Harcourt (2015, p. 167): 

Whereas we once viewed privacy and dignity as necessary ingredients for a fulfilling life, as basic human needs, […], today we tend to view them as market goods, as commodities that are to be bought or sold in a marketplace. This has coincided with a larger shift toward a neoliberal worldview, in which market rationalities dominate every sphere of life, including the social and personal. We have begun to think of ourselves, more and more, as calculating, rational actors pursuing our self-interest by means of cost-benefit analyses that convert practically every good into commoditized form. This way of thinking and behaving has had tangible effects, not least on our valuation of privacy, autonomy, and anonymity.

KUWTK season 1

The Expository Society

Celebrities generally face more social pressure than individuals with a mundane lifestyle, as their lives and actions are constantly viewed through a magnifying glass. With constant publicity, the private life diffuses with the public one; especially in the case of reality TV stars, who are, at the core, famous for their lives. There is thus an extra pressure to remain in control of one's image, to maintain an image that’s good for them and to remain relevant as trendsetters, in order to maintain or increase one's level of fame and income.

In the case of the Kardashians, a fitting example of this is when Kim Kardashians’ sex tape was released. There was considerable commotion and publicity around the tape, and a lingering question was whether the leak was planned or not. An article by Coleman from Page Six, The Kim Kardashian sex tape: An oral history (2017) shares the history of what exactly happened: while "Steven Kurtz, an attorney representing Kardashian, [first] file[d] a suit against Vivid Entertainment LA in an attempt to prevent [the tape's] release", eventually the suit was settled and Kardashian sold the footage to Vivid Entertainment so that they could distribute it. "I can only say that it's the most popular tape we've ever done", said Steven Hirsch, the founder and co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment (Coleman, 2017).

Kim Kardashian was not famous before the sex tape despite small successes. But this was the moment which did make her a superstar, just like the name of the tape, "Kim Kardashian, Superstar", predicted.

This relates back to the quote from Harcourt (2015) above, pointing to the changing values of privacy, autonomy and anonymity, and how we tend to view them as goods that are to be bought and sold. Harcourt calls our present-day society the "expository society", and explains that "[t]he birth of the expository society has gone hand in hand with a gradual erosion of the analog values we once prized — privacy, autonomy, some anonymity, secrecy, dignity, a room of one’s own, the right to be let alone" (Harcourt, 2015, p. 166).

Kim Kardashian was not famous before the sex tape despite small successes. But this was the moment which did make her a superstar, just like the name of the tape, "Kim Kardashian, Superstar", predicted. Even though there were efforts to prevent the tape from coming out at first, as Hirsch describes, the commotion and gossip caused an increase in demand for the tape, and thus an increase in the value of a deal for both parties. Kim took matters in her own hands (maybe without feeling like she had much of a choice), and made the deal. By signing off the tape, yet denying doing so, Kim seemed to have found herself a "fair deal": as Coleman (2017) shares, "Reports at the time claimed Kardashian was paid $5 million".

"To be more seen is not always to be less powerful. By rebelling against the shame embedded in the conception of the private, people refuse to be humble."

One way in which this can be understood is in the context of what Koskela (2004) has called "empowering exhibitionism". As Koskela (2004, p. 199, emphasis in the original) points out, "[t]o be more seen is not always to be less powerful. By rebelling against the shame embedded in the conception of the private, people refuse to be humble”. She (ibid.) further explains that “[b]y revealing their intimate lives, people are liberated from shame and the ‘need' to hide’" This, according to Koskela, amounts to' empowering exhibitionism, which is all about reclaiming the copyright of one’s own life" (ibid.). It entails "a 'notion of self-ownership'" (Mann, 2002, p. 533) as one seeks to be a subject rather than an object. The logic is simple: "if practically anyone else can circulate one’s images, why not do it oneself" (Koskela, 2004, p. 206). In the "expository society" as described by Harcourt (2015) above, where privacy and dignity become market commodities, it is easy to see how Kim Kardashian's sex tape functions as a tool for empowering exhibitionism with empowerment meant here in the financial sense.

But this level of private exposure also comes with a different kind of price. The world had a lot to say about Kim Kardashian's sex tape. In an interview with Oprah in 2012, Kim denied putting the tape out there herself, and talks about the shame and humiliation she had felt, very much so for her family, because of it. However, she does admit the tape is how she "was introduced to the world" (Oprah Winfrey Network, 2012). Thanks to their show KUWTK, the Kardashians were able to regain their control over their images (to an extent). It was a chance for them to display who they are and what they do; a limited edition insight, which the gossip magazines did not provide. It was a way to share their lives in a more positive light, reclaiming the copyright over themselves. In the period after the first season of KUWTK, the expansion of social media also proved to be the perfect platform for the Kardashian family to boost their careers. Perfume lines, spin-offs, shops, and multiple seasons of KUWTK followed as a start  and a lot more has followed in the years after.



One further development was Kim Kardashian "breaking the internet" by posing with her exposed, uncensored backside on the cover of Paper Magazine, and becaming "one of the most influential people of 2015" on Time Magazine’s "100 most influential people" list. Kim received the first-ever Influencer Award from the American Council of Fashion Designers at its annual ceremony. In 2018, Kylie, the youngest Kardashian-Jenner sister, and Kim were 'crowned the World’s Global Ultra-Influencers  for 2018, outranking Meghan Markle, the Royal celebrity who was marrying prince Harry that year. (Newbold, 2018)

Younger sister Kylie Jenner stepped into Kim’s footsteps at a young age. In addition to her shared KUWTK fame, she has built her image largely through social media platforms Snapchat and Instagram, and has managed to create her own business through these online platforms. Kylie’s lip kits, which were promoted through the social platforms, sold out within the first two minutes after their launch. A few years later, she is the youngest self-made billionaire ever, according to Forbes (Robehmed, 2019). She certainly made a success out of her online lifestyle, the promotion of other brands, and starting her own business with millions following and liking her style on social media. Currently, the two sisters have almost 300 million followers on Instagram combined (as of August 2019). They have set the tone for many to follow their online approach. Thus, it is safe to say they are some of the first to have earned the label of social media influencer.

Private vs. Public & Real vs. Artificial

Right before Kylie Jenner had her first lip kit launch, there were many rumors about Kylie and her own lips. They looked significantly bigger than before, as fans who had seen Kylie grow up noticed. This was not the first time that there were plastic surgery rumours about the sisters, as Kim's backside has been a point of discussion in the media since the start of her fame. But Kylie was only 17, and at first denied the claims. She claimed it was due to using three different lip liners, a forced pout, and good angles. More than a year after her business success, in 2015, she admitted to using fillers. In an article from the Independent, which was published a day after Kylie's confession, reporter Akbareian (2015) writes: "Dr Leah Totton of Dr Leah Clinics told The Independent her clinic has reported a staggering '70% rise in lip filler enquiries in the last 24 hours'". This was just one of multiple United Kingdom clinics which instantly saw a rise in demand for the treatment.

As the Kardashians "reclaim the copyright of their lives" on social media, it is important to address the nature of the imagery through which this is done. "Visual images are loaded with 'the promise of reality' [...] The fiction becomes 'indistinguishable from reality'" (Zizek, 2002, p. 226). We are seduced by the idea that what we see is "real" – perhaps more real than our own everyday lives. Simultaneously, individuals increasingly "disappear" in the televisualisation of their lives (Koskela, 2003, p. 305). Everyday life appears gloomy and trivial compared to the ever-spinning action of online lives. The individual experience melts into the collective imagination. As Koskela (2004, pp. 200-201) explains, "According to Weibel (2002: 214) 'the real becomes a copy of its image'. The boundless (re-re-re-)representations of visual images blur the line between reality and fantasy, original and simulation".

Followers love Kylie Jenner for being "perfect" in every way way: the looks, the rich lifestyle, the career, and even her relationship and her child, which are considered "#goals" on Instagram.

This idea can provide us with an explanation as to what is happening in society today. Kylie's fame grew with her new looks, regardless of the lip rumors, or maybe thanks to them. People were obsessed with the transformation. She was more praised for the new look than bashed for altering her looks while underage. Followers love her for being "perfect" in every way: the looks, the rich lifestyle, the career, and even her relationship and her child, which are considered "#goals" on Instagram. This definitely indicates a shift of values in society in recent years. This affects a massive, and young audience, who sees this successful transformation, and who aspires to the same. The full lips trend remains a trend, and through celebrity examples like Kylie, accomplishing the ideal self-image through surgery or fillers, is becoming more and more normalized these days. Millions of spectators and followers of the Kardashians and their content, aspire to similar things as the famous sisters. And now more than ever, it is presented as being accomplishable, to buy yourself everything you want, through one of the many online businesses which sell exactly those products used and worn by celebrities. Stacey (1994) elaborates on this matter of mimetic self-transformations: 

"Spectators‘ memories of stars suggest an increasingly interactive relationship between self-image and star ideals with the opening up of multiple possibilities of becoming more like the screen ideal through the purchase of commodities associated with particular stars. Mimetic self-transformations become an imaginable possibility through consumption – be it the suits or blonde hair of Marilyn Monroe, or the styles, fabrics and colours associated with Doris Day. These masquerades of stardom-femininity are embodiments of desirable qualities which bring the desirable object closer to the self." (Stacey, 1994. p. 236)  

KUWTK season 17

This quote by Stacey may come from 1994, yet when we exchange her Marilyn Monroe example for the Kardashian "idealized" bodies, looks, makeup and fashion, the same statement and theory apply very well. And more than ever, just like the Kardashian sisters, people seem to indeed be showing what they want, especially in "refusing to be humble" (Koskela, 2004) on social media. 

The career strategies of the  Kardashians

Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, and their career strategies, serve as a reflection of the changes which have taken place online and offline with regards to perspectives on and ideals within beauty, fashion, and lifestyle trends. Even more importantly, they serve as an example which indicates the broader changes in, for example, how we value these concepts, as well as how such concepts are presented, promoted, and commercialized through social media platforms. As Harcourt stated, the values of privacy and dignity are also changing, and are now more than ever seen as commodities which are to be bought and sold in a marketplace. More than ever, we seem to have become "calculating" human beings. Instagram specifically provides us with a good example of this, being the most successful new "marketplace" out there, as the platform enables influencers to share and successfully promote the "perfect picture" of their looks, style, and bodies. Sex sells, nudity is "liberating", and plastic surgery is a free choice. The line between what is real and what is not, and what is edited or altered and what is not, however, seems to be vanishing. People are now "refusing to be humble", in various ways. It is an important consequence of the neo-liberal, capitalist ideology which dominates in our modern society.

The Kardashian-Jenner family and their expository empire has inspired, and set the stage for millions of Instagram influencers to create a global (consumerist-oriented) network which powerfully promotes certain beauty, fashion and lifestyle ideologies. Their influence on the audiences is very much present globally, and the Kardashian story helps us also understand the storyline for how our contemporary culture of exposure, sharing, and beauty standards, has come about. It is crucial that we address and analyze these major phenomena, as they (subconsciously) impact millions of young minds today maybe not always for the better. 


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