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The Kardashians Spawned an Unlikely Cottage Industry Within Academia

Keeping Up With the Kardashians was known for its vapidity. Reaction to it was anything but.
  • The Kardashians may be bidding farewell to their long-running E! series, but scholarly reaction to it will likely continue for some time. (Photo: E!)
    The Kardashians may be bidding farewell to their long-running E! series, but scholarly reaction to it will likely continue for some time. (Photo: E!)

    Over the course of its 15-year run, it became something of a truism that Keeping up with the Kardashians was pure television junk food: tasty and fun, but not particularly filling or intellectually nutritious. But despite its rather sordid reputation, this soapy and melodramatic piece of reality television has been the subject of a disproportionate number of book chapters and scholarly articles focusing on the production, its subjects, and its relationship to television and celebrity culture.

    Paradoxically, it was the series’ ostensible vacuousness that allowed so many scholars and critics to find so much in it worthy of interpretation, analysis, and examination. The plethora of academic takes on the series reveals the contradiction that exists at the heart of so much reality television: that even series that seem empty of meaning or significance reveal sometimes-uncomfortable truths about our collective desires and fears.

    One of the most striking things about the show is how sharply it divided critics and viewers over the years. While mainstream critics seemed to take special delight in panning it in no uncertain terms — often targeting its subjects’ yearning for fame and cultural relevance — it became a hit for its network. It’s especially revealing that it came to be defined as a “guilty pleasure,” something that one could admit to watching only with a blush and a nervous chuckle.

    For academics, however, the series has long been something else, a means by which they could examine both the phenomenon of reality television and American culture more generally. As of this writing, a Google Scholar search for “Keeping up with the Karashians” yields nearly two thousand search results. Want to see how linguistics can enrich the understanding of the show? There’s an article for that. Want to understand the intersection between family values and commercialism as articulated through the series? There’s a book chapter on that.

    Kardashians scholarship isn’t limited to book chapters and articles; there are also entire books written on the subject. For example, Keeping up the Kardashian Brand: Celebrity, Materialism, and Sexuality tackles such weighty subjects as the intersection between the family and business, the influence of social media, and the connections between beauty, celebrity, and sexuality.

    It’s not surprising that many feminist scholars have found much about the series — and our responses to it -- worth analyzing and interpreting. Indeed, the show’s focus on women, their desires, and their stories may be part of why the series — like soap operas and talk shows, two other television forms that have routinely been dismissed by the commentariat — struggled to gain mainstream acceptance among critics and why many remain hostile to any attempt to examine it in a sustained or academic way.

    It was at least somewhat in response to this misogynist backlash that Meredith Jones, an Australian cultural critic, organized an entire academic symposium (or, as it was called, a “Kimposium!”) dedicated to the study of the show and the various ways in which it can be approached by scholars working in feminist media studies.

    As she would later write in The Guardian: “It has occurred to me that the hostility around the Kardashians may not be about their supposed shallowness or vanity, but the fact that there are hardly any men on the show — it is about highly successful women and their relationships with each other.” She concludes her piece in part by writing: “These women artists are worthy of study for what they create, represent, and for the cultural texts and dialogues that they are part of.” For Jones and other feminist media scholars, taking Keeping Up With the Kardashians seriously is a political project in and of itself. In this way, the series was important not just for what it said about contemporary culture, but also for who it appealed to.

    It’s probably a bit too simplistic to say that Keeping Up With the Kardashians was nothing more than a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which academics of all stripes could project whatever it was that they cared to see. While it’s true that some of the academic takes on the show stretch credulity just a bit, the truth is that this show, for better or worse, did say a lot about what Americans value, at least as measured by who they were willing to spend time with on their television screens. In fact, it’s precisely the fact that so many Americans were willing to spend time watching the show at all that seemed to offend the tastemakers and cultural critics who went out of their way to criticize and dismiss it.

    More than that, however, the series has crystallized many of the conflicts and pressure points in the world of taste-making. Now that it’s drawing to a close, a couple of things can be said with certainty. One is that the stars will continue to draw attention to themselves, whether through new television outings or through their various other business ventures and outings. The other is that this show, as vexing as it may be, will continue to generate commentary and analysis from scholars of popular culture, who will continue to find new ways to look at it, new ways of excavating and interpreting its hidden depths.

    The series finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians airs Thursday June 10th at 8:00 pm ET.

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    Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

    TOPICS: Keeping Up With the Kardashians, E!, Kim Kardashian, Series Finales