Why does every national crisis make people lash out at the Kardashians?

08.26.15 2 years ago

Following the horrific murders of WDBJ-TV employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward in Virginia, Facebook and Twitter users (political pundits and comics alike) have spoken up about a continued need for greater gun control legislation as well as a more comprehensive dialogue regarding the U.S.'s gun violence crisis. That much seems understandable and thoughtful.

But many dissenting voices think the problem concerns not what we should be discussing but what we shouldn't be discussing. Time and again, those opinions wind up at the same word: Kardashian. Here are a few scattered examples: 

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It's a cycle of misaimed rancor that's been around as long as the Kardashians themselves have been huge stars, and that's at least seven years. It's a particularly ironic angle in recent days considering Kim Kardashian actually spoke out about gun violence just two weeks ago following David Conley's murder of ex-girlfriend Valerie Jackson, her husband, and six children. Regardless of what the famous family is doing, the Kardashian name has become a tried-and-true beast of burden during moments of actual terror.

The Kardashian sisters represent something of a singular phenomenon: They're the female stars of a cable television series about, above all else, the dynamics in a wealthy, female-dominated family. That show and their fame exploded into the mainstream, and now Kim Kardashian is one of the most famous people on Earth and officially the most famous person on Instagram. Her massive notoriety forces even non-fans of E! to notice. Because she's not primarily a singer or an actress, there's always been a sense of resentment about why that should be. Checking out the demographics of E! and the kinds of products Kim Kardashian is known for endorsing (makeup, clothing, fragrances, glamor-themed apps), it's clear she's an entity marketed solely at women, even though she may take part in a sexy photo shoot on occasion. 

With the exception of certain pop stars and the occasional movie star like Jennifer Lawrence, it's rare that a female celebrity — especially one whose swarms of devoted fans are almost exclusively women — makes such a dent. That renders the male-dominated resentment of her popularity all the more peculiar: The one pop culture topic worth constantly insulting is also the one pop culture phenomenon meant exclusively for women.

The Kardashian contempt speaks towards a larger resentment: that women like Kim Kardashian's fans (or women in general) have inner-lives and interests that sometimes don't involve the inner-lives and interests of men. Of course a conversation about the Kardashians is probably light-hearted and frivolous; so are conversations about all reality TV, serialized TV, sports, music, the deliciousness of food, family matters, and pretty much anything that isn't saving lives. That doesn't make the leisurely interests of women any less legitimate, and it certainly doesn't make them more mockable. In fact, it's probably not prudent in general to blame national crises on women enjoying TV made for them.

There's a line between “inessential entertainment” and “inessential entertainment that isn't cool to disparage,” and the Kardashians always end up in the former category because they represent an anomalous kind of frenzied fandom that, historically, has been resigned to fringe markets like Lifetime. That's different from the appeal and inessential fun of, say, superhero movies and the Super Bowl, which are marketed to men first like most classic entertainment juggernauts. Criticizing their appeal means criticizing the very foundations of what we consider a legitimate diversion, and that legitimacy is based in displays of brute force, competitiveness, and masculinity. The Kardashians represent none of those things, so haranguing their appeal doesn't malign our traditional and accepted versions of frivolity or the men who set those versions in stone. 

Issues like gun control and gun violence are complex. Whatever the multifaceted, multilayered solution is, it probably has nothing to do with finding the one particular celebrity with endless fame and overwhelmingly female appeal personally uninteresting. If anything, there should a new dialogue about why it's taken so long for such a committed, specific type of fanbase to finally find a place at the center of pop culture. 

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