In the sprawling Dickensian saga that is Keeping Up with the Kardashians, it is always the best of times and it is always the worst of times. Sherwood Schwartz couldn’t have made up a better mixed grill of modern family drama. Step-siblings and half-siblings crowd onto massive yachts, vales of Vuitton-grade baggage—divorce, dubious parentage, neglect, addiction, baby weight—strapped to their bikini’d backs, refugees for whom there is never an escape from lifetimes of surveillance. Aboard, they pop bubbly and let the banalities unfurl. Dogs are trained. Colonoscopies are performed. Takeout is ordered. Internet gets surfed; homes toilet-papered. Husbands and wives bicker over money. Remote-control helicopters are purchased; stripper poles are purchased; acrobatic latex bodysuits are purchased. Hundred dollar bills are stuffed in waiters’ mouths. Miniature Shetland ponies are covered in glitter. Buttcheeks get x-rayed. Socks are contemplated.
This is their story—or, to quote the three Furies in their life-advice literary opus Kardashian Konfidential (2011), “our storybook tale, which is actually the real-life story of us, the Kardashian sisters”—and it’s a real tale of two titties. Like any good cleavage, there’s always a delicious space between its dualities: ennui and melodrama. Us and them. Rich and poor. Audience and actor. Student and teacher.
Yes, Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a morality play for our times. In fair Calabasas, where we lay our scene, its characters tussle with morals and endeavor for salvation. I use the terms morals and salvation in their twenty-first century American sense: morals as inspirational Instagram quotations and salvation as material wealth. From the Kardashians we may get a glimpse of what an everyman can do to obtain, or at least how pleasurable it would be for him to obtain fame and fortune and a gated community. A California Closet stocked with Hermes and Louboutin, a four-car garage stocked with Range Rovers. A face stocked with fillers. For who were the Kardashian sisters ten years ago if not everywomen? Sure, they probably didn’t get their start on as low-down a rung of the financial ladder as you or I. But it wasn’t that long ago that Kim Kardashian was merely Paris Hilton’s lesser-known, slightly dumpy sidekick.
And who are they now, if not just like us? For a gated community does not protect one from those more nefarious disembodied evils such as the eventual threadbareness of monogamy or the unfashionable side effects of preeclampsia. Even as I write, Kris and Bruce Jenner have separated, and Kim and Kanye have entered into an engagement via Jumbotron and fifty-piece orchestra. Perhaps we all, Kardashians included, would do well to take a second look at Kardashian Konfidential. We might consider as a kind of katechism. Turn to it for advice in times of trial and upheaval. Parse out the pointed morals offered up, Aesop-like, by its carefully plotted chapters (“Boys,” “Stylin’,” “How To Generate Girl Power”). You would be remiss to take any major life steps, such as marrying, divorcing, procreating, or submitting of your Real World audition tape, before reading this book.
Let Kardashian Konfidential help you learn from your mistakes. Not only will youngest sister Khloe explain How To Throw A Sick Party (“I never play rap unless it’s very pop kind of rap.”)—she’ll also clue you in on how to deal with that eternal bummer, the post-party DUI:
In the first season of Keeping Up, we did a show about my DUI, aka Driving Under the Influence (of booze)… If you saw the episode, you know I had to stay overnight in jail, which was hideous… Even Donald Trump put his two cents in on my crime and punishment. He fired me from Celebrity Apprentice… In a way, I thank God for the experience because I probably would have gone on doing it without being aware of how much I was endangering myself and others.
Note how Khloe separates herself from her crime by referring to it as plot point on her television show, while also explicating the lessons she learned from watching said plot point unfold on television and throwing in a handy Dostoevsky reference for good measure.
Oldest sister Kourtney gives advice on how to inure yourself to the constant presence of cameras—an invaluable lesson in our modern world:
Like when Scott and I decided all of a sudden to get married in Las Vegas, you couldn’t tell from the show how upset I was about the whole thing. I ran off-camera to the bathroom and was just sitting there crying my eyes out…. But then once I started seeing the show, I was fine. And after a while, you become incapable of censoring yourself for twelve to eighteen hours a day!
When you’re worried about the watchful eye of Big Brother, meditate on Kourtney’s example. Cry in the bathroom, and just be yourself!
As Kim cares for her newborn daughter, she may want to take notes from her reminiscences of her own mother :
Mom showed us how we want to be with our own daughters. Even with things that seem small but are important. For example, she taught us about grooming. She was really into being clean and taking care of her skin… She said all the stewardesses used to buy Erno Laszlo skin products. She taught us to… clean your ears every day. And when you brush your teeth, brush your tongue and the roof of your mouth, too, because that’s where the bacteria are.
It’s just so, so important to brush your tongue. People don’t talk about that enough.
The best gap of all exists between the Kardashians and the people who don’t know who they are. It’s unbelievably satisfying when someone I love (my parents, my boyfriend) can’t pick Kim Kardashian out of a crowd of two. I cheer for these people the way I cheered for Neo in The Matrix, for Brad Pitt in World War Z, even though I myself sleep soundly in my pod, even though I myself am a zombie (a kombie?). There’s something so magically Rockwellian about the idea of an American who 1) owns a television and 2) makes regular trips to the grocery store, but who, like Matt Damon in Contagion, is aware of the insidious Kardashian media virus, but has not yet been infected with interest.
Such immune innocents bleat, “Who are these people?” They are a family in California who are filmed for television, I patiently explain. “But why?” Well, nobody ever asks how Sauron became Sauron, but I believe it has something to do with the excellent Hollywood connections developed by the family’s deceased patriarch Robert Kardashian during his career as an infamous Hollywood lawyer. Kardashian Konfidential explains it as such:
One of our mom’s best friends is Kathie Lee Gifford. She’s on the Today show and she’s also the godmother of our little sisters… She’s very religious, and unlike most of our mom’s friends, she likes to talk about religion. We usually only see her a couple of times a year, but we see her more now often because we go on her show. Whenever Kathie Lee would visit us, she’d say, ‘You are such a crazy family! Where are the cameras? We need cameras in here!’ She thought our family would make a really funny show… And literally a week later we had all these people with cameras in our house filming, and it was on the air really soon after that.
The speed of which probably has something to do with the marked entrepreneurial skills and lifelong television-career dreams of plasticine matriarch Kris and the catalytic event of daughter Kim’s classic middle-child bid for attention, her star turn in early-aughts, released-at-the-dawn-of-viral-video sex tape, the distribution of which is still attributed by some conspiracy theorists to said momager Kris. “But why would anyone watch such a show?” my dad wails, tearing out his last three hairs.
This is the question of our era. Our “to be or not to be.” We ask it not only of the Kardashians, but of all the other principalities of reality television: the Robertsons on Duck Dynasty, the Shannons on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the Gosselins of Jon and Kate Plus Eight, the bachelors and bachelorettes, the aspiring models, fashion designers, chefs. And maybe most people would answer that they watch because, though perhaps it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, why would you do either when you can sit on the couch and not think?
Me? I watch the Kardashians because I believe we still have so much to learn.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.