The Kardashians made their money by trademarking their white femininity, their relationships with African American men and marketing Black beauty aesthetics for white women—a type of modern mediated Blackface in a cultural space where few actual Black faces actually grace U.S. television screens.
It’s social media’s fault.
After a 14-year and 20-season run, Kim Kardashian of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (KUWTK) fame announced that 2020 will be the final season of the family’s reality show.
Elle and other outlets have reported the cancellation was motivated by Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner’s desires to focus on their families. And in March, Kourtney Kardashian left the show reportedly due to an environment she called toxic.
But matriarch and avowed “momager” Kris Jenner is flipping the script, blaming the cancellation on social media’s ability “to get the message out,” rather than issues with the Kardashian’s themselves or the Kardashian-Jenners’ domestic relationships. (According to Kris Jenner, her children’s profit-making use of social media with its 24/7 direct access to their lives made producing the show irrelevant.)
I’d like to flip the script once more. Social media is the problem—not because it made the show moot, but because it allowed the Kardashian women to make millions by branding their take on Black beauty aesthetics. Indeed, their relationship with Black friends and Black lovers often drove the reality show’s most memorable storylines.
So because of that, as an Afro-Latina woman and feminist media scholar—and a person who’s alive in 2020—I express my relief that KUWTK will finally be off the television airwaves event (even if it still appears as we scroll through our social media feeds).
Now I know watching reality TV does not seem like a big deal. For most of us, it is a great mental escape from our everyday lives. And have we not all depended on TV escapism during the pandemic?
The answer is a resounding yes. We’ve watched a record-level of broadcast, cable and streaming TV. In the month of June, for example, Nielsen reported that audiences spent a record-setting 12.5 billion hours watching TV, and we are still watching at levels higher than before the health crisis.
Yet, outside our Netflixed-and-quarantined lives, a reckoning with systemic racism was ignited. One that makes the ways that KUWTK (and other reality TV programs) play with race and sexuality even more troubling. KUWTK’s invitation to fans and audiences to celebrate in their white wealth and privilege makes the absence and stereotypes of not-white and not-wealthy others all the more pronounced.
KUWTK, like the majority of TV programming, is an example of joyful white indifference. And because of KUWTK’s seemingly insignificant ubiquity, we didn’t even realize that we’d entered dangerous cultural territory.
Through the “War on Terror,” election of the first Black President, the Great Recession, and yes, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kardashian women have made millions monetizing their social media presence, marketing their relationships with famous Black men, and franchising their celebratory use of “Black” fashion styles, hair styles, professionally-tanned skin, cosmetically filled-lips and most importantly their voluptuous booties.
Indeed, the Kardashian’s mixed-race babies are already social media celebrities helping to keep their moms’ accounts trending and profitable.
Dating as far back as the enslaved African woman Sarah Hartman (aka the Hottentot Venus), whose buttocks traveled around Europe during the era of colonization, to modern-day celebrities like Lizzo, women of color have been hyper-sexualized and many times socially disciplined for celebrating their too-sexy, difficult to “style” backsides.
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Unlike the Kardashian sisters, full-sized curvaceous Afro-Puerto-Rican/Dominican women like myself, grew up conscious of the ways our racialized bodies would be sexualized by others, making sure our pants weren’t too tight and our skirts weren’t too short. What is celebrated as attractive and sexually desirable for white women like the Kardashians is often depicted as sexually excessive and not socially acceptable in women of color.
For the past 20 years, Kim and her sisters have unabashedly objectified Black women’s aesthetics and Black masculinity to market their own white, upper-class, heterosexual bodies. The effect is a self-propelled cycle of accumulating wealth through social media celebrityhood.
Would audiences continue to tune in if Kim wasn’t married to Kanye West, if Khloé hadn’t married basketball player Lamar Odom and or had basketball player Tristan Thompson’s baby? Maybe.
What I do know is that the Kardashians made their money by trademarking their white femininity, their relationships with African American men and marketing Black beauty aesthetics for white women—a type of modern mediated Blackface in a cultural space where few actual Black faces actually grace U.S. television screens.
The Kardashians have been so successful at appropriating Blackness that I often use the show to start conversations with my students on the politics of cultural appropriation—an appropriation that has always been devoid of the real-world context facing Black and brown people.
Black and Brown Media Representation Still Incredibly Lacking
During KUWTK 2019 season, the UCLA Ralph Bunche Report found that for the 5th straight year Black and Latina/o leads appeared in less than 22 percent of scripted Broadcast, cable and streaming programming—though we make up more than 30 percent of the U.S. population, and Black audiences watch more television than any other ethnic or racial group.
So to be clear, the television we have watched during the pandemic featured primarily upper middle-class white men and white families living their best lives—with only a few exceptions—in the thousands of hours of TV programming available to audiences.
Why does it matter what and how much television we watch during the pandemic? Other than the obvious health risks associated with a stationary lifestyle, the stories and images represented in programs like KUWTK distort how we see vulnerable people and communities. In short, you are what you watch.
The show, like the majority of TV programs, symbolizes the U.S. cultural and sexual love affair with Blackness and Black popular culture—even as we struggle with addressing systemic racism in our cultural and social institutions, as evidenced in the recent declining support by white people for the Black Lives Matter movement.
To be sure, the show’s cancellation isn’t happening because viewers have started to reject all that KUWTK stands for. After all, an average of 3 million viewers turned into the show last season—enough that NBCUniversal’s E! network executives confirmed the decision to stop producing KUWTK was not theirs.
But I still sigh in relief that, in the context of looping images and videos of police brutality against BIPOC men and women in news and social media feeds, the racial and class escapism of KUWTK will be one less distraction in the relatively homogenous Hollywood TV landscape.
Maybe the departure of programs like KUWTK will open the bandwidth for programs like Netflix’s “Julie and the Phantoms,” based on a Brazilian sitcom and featuring Afro-Puerto Rican actress Madison Reyes. Although this fictional Latina/o family story is also located within idealized upper-middle class life, the visibility and celebration of actual beautiful Brown bodies is a pleasant salvo in a moment of political upheaval.
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