October 30, 2020

Keeping Up With the Kardashians is ending. What does it all mean?

After 20 seasons, our time with America’s first family of reality TV will be over. Maybe we’re overthinking it

The Kardashians were in the news this week.

You could, of course, say this of just about any week for the past 10 years or so: the Kardashians are constantly getting up to all sorts of well-publicised adventures, generating this kind of low droning background hum of information and analysis, overlaid on which are people’s dim protestations that they have never watched an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and actually, who are the Kardashians, and then on top of that are pious admonishments about being obliged to take the Kardashians seriously “as a phenomenon”, seeing as how they are so, so famous and have changed the culture in so, so many ways whether you like it or not, and by God you should like it, because this is the 21st century and we have an ethical duty as media consumers to care about and notice the Kardashians day in and day out, and then on top of that are a few spurious arguments about feminism that diminish everyone involved.

Sometimes the droning noise is quite loud, and other times it is softer, but mainly it’s just there, humming away, making sure we don’t forget that the Kardashians are so, so famous and rich, and that something is always happening with them.

This week, the first thing that happened was the announcement that after 13 years, Keeping Up with the Kardashians was coming to an end. The second thing that happened was that many people were obliged to dig deep within themselves in order to come up with something interesting to say about this. This doesn’t seem like such a difficult requirement, at least at first.

The show has been extremely successful. It has run for a long time, and has launched the careers of some of the most famous people on Earth. When it comes to recognisable public figures, they don’t get much more recognisable than Kim Kardashian. She is married to a fellow incredibly famous person, and they are in the news a lot, for a variety of reasons.

Kris Jenner (the mum, for those of you who remain quaintly hellbent on pretending you don’t know who any of these people are, but are nevertheless reading this article) was once married to OJ Simpson’s lawyer. Kylie Jenner (the youngest) was recently accused in Forbes of providing the magazine with tax returns containing false numbers and, therefore, actually not being “the world’s youngest self-made billionaire” (something the Jenners deny). Khloé Kardashian seems like she has had a lot of work done recently. The Daily Mail is obsessed with the length of Kendall Jenner’s legs. I once saw a quite remarkable series of photos where Kourtney Kardashian’s little daughter got hit in the face with a car door (she was absolutely fine).

There’s all sorts of stuff like that, and for the people whose job it is to write appraisals of long-running reality TV shows, this should be enough to be getting on with. It should be sufficient just to be able to write, “This very well-known and successful show is coming to an end, after some quite good scandals and some amazingly venal behaviour. Best of luck to everyone involved, not that they will need it, because they are all indefensibly wealthy. Kim Kardashian, you are so famous and wealthy I cannot believe it”, but apparently it is not.

For reasons I have never been able to figure out, when it comes to what tabloids refer to as “the Kardashian-Jenner clan”, there is the need for them to mean something, to tell us something about celebrity or the way we live now. It can’t just be that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is coming to an end after 20 seasons; it has to be the show that changed celebrity culture forever is drawing to a close. There is a kind of sunk cost fallacy at work, a desire to justify the attention lavished on this family over the years by lavishing still more attention on it.

It would be nice to think that the end of the show means the end of the obligation to come up with an opinion on it, but this is probably not how it will go. All those earnest articles quoting Susan Sontag, all those vicious disputes about “girl bosses” and whether or not it’s right to describe a given action as feminist simply because a woman decided to do it, all that energy spent casting around for high-minded and morally sound reasons to watch a reality TV show.

The Kardashians are not the only ones to have profited from this moralising, intellectualising impulse – you see the same thing with the way people rush to the defence of Marvel movies, becoming feverish at the idea that someone, somewhere thought that a Martin Scorsese movie was better – but they might be its most prominent beneficiaries. Thirteen years after Keeping Up With the Kardashians first aired, it is difficult to find anything to say about this family other than they are all so famous now, and so unbelievably, indefensibly rich.

Rosa Lyster is a writer who lives in Cape Town