The Legacy of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’

With the finale of this show on March 18th, 2021, what lessons can ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ teach us about American life and culture?

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Johannah Doyle

An image from the theme page of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’

After fourteen years of airtime, the reality program Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK) is finally wrapping up this year. 

The show chronicles the lives of the Kardashian-Jenner family, a motley crew of characters assembled from various relationships, marriages, and divorces. While a rotating cast of male love interests appears on the show — most of whom have a habit of disappearing shortly thereafter — and the respective children of the family member have their moments, the core of the cast is the Kardashian matriarchy. This family unit is composed of sisters Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe Kardashian, their half-sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and the family “momager” Kris Jenner.

KUWTK first began in 2007 with a format that was somewhat unusual.  At the time, most reality programs similar in nature were built around figures that had already acquired fame, Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood being one example of this industry trend. 

The Kardashians, on the other hand, did not fit this profile. While they had their moments in the limelight because of their connections to O.J. Simpson and the Los Angeles socialite circle, the Kardashians were still relatively obscure before the inception of their show. This is especially true relative to the notoriety they would receive in the years following, and the enormously complicated legacy of this fame. 

The first step in analyzing their legacy is considering the reasons behind the phenomenal success of the show, especially in relation to similar programs that mostly flopped. 

The ostensible appeal of KUWTK is its quality of escapism; the Kardashian lifestyle is a caricature of Southern California living. Family members live in massive McMansions, take spontaneous vacations, and devote extraordinary amounts of time and money to maintain their physical appearances. Their way of life is dreamy, and the Kardashians could provide a glimpse into that dream through KUWTK

But the deeper allure of the program is rooted in its accessibility, which may seem counterintuitive when thinking about how materialistic the show and its characters are. Even so, the consumerism both display is actually very delicate, even if it seems the opposite initially. The wealth of the Kardashians is definitely tangible, but never feels overly boastful; and the tackiness of it all really grounds the show in irony, again contributing to its accessibility. 

If its accessibility was the initial driver of the program, the cultural relevance of KUWTK was what has fueled its longevity. The show has explored many topics relevant to larger questions concerning American identity through its cast members. The marriage of Kim Kardashian to rapper Kanye West is a well-known example of interracial marriage in modern America. The transitioning of Caitlyn Jenner—the ex-spouse of Kris Jenner — significantly propelled awareness of transgender issues in the United States; Jenner is today considered the most famous transgender person in the world. The open dialogue that the Kardashians have had on KUWTK about their Armenian heritage has sparked conversations about immigration and the American recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The integration of social media into KUWTK changed the formatting of both social media use and reality program formulas. KUWTK was able to forge a symbiotic relationship between itself and overall issues in the United States, meaning that its legacy involves both impacting and being impacted by such cultural subjects.  

The most complex piece of KUWTK is the role that it played as the catalyst for the rise of the Kardashian family itself; this part of the legacy is complex because the family is complex. 

While the Kardashians have absolutely made positive contributions to society through charity work and advocacy work for issues like criminal justice reform, they have also been involved in numerous scandals; the most recent incidents of note include the accusations against Kendall Jenner of photoshopping a pro-Black Lives Matter social media post, the bizarre 2020 presidential candidacy of Kanye West, and the messy, ongoing divorce between Kim and Kanye. 

In retrospect, however, most features of the Kardashian empire are mixed or plainly neutral. Their promotion of the “slim-thick” body, for example, has been praised for expanding body positivity, but also criticized for pushing unrealistic beauty standards. High school student Linus Lundgren points out that the family places much emphasis on “clothes, makeup” and a desirable lifestyle, which has received varied reception. Similarly mixed, the Kardashians have built a connection to rap music through Kanye West, which has produced real results. “Kim Kardashian introduced me to Kanye West’s music,” said Aaron Yeung, another high school student. 

For better or for worse, the legacy of the Kardashian family is far from over; much of their current work is based on social media, and with Kylie Jenner being the fourth-most followed individual on Instagram with 213 million followers and Kim Kardashian being the sixth-most followed individual with 203 million followers, that work will definitely continue into the future. 

Only time will tell how the legacy of the Kardashian family will evolve; but March 18th, 2021 will be the final date of KUWTK, cementing the legacy of this groundbreaking television program. 

To watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians on Hulu (subscription required), click HERE.

The first step in analyzing their legacy is considering the reasons behind the phenomenal success of the show, especially in relation to similar programs that mostly flopped. 

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