You're doing amazing, sweetie: how I lost my Kardashians virginity

Beyond the frivolity, the show has dealt with some serious issues, including Caitlyn’s transition. So having finally watched some of it, do I wish I had kept up with the Kardashians?

I have not kept up with the Kardashians. I am not even sure how many there are. (I know people say this often, but in my case it is true.) I have never seen an episode of their eponymous show, and I would not have suggested to my editor that I mark the announcement of the end of its run by sitting down to become acquainted if I had understood there were 19 series spanning 14 years. This is a shade under half of the time I have been alive.

The Kardashian family are a phenomenon, so it’s not that I know nothing. I know who Kim Kardashian West is because she has become one of the most famous women on the planet. The Kardashian matriarch, Kris, is very meme-able, so I recognise her in gif form. Caitlyn Jenner, the ex-partner of Kris, who transitioned in later series, entered my sphere of knowledge as an LGBT+ activist.

But the others? No idea. I was aware that all the sisters have names beginning with K, as though the registrar who did the birth certificates had a keyboard with a missing letter C. Kourtney; Kim; Khloe; Kendall; Kylie. I did not know there was a male sibling, Rob. Think of Rob as the Jim Corr, or Korr, of the gang. Rob is named after his father, Kris’s first husband; the late lawyer who was famous for defending OJ Simpson. Kendall, whose name will always evoke mint cake, I know is friends with Cara Delevingne, but I could not distinguish between her and who I have learned is the youngest one. There endeth my Knowledge.

So, to begin at the beginning, as Lewis Carroll put it: the pilot episode. This is 22 minutes long but feels much longer. It looks as though it were shot in the early 1900s (film quality-wise, I mean – the clothes are very clearly late-00s halter necks and chrome minidresses). Introducing themselves, Kourtney announces: “I’m the oldest, and the most mature.” Well … yes. The store the sisters run is: “a place where we get to catch up and relax and gossip”, which doesn’t seem the best route to a viable business, but given this is a family of now-millionaires (and, ostensibly, in Kylie’s case, one billionaire) I am going to keep my mouth shut.

The first we see of Kris is when she explains that, as a mother, she wasn’t happy with Kim’s leaked sex tape, but as a manager, it is pretty advantageous. Why did Kim make it? “Because I was horny and I felt like it” – which, quite frankly, is a brilliant answer. More concerning is one of the young half-siblings – aged about 10 or so – I can’t recall which one it is – dancing on a “stripper pole” Kim has bought for her mother’s anniversary present, which, in itself, is Quite Weird.

I am all for the voyeurism of rich people’s lives – I lusted over the fictional Cohens’ pool house in The OC for many years – but this show is not endearing itself to me. It does not seem to have the wryness of a predecessor, The Simple Life, which I caught reruns of in the night and which Nicole Richie’s droll wit made bearable (she is, at a guess, five times smarter than Paris Hilton).

Keeping Up with the Kardashians was helped into being by Ryan Seacrest. I know Seacrest as someone who does the Oscars red-carpet coverage for E! and being sent up on BoJack Horseman, but he has writing credits on the show, and it is still a bone of contention between the now-divorced Kris and Caitlyn as to who brought the original idea to him. It starts slowly and stuttering. The height of drama at one point is the kids stealing their father’s credit card. Well, sure. But cut me open aged 15 and I bled my mother’s Visa security code, too. Khloe is my early favourite, because she’s relatable straight out of the gate: “I need a fucking Xanax.”

There is a cast of peripheral men throughout. Kim’s first marriage is to someone called Kris, in a sort of electra complex turned on its head. But the union lasts just 72 days. I have waited longer for invoices to be paid. This does, however, mean that Kris (the mother) can make repeated sideswipes for the rest of the show(s). Kourtney’s husband Scott offers to shave her pubic hair for her because he “worked in a barbershop for three days when I was 11”. OK, son.

The show becomes funnier as the family get used to having the camera around and the narratives become a little stronger. Or perhaps the editing is just improved. When Kris comes home with a piglet wrapped in a blanket, like a newborn baby (I don’t know), her daughter asks, from some distance, but in all seriousness: “Is that a chicken?” I laughed, hard. When the family members are all bundled into a car going to court because Khloe has broken her parole for a DUI offence, Kris chastises Kim: “Kim, would you stop taking pictures of yourself; your sister’s going to jail.” Cut to Kim, arm stretched out of a rolled-down car window, smiling with her head at an angle.

Some of the scenarios are real – I don’t think anyone is going to jail for ratings, and obviously marriages and births take place. But, as with all of these shows, the scenes are storyboarded. Surely there is no one on the planet who hasn’t learned by now that reality shows contain only a small portion of reality. The proposal scene between Kris (the boyfriend) and Kim was reshot because Kim “didn’t like her reaction”. It will come as no surprise that real events are mixed up with fabrications cooked up in the writers’ room.

Beyond the frivolity, I can see from the clips and the specific episodes I watch that over the course of 14 years the show has touched on serious topics. Grief, sexism, comings-of-age (“What are you doing with that cigarette?” “Nothing”). And, of course, Caitlyn’s transition, which takes up a huge chunk of one series and introduced a transgender person to a mainstream television audience.

The way the show deals with the family’s adjustment process, as well as Caitlyn’s, I find tonally very touching. Mostly, the children are compassionate and supportive, as well as being curious and ready to learn. But we also see Kendall missing the more tomboyish activities she used to do with her father. Kris smells the shirts Caitlyn used to wear while Kim offers makeup tips. This all breaks down, however, when Caitlyn brings out a memoir trashing Kris (I love a literary ding-dong and this scene is no different) and a quick internet search tells me the animosity remains to this day. It’s a long way from the early episodes, when I viewed before-transition Caitlyn as the calm, often bewildered, but always sensible anchor in a choppy sea of five daughters.

So, after spending some of the hottest days of the year pulling my curtains together to remove the glare on the laptop screen, do I wish I had kept up with the Kardashians? I enjoyed the quips and bon mots more than I thought I would and I do find the bond between the women sweet. But there’s an intrinsic banality to watching people gather around a marble kitchen island making small talk into a set-piece. It’s not exactly scintillating stuff. And why are they wearing sunglasses indoors? I am very much on the side of people finding comfort and pleasure in whichever way they choose, but, at risk of sounding like a snob, it does depress me that kids’ idols are people who manipulate their own lives for the end product of making millions hawking dangerous diet pills. Then again, who doesn’t want to be a millionaire?

Kim Kardashian West attends a panel for the documentary Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project in the US.
Kim Kardashian West attends a panel for the documentary Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project in the US. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

I have come to respect Kim for her social justice campaigning (she helped to secure the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman serving decades in jail for a minor drug offence, and she’s currently studying law). She also recently put out a wonderful statement supporting her husband through his mental health crisis. There’s a great scene where the sisters discuss how they can help with anti-gun advocacy which is something I hadn’t realised they were involved with.

Kendall grows to become likeble and singular: a model who doesn’t like makeup (though there is nothing wrong with liking makeup) and a friendship group that extends outside the bubble she grew up in. (Though there was that awkward Pepsi advert.) Caitlyn unfathomably supported Donald Trump and then thought twice about it in a Washington Post op-ed. But even after several episodes, I still wouldn’t be confident of recognising Kourtney, Khloe and Kylie in a lineup. Still, I find them interchangeably amiable enough.

Long-reads abound on how the Kardashians changed the very fabric of our society; but I think they seem to be a symptom not a cause. The snowball was already gathering speed. But there is so much culture to consume – both “low” and “high” – I just can’t imagine KUWTK being top of anyone’s list. The knowledge that there are spin-off shows is horrifying. I will remain a massive fan of the “you’re doing amazing, sweetie” meme, but the experience of actually sitting down and watching the show is like flicking through an old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room: mild distraction but instantly forgotten.


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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