Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a guilty pleasure, but anyone who’s gazed into that formulaic 44-minute abyss knows that beyond the flash and trash are some shockingly profound ideas.
@Kardashian_Kolloquium is the premier digest for intellectual interpretations of your favorite sick-day show. Styled as “a kompendium of notes, reflections, and theories,” writer MJ Corey memes the Kardashian Project through the lens of philosophy, media theory, and psychology. We talked to her about Snapchat filters, beauty standards, and digital vanity.
What do you think makes the Kar-Jenners such an effective lens for contemporary culture?
They’re a modern family that cover the full gamut of modern life. I also think there are a lot of class politics involved in it. The Kardashians are inherently capitalistic. They take on the consumerism of their project with so much zeal - I’m sure behind the scenes there are market studies happening. They're reflecting how consumers exist and behave right back at us - they’re selling it back to us. And then they are innovators in the sense that they see certain trends, develop them, and then they sell them back.
Do you think they created the culture of digital vanity that they’re so successful living and working in, or do they just exploit it?
I think where their great power lies is in the dialectics. From a psychological framework, dialectics is being able to hold two seemingly opposing concepts at the same time. So, a Kardashian example might be Kim spending time in the White House and taking pictures next to Trump, but doing so for criminal justice reform. It keeps the audience - the rest of us - off balance. The Kardashians are really good at that in general. They probably create digital vanity culture and exploit it at the same time.
To go back to your first question about their influence on culture, much of our culture is digital now. They’ve been at the helm of every social media app. They show themselves (on KUWTK) using these apps, posting things that the viewers will also be consuming, and showing (viewers) how to use (these apps) most effectively, ultimately in ways that will serve the apps and the Kardashians. It's a very cyclical relationship, and even people that don’t like the Kardashians are probably still using Instagram according to how they modeled it.
Speaking of Snapchat, what do you think of the wave of Snapchat and Instagram beauty filters?
I think it forks into two things that are equally powerful. It is probably contributing to a certain kind of dysmorphia and anxiety. Society has always pressured women to have body image anxiety but I think it’s not a coincidence that there are plastic surgeons reporting that people want to look like a filter. It’s also very uncanny; something’s different, shifted 20% from normalcy and you can’t name what. It puts us and our images into some kind of simulacrum, or at least a simulation. It bends reality in a way that you could argue overtime will make us kind of cyborgic.
It creates cyborgs, but not in the way Hollywood said we would get cyborgs.
Yes. Existentially and philosophically there’s an interesting digital/human merge happening, which is interesting and probably dystopian.
Going back to the “selfie” or “Snapchat” dysmorphia, where do you think the line is between positive self actualization and harm?
I think this is where dialectics come in because I don’t know if there’s a simple answer. There’s a benefit to actualizing oneself. That said, when there’s such a distance from yourself physically over time it creates a dissociation that can’t be good. Conceptually, there’s something interesting about it. It’s been a while since I revisited the A Cyborg Manifesto, but it covers the queer framework of the cyborg and the idea that the idealized natural body is heteronormative. From what I remember of (the text), to merge the idea of a human mortal body with technology is a queer and subversive thing to do.
I think the human relationship with technology has distanced us from our spiritual and physical selves. I’m an Aquarius so I'm very interested in these virtual worlds - these simulations. I’m fascinated with it, but I’m also very afraid of it. I participate, but I like to pull back and be an observer and analyse it too. It’s a way of checking and regulating my immersion in it because I do think it’s a little dangerous.
Personally do you feel that you’ve become more susceptible to these beauty standards or have you become fortified because you see the workings behind them?
I had a commenter recently say “you look so much like Kim,” and I actually did not love that. It caused me to have to reflect in a way that was uncomfortable for me. Like, I run this Kardashian account, I’m looking at them and writing about them all the time, and I get fillers. They’re Armenian and I’m Arab, so we definitely share overlap in coloring and certain features. So what is merging here? Is the simulation merging with my real life?
Would you agree that the Kardashians defined the mainstream beauty aesthetics of the 2010s?
I think that they had a climb. First there was Paris and Kim wearing Juicy Couture sweatsuits. Then (the Kardashians) became more and more centered, and Kanye really elevated them. There are filters that arrange peoples’ faces into the symmetry of the Kardashian face. All the rich aristocratic women of Calabasas have Kim’s face. There’s some kind of symmetry or algorithm of their look.
We had the skinny blonde white girl icon of the aughts, then the pendulum swung to this full figured brunette look. If you had to make a prediction, what do you think the 2020s will be like aesthetically?
(My fiancé) and I had a spirited debate once about this. She was expressing that the Kardashians are just another version of that 2000s white girl look because it’s still just pressurizing body image anxieties onto women. And there’s all the politics around appropriation that are important to acknowledge. But (the Kardashians) manifested a different way of relating to the body, which was important for a lot of girls. Even though they have established a new kind of problematic body image, it’s interesting to me that they (gained popularity) in a post-Obama world and in correspondence with this body positivity movement. I can’t predict where it will go but I do think the (2020 presidential) election will have something to do with it. I think that the actual status of politics and social justice politics will play into it somehow, whether it's to reflect who’s in power or be reactionary to who's in power.
What is your favorite moment of Kardashian vanity? I think mine is “Stop taking selfies, your sister is going to jail.”
That was them starting to name what a selfie is and model how to take a selfie. It was memorable because it was inappropriate for the moment, so it put an interesting emphasis on the urgency to take a selfie, what it is to take a selfie, what it means to take a selfie.
I think I would say (my favorite moment of Kardashian vanity) is Selfish. I don’t own it, I haven’t even opened it. But I think it's an amazing concept. So I suppose that and that business move in Kim’s career.
When you were a kid and you imagined the future, what did you think it would be?
I remember thinking that AOL and IM were amazing. I thought Mac computers looked really cool. I don't think I thought that much further in advance. I was always really happy with my CDs. I wanted a massive library of books. I would use the internet to look for silent films - I was such a little nerd. There was nothing besides some website called goldensilents.com. You’d have to click on these weird little files to open a quicktime video. And I think about how easy it is to find those now - it was the biggest most laborious search back then.
I also really liked the idea of the Clueless closet. Cher swipes through on this computer to pick her outfit and then the closet spits out the shirt and the skirt. Kim Kardashian basically has that, which is something interesting to think about.
You can read MJ Corey’s latest essay, Forcing the Fairy Tale: I Stayed in a Bad Relationship Because of a Psychic’s Prediction. Kim Kardashian Would Understand on Medium and see her intellectual memes on her Instagram, @Kardashian_Kolloquium.