Comment: A Brief History of Kris Jenner’s American Dynasty
Love them or loathe them, there’s no denying the Kardashian’s have invaded popular culture. But how did they get to where they are now? And are they actually helping society tackle the big issues? Rhianne Sinclair-Phillips thinks they just might be...
Each week millions of people tune in to keep up with their every move. We've watched them get married, divorced, give birth, undergo plastic surgery and come of age. The Kardashians have single-handedly managed to change the nature of celebrity by developing a continuous “contrived spectacle” where each family member is a legitimate business. You could call them the biggest American dynasty of the 21st century but what is important is the brains behind it all: Kris Jenner.
I've developed a habit of vilifying the Kardashian-Jenner clan for not using their platform to promote important causes. But if I take a closer look they curate the news. In their total domination of global headlines, they are actually encouraging debate on some of the toughest social issues facing contemporary society. Do they mean to? Well, Kris Jenner isn’t your average ‘momager’.
For ten years Kris Jenner has managed to capitalise on the pool of talent within her home. She’s taken control over the careers of her children, their better halves and her own, developing a family business where they are famous for being famous. Has she exploited her family, particularly her children, for financial gains and fame? Probably, but without Kris Jenner would we be arguing about the misappropriation of black culture each time a Kardashian-Jenner sister steps out in braids? Would we be so quick to jump on Twitter pulling up examples of racial injustice every time Kim realises it’s a thing? Or would we be discussing transgenderism on a global scale?
Each time Kris Jenner has stepped in. She has allowed these issues to play out in front of the cameras on her terms. Giving access to every recess of her family life is perhaps the reason why we’re so obsessed with them. In fact, when 16.9 million people watched the announcement ofCaitlyn Jenner’s transition, the Kardashian show placed the subject of transgenderism in the spotlight. For years we watched the former Olympic champion cast in the shadows. We saw Kris confiscate his credit card and David LaChappelle lock him in a box for the annual Christmas card. This public emasculation in every season felt uncomfortable, making the news of Caitlyn’s transition all the more victorious, as well as surprising and fantastic reality TV.
It is important to note that Kris still manages Caitlyn so when she secured an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer and Caitlyn Jenner she masterminded a week’s worth of headlines. Much like the other women in her family Caitlyn Jenner was an overnight success. Since coming out, she’s used her platform to promote inclusion, open-mindedness and sexual tolerance. Transgender actress Laverne Cox praised her for speaking her truth but it’s very easy to paint Caitlyn as a hero. There is still tension within her public persona – she’s a Republican who supports Ted Cruz, so how does that play into his anti-LGBT agenda? And let’s not forget that she's still a rich, white, privileged woman – so isn’t it only natural for her to vote like one?
Pondering on such questions is all part of the Kardashian machine. A new storyline presents a new opportunity for the public to have an open discussion about key social issues. Caitlyn Jenner is case and point. The revelation crafted a series of think pieces that addressed unanswered questions and cultivated a spin-off series executively produced by none other than Kris Jenner. But despite being both problematic and insightful, overall it encouraged people to talk.
We were first introduced to the family in 2006 following the release of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape. Kris capitalised off her daughter’s new found fame by securing Kim magazine covers for the likes of Playboy and KING. What was most noticeable about Kim’s beauty was the prominence of her bum. At the time, images of the super thin Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were the norm so the sudden revival of curves was refreshing.
Kim Kardashian’s rising celebrity is synonymous with her bum. She’s made it an accepted part of mainstream beauty culture, pushing the aesthetics of beauty away from the standard fashion model look. Visit any gym and you’ll find a slew of women squatting to achieve that infamously defined feature. But with Kim coming to our attention through sex work, the authenticity of her bum was instantly subject to speculation of whether it was real or fake. In fact much of the Kardashian’s early years of fame centred around this mystery.
And then came the Paper Magazine cover where a naked Kim shows off her large, glazed butt. She broke the internet and Black Twitter went berserk. They accused Kim of “columbusing” - claiming to invent something despite it being around for decades similar to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean. What Kim hadn’t factored into the pose was centuries of black female oppression. During the 18th century, the bum became a primitive sign of authentic blackness. Women with a round posterior were deemed hyper-sexual by Western thought. Their bum was used as an excuse to control their image, encouraging performers like Josephine Baker, Tina Turner and Nicki Minaj to manipulate the racial connotations of their bum to gain mainstream recognition.
Further, the image was based on Jean-Paul Goude’s image “Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976’, part of a series of fetishised images of black women’s bodies in a photography book named ‘Jungle Fever’. By objectifying her bum, Kim is arguably steeped in centuries of racism and oppression. Black women with the same figure are constantly criticised for being unattractive and ugly. Serena Williams, for example, is a frequent target of media criticism for having “too much ass”. So in Kim’s careless reproduction of this problematic past Kris Jenner opened the flood-gates for racially driven news. The media jumped on the opportunity and each side (both black and white) openly voiced their opinions. And the latest news on the butt debacle? It’s not 55 inches, ok!
And while we weigh up the pros and cons of their latest antics, Kris is developing their next storyline for E!. Now that she’s a grandmother, she has a new cast to address fresh issues that will keep her family at the top of the agenda. How will Mason and Penelope handle being raised by a single parent? And with the birth of Saint West, how will the Kardashian’s raise a black man in America during a time when police brutality is taking the lives of innocent African-American men? If we choose to stay tuned her polarising dynasty will reveal all on screen near you. I can just see it now, “North and Saint Take Chicago”.