When I tuned to E! to watch the 14th season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I was expecting mindless entertainment. I’d been up all through the night writing, and I wanted to distract myself from both my impending deadlines and the terrifying reality that is our current news cycle. I wanted to feel comfortably numb, insulated in a world of alliteratively named brunettes who eat salads and drive around in SUVs. So, when I heard Khloe Kardashian lament the insular, self-obsessed culture her mother helped pioneer, I looked up from my magazine with a skeptical smirk.
“I think people are blind and kind of like to live in their bubble and ignore what’s really going on,” she declared in one of her solo interviews before the bright lights of the camera, her hair teased and slicked, her nails long and vamp.
I’d always liked the Kardashians and defended them against their harshest critics, whom I secretly suspected to be more than slightly sexist in their condemnations—threatened and perturbed by this matriarchy of powerful and unabashed women. Though the Kardashians represented progressive ideals to a certain extent—namely interracial marriage, gender fluidity, body (or at the very least: curve) acceptance—they were also, quite literally, the poster children of rich Hollywood kids getting by on a combination of sex appeal and shamelessness. The vehicle of this fame being, of course, the show I was watching at that very moment.
So, it was with slight shock that I watched the story arc unfold for the next several hours—as I said, I was feeling lazy. While the opening episodes centered around Met Balls and wellness centers—an anesthetic for the longtime viewer, the narrative imparted in the expressionless monotone that is the family trademark—by episode five, the plot points included reproductive rights, gun violence and income inequality. I watched the CEO of Planned Parenthood LA, Sue Dunlap, guide the Kardashians—and, by extension, the audience—through the services of a local clinic. I listened to a representative from Everytown recite the staggering statistics of mass shootings and advocate for gun control. I followed Councilwoman Nury Martinez through the homeless encampments of downtown LA.
By episode eight, Kim was leading her camera crew down Skid Row, weaving her way through pitched tents and overturned garbage cans: the makeshift homes of about 47,000 LA residents.
“The city needs to figure out housing and it’s not going to be just one person. I know that this is not something that I can fix by myself,” Kim said. “But I hope that everything that I’m learning will hopefully wake something up in other people.”
When did the Kardashians get so woke?
The influence Kardashian wields over legions of young women is wildly disproportionate to the recognition bestowed upon their elected officials. Many Americans are far more likely to know Kim Kardashian (and quite intimately, at that) than they are to identify Nury Martinez or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for that matter.
“People just have to see this,” Kim said to Martinez, pausing before she invoked her weapon for mass awareness: “I want to bring our cameras. I want to show people what it’s like just down the street.”
The camera provides her with the global platform she needs to deliver upon these intentions: giving a human face to the people living in the severely inhumane conditions on San Fernando Road.
But the camera is also the great equalizer. When Kim visits with several women at the Union Rescue Mission, the camera zooms in on their faces while they tell their life stories. They are no longer part of the dehumanized masses in the streets: they are individual people, with hope and fears and regret. In an unexpected move, Kim Kardashian, the avatar of capitalist excess, forces the television-watching hordes of middle-class Middle America to recognize the personhood of the coastal, the ethnic, and the destitute.
With attention comes importance: there is power in having your image on a screen. And our national symbol of privilege, Kim Kardashian, is quick to acknowledge the thin line separating herself from the women she met: “There are so many circumstances that can lead to this situation for so many people — this could happen to anyone. It’s so important to understand that not everyone on the street is a drug addict.”
There but for the grace of God go I, indeed. Especially when, as a woman, your chances of survival are drastically diminished without the protection of a home.
“This is the worst man-made disaster in the United States,” the shelter CEO declares. They have a policy of never turning away a woman, because assault is so prevalent on the streets.
And just like that, this inherently fantastical medium becomes a warped looking-glass into our national reality: far from offering escapism from the real world, it seemed, the real world had come to the Kardashians. Reality television was reflecting our current reality: the rampant sexual assault, the unforgiving nature of income inequality in this country.
Kim’s narration positions herself as yet another member of the innocently ignorant masses—a self-presentation that is not only an oxymoron, but also unlikely given her success. Wealth is rarely so rapidly accumulated (and well-maintained) without a certain savviness. At the beginning of each episode, she adopts the position of an overwhelmed yet eager student, inhabiting the outlook she wants her viewers to emulate:
“I don’t know what the answer is to get people off the streets, but I’m so willing to help in any way that I can. I just want to bring awareness to this issue.”
She puts herself in the footsteps of those who may feel powerless to help, or uneducated about the issues. She forgives their lack of knowledge. Her message is sympathetic to those who’ve previously been silent or complacent. Her rallying cry is one that looks more towards the future than the past:
“I’m just at a point in my life where I don’t want to be naive anymore…I really do want to learn.”
In today’s political climate, when the self-silencing of women in private Facebook groups, offices, and bedrooms has finally reached a boiling point, there may be no better message than this. Educate yourself and take a stance. We can’t expect men to save us now, can we? At this point, the future simply needs to be female.
Katherine is a weekly columnist for Roar. A freelance writer and editor based in New York City, she writes frequently about culture, political and social issues, literature, and travel. She received her master’s degree from The New School, with honors in nonfiction writing. Follow her work at www.katherineparkermagyar.com.