The Kardashian Effect: Their Unnecessary Presence In The Public Sphere

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Kim Kardashians controversial 2014 magazine cover shoot.

One small, simple Google search for the word “Kardashian” reveals a whole other world of the media. When I entered the word “Kardashian” into the Google News tab, I was met with headlines that revolved around these types of things:

“Kim Kardashian Will Tell You Her Instagram Secrets”

“Kim Kardashian Has North West Photographed From Four Different Angles While Dressing”

“Khloe Kardashian Rubs Down With Pregnancy Beauty Products, Explains More of Her Makeup Routine”

The search for the word alone yields about 221,000,000 results. Just process that for a second.

Not only has the show following their lives; “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” garnered a cult-like following, that viewership has spilled over to the point where every single move they make is covered by every angle, and every person with an opinion (who has any interest at all in the life of celebrities) finds it a necessity to chime in on what they think of whatever minuscule situation the Kardashian family gets themselves into. This raises a particularly interesting notion – is the public sphere changing for the worst?

The man behind the original idea of the public sphere is Jurgen Habermas, who imagined that the public sphere was similar to an 18th century coffee house; a place to debate the news and ideas of the day, in an “egalitarian and open” environment.

So where do the Kardashians and 18th century coffee houses come into all this?

Well to put it simply – while there is still debate (albeit slightly controlled) on shows such as Q and A concerning hot button issues such as climate change, feminism, or the latest political agenda, Habermas’ idea of the “coffee-house” public sphere is now being dominated by what Khloe Kardashian wore to a restaurant, or debate on whether or not to buy Kim Kardashians new book comprised entirely of selfies, aptly titled… Selfish.

While it can be argued that the main demographic the Kardashians target is women, it’s also right to say that apart from some men who enjoy the lives of the Kardashians, there’s an equal amount of men who enjoy talking about how much they detest the whole idea of the Kardashians; creating a whirlwind of opinion that circulates relentlessly around the public sphere.

Why is this changing the public sphere? And why for the worst? In two ways:

Firstly, the mainstream media and society in general hasn’t seen something as powerful and widespread as the Kardashians currently are. This is something that CAN change the dynamic of the public sphere.

Secondly, as previously shown, the headlines that are related to them are, at their core, utterly ridiculous. But the mainstream media controls what is funneled to us, and anything related to the Kardashian phenomenon is something that media outlets want to be able to “report” on first. This idea of wanting to be the first to document the latest situation of the Kardashians has created a whole separate culture of reporting, the public sphere, and public debate.

Another example of the Kardashians changing the public sphere is actually tracking the evolution of the sphere itself; the idea as we know it today originally started as a forum for the elite to discuss the topics of the day, later the middle class (bourgeoisie) got involved, and then eventually became a feature of capitalist societies.

The public sphere is much more widespread than it used to be, and the Kardashians are a bigger celebrity phenomenon than anything else in recent history – a perfect marriage of factors that lead me to this conclusion.

There is one view on the current public sphere, claiming that consumer capitalism is ruining the whole idea, conversely, there’s an idea that the high number of newly formed public domains can only help the idea, however…

I feel that the Kardashians epitomize the idea of consumer capitalism, and the quantity of newly formed public domains only adds to the problem that consumer capitalism brings. This is the sole reason why I believe that the Kardashians are completely ruining the integrity of the public sphere, by drowning out media texts that actually make an attempt to bring to the public arguments about pressing issues such as homosexuality, net neutrality, terrorism, and a range of other political issues that definitely matter more than the latest Kardashian scandal.

However, it’s ironic that writing a whole piece detailing how the Kardashians are ruining the public sphere actually contributes to the problems I am concerned with… with the Kardashians as big as they are, it’s hard not to complain without being hypocritical.

References:

Sue Turnbulls Week 5 Lecture: “Big Brother is Watching You”

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4 Comments

  1. While I agree that a public sphere should include such topics as globalization, global warming, and other issues you’ve listed in this post, I do believe that people like the Kardashian’s (and the Jenner’s) can be important in a public sphere!

    If the topic of the day involves the Kardashian’s, it may not just be superficial (though, yes, it can be commercialised and this is problematic). For example, does Kim’s sex tape contribute to the discussions about feminism and what one does with their body?

    Or what about the topic of ethnicity? Sastre says “…this body is partially of Armenian descent, a heritage Kardashian frequently references in a particularly nebulous example of how ethnicity is both constructed as fluid and leveraged in the framing of female sexuality” (2014 [2013], p. 123).

    Their television show may also contribute to discussions about reality TV and how real ‘real’ is, such as presenting herself in such a way that is “…both an accessible and unique commodity in the marketplace of personality” (Sastre 2014 [2013], p. 124).

    Let’s not forget discussions about Bruce Jenner’s sex change.

    Though these issues may arise in popular, commercialised and problematic media, they can contribute to discussions in a public sphere. Your conclusion supports my argument – you are trying to avoid a public sphere about the Kardashian’s, but you are making an important point within the public sphere surrounding the Kardashian family.

    Reference:
    Sastre, A 2014 [2013], ‘Hottentot in the age of reality TV: sexuality, race, and Kim Kardashian’s visible body’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 5, no. 1-2, pp. 123-137.

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    1. Wow! Really enjoyed that read. Yeah, when I finished writing I realised what I was doing, hence the conclusion. Really never thought of the ways that you listed (e.g. her sex tape, bruce jenner etc.) as something that could turn into a legitimate moral debate that positively contributes to the public sphere, thanks for bringing that up! Always awesome to get feedback and get someone elses view. Maybe it was just the pure superficial element of them I dislike… either way, awesome comment, thanks!

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      1. If it wasn’t for your post I probably wouldn’t have thought about the Kardashian’s in that much detail either, or even considered their important presence in many public spheres! So thank you for your awesome post too! 🙂

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  2. I agree that keeping up with the Kardashian’s takes up a lot of space within the public sphere but contributes very little to it. However, I don’t think its anything particularly new in terms of filler material within the public sphere. Reality TV has been around for a few years now, shows like big brother come to mind. I would say that the reason the Kardashian reality show is so popular is because the public are used to this kind of entertainment now. Maybe it’s because TV in its current style is a dying format?
    Great post though, very well written with good points.

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