This article was originally published on The Vocal.
The Kardashian family burst onto the scene in 2007 with their groundbreaking reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. What began as a vehicle to spin Kim Kardashian’s career into something other than being famous for a leaked sex tape has evolved into a global brand, parlaying itself into fashion and lifestyle, multi-million dollar mobile games and sold out lip kits. We’re often quick to write the family off as fame-whores with no discernible talent, but the Kardashians have proved in recent years, especially with the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner as trans, that they’re compassionate people with human problems rather than money-hungry robots. And here’s how that might just make them better than you.
Despite a few stumbles in the early seasons of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim and her family have seldom expressed shame at having one of Kim’s most intimate moments caught on camera and distributed for the world to see. Instead, Kim uses her oft-discussed visage as a commodity, raking in money not only from the sex tape and the reality show but from Playboy shoots, “breaking the internet” for Paper magazine and as an avatar in her very own video game, encapsulating all aspects of media.
The release of the sisters’ mobile apps last year further cemented the Kardashian brand, allowing unprecedented access to their lives even more so than KUWTK and Instagram provides. Youngest sibling Kylie routinely makes headlines with her risque Snapchats, revealing app videos and the aforementioned lip kits in perhaps a testament to the effects of fame on young Hollywood.
But Kendall and Kylie’s professional acumen at such a young age is more likely a byproduct of coming from a family of such strong business women. Kim has spoken about how she never stops working and Kris is depicted as always commandeering some business venture or another. Even when getting their makeup done for a photoshoot or being filmed hanging out at home on KUWTK, the Kardashians are still working to promote their brand. Perhaps we’re hesitant to see it as work since our own working lives so scarcely resemble that of the Kardashians. Or maybe we devalue their empire because it’s one helmed by women and women who simultaneously uphold (perfect makeup, hourglass figures, flowing hair) and tear down (revealing the work that goes into looking flawless, Kim speaking about her ambivalence towards pregnancy) many aspects of modern femininity at that.
Instead of applying credit where credit is due, those who denounce the family are quick to remind us of Kim’s beginnings as if having, enjoying and filming sex is unspeakable and, furthermore, that everything she’s done since then hasn’t eclipsed it.
Similarly, as if sex and compassion were mutually exclusive, Kim and the rest of the Kardashians have proven to be more compassionate than many of their detractors when Caitlyn Jenner, their put-upon, ignored and shuffled-to-the-side dad came out publicly as a trans woman in April 2015.
Making the revelation to Diane Sawyer in an interview with 20/20, Jenner said she identified as a woman and would begin transitioning, which was further explored in a two-part Keeping Up with the Kardashians special, “About Bruce” (when she was then going by her birth name and male pronouns).
When Jenner posed for the cover of Vanity Fair that June, asking to be called by her preferred name and female pronouns, the response from the general public was mixed. Some assertions I heard around the watercooler and read in the news about Jenner were that she was “actually pretty” or “hot for a guy” (:|) while others were more overtly transphobic, continually deadnaming her and who can forget the time In Touch Weekly photoshopped Jenner’s face onto the body of another woman before her coming out. Think pieces abounded from the likes of Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, who urged us not to focus on Jenner’s looks and provided the necessary balance missing from the commentary.
Meanwhile, the Kardashians eventually went on talk shows and took to social media, as Kardashians are wont to do, explaining how they came to terms with Jenner’s coming out. Khloe was perhaps the most obviously unsure as to how to proceed, which was a large focus of seasons ten and eleven of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Jenner’s subsequent reality show, I Am Cait. Jenner is still often called “Dad” in clips from the Kardashian konglomerate’s shows, again illustrating that if anyone needs time (and privacy!) to come to terms with Jenner’s transition, it is her family, not the peanut gallery.
The argument can be made that when the Kardashians invited us into their lives nine years ago—and with their continued exposure via their apps and social media, as well as the situations they choose to get themselves into on screen—they forfeited their right to privacy. But I’m not sure the Kardashians want privacy. Instead, they choose to be strategic about what gets shown, how it gets shown and when.
Everything they’ve done since 2007 has been measured and adhered to a strict timeline. It either addresses the big issues like Caitlyn’s coming out or deals with Kanye’s Twitter rants and Rob hooking up with Kim’s ex-best friend and Kylie’s boyfriend’s ex Blac Chyna (phew! hard to keep up there) in their own time and way. There is a reason for Caitlyn revealing herself as trans via a series of media appearances and that is for maximised impact and to ensure the rest of the family can address it. History shows the Kardashians will wait to address Rob’s new relationship and Kanye’s social media references in future episodes of KUWTK. The media can have a frenzy over these things as much as they like but they’ll have to wait to get the official word from the main source itself, which gives them a kind of power.
With their wholehearted embrace of fame comes things like role model status, however tenuous, and the buzzed-about “visibility” for the trans community that many other trans people don’t have the luxury of. This is evident in some of the interactions between Jenner and the trans women she meets during the first season of I Am Cait, like Blossom and Chandi, who are marginalised because of their race and financial and trans statuses, things Jenner is still coming to terms with and will hopefully be addressed further in the show’s second season.
Jenner’s acceptance by her family is yet another luxury trans people often don’t have. If the Kardashians are indeed as shallow as we often prescribe them to be, then they could have shunned Jenner upon her coming out and it might have been expected of them, especially thanks to the shallow and vacuous stigma often aimed at reality TV celebrities. Instead, they flip those expectations on the head and choose to accept Jenner and embrace her coming out. Of course, they do so knowing they have a huge financial juggernaut and brand empire to cushion them from the stigmas other families with trans members might face, showing their immense privilege in this situation, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
It’s important to understand the things Jenner has access to as a rich, famous woman, which I Am Cait attempts to do at a surface level. Look at the way Jenner is sequestered in her own Malibu mountaintop fortress, where her friends and family come to her lest she risk going out and being hounded by the paparazzi. Jenner was able to undergo facial feminisation surgery before her Vanity Fair cover, as discussed on “About Bruce”. She’s able to take road trips to trans activist centres and camps along the West Coast to learn more about gender identity and what it means to be a role model. She’s been named Glamour’s Woman of the Year and one of Time magazine’s People of the Year despite saying less than inclusive things when promoting these accolades. Considering trans people are four times more likely to be living in poverty than cis people in America, and 41% of trans and gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide, Jenner’s privilege is far removed from much of the community she’s become an overnight spokesperson for. With I Am Cait, we can learn from Jenner as she navigates these stumbling blocks.
For those who understand the adversities faced by the general trans community, it’s clear that Caitlyn Jenner and the Kardashians aren’t the most representative example of their reality and experiences. But, as is evident in the abovementioned transphobic responses to Jenner’s coming out, not many people are, in which case America’s first family is an important touchstone to understanding transgender issues with empathy and acceptance.
So, instead of deriding the family for every magazine cover and Instagram post maybe we can watch a few episodes of KUWTK or actually listen to what’s coming out of Kim’s mouth when she’s interviewed.
Whether we like it or not, the Kardashians are representative of the state of fame and power in our culture and, in using their popularity for a good cause, they just might be better than you after all.