Although humans have acquired fame and fortune for hundreds of years, it was the invention of photography that gave rise to the current mode of celebrity. Before that, also, much depended on being seen, and recognizable — in portraits, events and the halls of power. For a successful or venerated figure to stay hidden may create an air of intrigue, but it leaves no imprint on the public eye, nothing to fix them in the visual firmament of the prosperous, connected elite.
Just mentioning the Kardashian family to certain people elicits a frothy rage; some are genuinely furious that the dynasty has gained any prominence whatsoever since the early 2000s. The common charge against Kim Kardashian West — also hurled at Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in their heyday — is that she and her relatives are “famous for being famous,” i.e., for no reason at all. It’s a bit more complicated than that (really they’re known as calculating moguls of entertainment and fashion), but it’s true that their ascendance in the culture was image-driven. Just as The Apprentice franchise allowed Donald Trump to claim the reputation of a shrewd businessman, the Kardashians’ many reality shows began from the assumption of their relevance and worked backward to it: In order to establish and then retain their influence, the family worked hard to make it seem obvious that cameras would always be pointed at them.
This week, the Kardashians have once more tested our appetite for their indulgence, with Kim documenting her plague-year 40th birthday celebration on a private island in — of course — a series of photos on social media. Facing a dire election and grieving for a quarter million dead from COVID-19, Americans were hostile at best to this aggressive display of luxury. The backlash was instantaneous, Kim blasted as a tone-deaf, privilege-flaunting egomaniac. Some pointed out that she could have enjoyed this vacation without posting about it; Vanity Fair begged her to show some discretion, at least.
Yet, as the takes rolled in, Twitter users mocking the Kardashians reaffirmed the family’s place in our collective consciousness. The text in Kim’s “2 weeks of multiple health screens” tweet became a copypasta meme, applied to other locales and characters from film and TV — even the venerable Museum of Modern Art joined the trend.
It seems fair to say that when an art museum is commenting on your party photos, you’ve done exactly what you set out to accomplish. That Kim continued to share pictures from the island getaway, indifferent to the criticism, is further proof that she’s not really looking for approval.
One of the very best tweets by the prophet @dril nails the pattern: “it is with a heavy heart that i must announce that the celebs are at it again,” it reads. The line first makes us laugh with the weight of its melancholy. We do invest emotionally in celebs, to an altogether absurd degree. Next, we laugh at the ambiguous, familiar offense: Famous people are constantly fucking up one way or another, so the universal “it” applies. This leads us to reflect on the incorrigible nature of the celebs, their seeming inability to learn from the past or predict future consequences.
The Kardashians represent the ne plus ultra of this phenomenon. They are perpetually and predictably “at it again” because this is their job. It’s not quite that they thrive on your hate — although that’s certainly part of it — more that their brand calls for a remove from ordinary, lower-class struggle that inflames the outrage of inequality. They are supposed to be out of touch, since a celeb by definition occupies a higher stratum than their audience. Receiving negative attention isn’t a loss if that controversy reiterates your social rank. “The Kardashians are bad for enjoying a lavish island retreat during a pandemic” quickly boils down to “the Kardashians are enjoying a lavish island retreat.” If Kim didn’t brag, how would you know? Doesn’t her reputation erode with silence? How long before you forget she exists at all?
Throughout 2020, the celebs have grappled with that most elemental piece of their identity — the need to be seen, and thereby renew their claim on our gaze, which is what ultimately makes them money. Driven to distraction and madness by the horrors of the age, we can still be counted on to drop what we’re doing and watch them deliver a clunky PSA on racism, or sing a cringeworthy rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — if only to ridicule them for it. Few among the famous deliberately capitalize on the divide between our experience and theirs like the Kardashians, and some have tried to erase it (actor Jamie Dornan recorded his “Imagine” take in a bathroom to avoid any hint of affluence), but either way, the celebs wind up at it again.
What’s changed is the background noise. Striving for the spotlight and exaggerating your importance is tacky in the best of times; we’ve now reached a critical mass of catastrophe that makes it entirely preposterous. That hasn’t stopped the celebs, who add a shallow “awareness” of the issues and cite a “responsibility” to speak up in order to justify their publicity campaigns. It’s never convincing so long as their faces and bodies and wealth and entitlement are integral to the product we’re fed. A large, anonymous donation does more than any Hollywood star cold-reading a script off their computer screen. We aren’t fooled, but neither can we free ourselves from caring enough to tell them so, in the harshest possible terms. We need the celebs to be “back at it” so we can rebuke them. You might even say they are modeling selfish, phony behavior to steer us in the other direction.
Except that’s far too much credit, isn’t it.