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The Kardashians: Gender Power, Politics, and a Feminist Dilemma

Words by Louise Oliphant

Whilst many of us would not have anticipated to hear the words ‘season finale’, this month welcomed season 20, the final season, of Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK). After fourteen years of documenting marriages, divorces, births and businesses, the Kardashians have provided us with dramatized yet highly relatable content that we just cannot seem to miss. The programme has spawned sister trip spin-offs and stemmed business deals that have grown the family empire into a powerhouse of female entrepreneurs. Yet, where there is appreciation, there is also detestation; the women, defined by the vanity of the selfie, nearly-naked Instagram posts and trivial ‘women’s issues’ like Kim’s unforgettable lost diamond earring hysteria, are regularly judged on the basis of human reality – or rather against the realities of our somewhat mundane comparative lives. But let’s not confuse the parameters of these conclusions; to not see their forever optimistic approach to life, their incessant love for others, perpetuated through their close family bond or their stupefying ability to overcome the exact criticism that attempts to confine them, is to ignore the humble nature of this family. Although this attribute does not centralise this discussion, instead we formulate how the doctrine of ‘staying true to yourself’ can elevate a back-and-forth feminist debate of what constitutes ‘female empowerment’. So, as we say a reluctant goodbye to the Kardashian-Jenners, it seems appropriate to reconfigure cultural debates and controversies surrounding the sisters’ unparalleled influence on women worldwide.

At the helm of the pop-culture dynasty is the ultimate ‘momager’ and matriarch, Kris Jenner. If any woman can epitomise female power, it’s her. As a self-proclaimed mom-manager and actual producer of KUWTK, Jenner exudes confidence and buoyancy to take on a role, in that without her, much of the Kardashian-Jenner party would be tangled up in overbooked diaries. Though, her strong female dominance and a ‘need no man’ attitude has been passed down to her five daughters; exemplified through divorces, shameful cheating scandals and even the entire family’s enduring tolerance of Scott Disick’s early behaviour. These women are truly resilient. Yet, whilst gender power politics are undeniably apparent, certain feminist perspectives feel intentions to empower are tarnished by plastic surgery procedures, egocentric follies and compromising behaviour.

Specifically, these three categories of critique reflect the paradox of feminist debate in pop-culture controversies…Where some argue the Kardashians’ Instagram posts set unrealistic standards of beauty, unobtainable for the average woman, others express the utilisation of social media and the ‘selfie’ as a means of self-expression and ownership of one’s own body. Similarly, where many believe the Kardashians are deeply narcissistic and proliferate a unilaterally focus on yourself as the key to success, others see perfect poster-women for female-led empires, serving as an inspiration to women climbing the testosterone-filled echelon. And, where those accumulate a sex tape, nude selfies and -let’s mention Kendall’s insensitive Pepsi commercial- as evidence of how to notset a good example, others see the sisters’ combat of hard times of revenge porn and robbery, just to name a couple, as proving role model status… This tennis match of feminist opinion takes place within a court of ‘backlash’. Where one argument direct opposes another, is one necessarily ‘right’, or rather is this a dispute over personal opinion?

To reiterate the rallying slogan of 1960’s second-wave feminism, where the ‘personal’ becomes the ‘political’, individual feminist viewpoints incongruently reside in opposing political contexts. For example, celebrating female sexuality and confidently embracing the female form can both present a subversion of the ‘male gaze’ but also impose a problematic self-surveillance onto women’s bodies. To rejoice in ‘womanhood’, in a world where women are expected to be passive and self-conscious becomes elusive when womanhood is defined by a tiny waist, symmetrical face and a ridiculously large behind. This discussion could continue, but what is clear is that the battle to conclude how women are represented or in fact are able to represent themselves to a wider audience of wishful females, is not likely. Collectively, we cannot answer whether the Kardashians are the epitome of the feminist movement, since our ideas of feminist icons can be so acutely diverged.

Love them or loathe them, these women have become queens of reality TV, divisive figures in popular celebrity culture and above all else, symbols of unprecedented female power.


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