Reality TV’s royal family is getting ready to celebrate ten years of their hit show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Let that sink in for a minute. Kris Jenner’s clan of Kim, Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and the elusive Rob Kardashian have been on our screens for a decade. There are grade five students out there right now who have never known a world without the Kardashians’ media empire.
Confession: the Kardashians are my (somewhat problematic) faves. While I am definitely not here for Kendall’s tone-deaf ads, Kim’s multiple missteps when discussing racism or income inequality, or Kylie’s questionable boxer braids and use of Photoshop, I can’t help but click when I see an entire afternoon-long block of KUWTK on my TV’s guide (and trust, I don’t just watch one episode). From Kim’s ugly cry to Kourtney’s deadpan monologues to their world of McMansions and takeout salads, I love it all.
Over the past 10 years, the Kardashians have produced 13 seasons and at least five spinoffs, not to mention garnered hundreds of millions of fans and followers. In fact more than 400 million people—which is more than the entire population of the U.S. and Canada combined— follow the Kardashian ladies on IG alone.
But after 10 years, what is it that keeps audiences coming back? There is a surprising lack of research on the family that has captured our attention, and taken over our social and entertainment news feeds, for the past decade—but that hasn’t stopped some students from digging into the KUWTK phenomenon. We chatted with Durham University sociology graduate Eliza Cummings-Cove, who wrote her dissertation on Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, et al., and Selena Pruitt, who wrote her senior thesis for Macalester College in Minnesota on the same topic, to get their insight into why we’re so enamoured with the Kardashians—and whether they think that love can last.
That feeling of connection
TBH, one of the reasons that I tune in to KUWTK is because, in a strange way, watching the show reminds me of my own family. I’m an only child, but I grew up with a large extended family and even when we’re not together, we’re in each other’s business. I’ve noticed that lately, when I’m missing having my family in the same kitchen, talking over each other about nonsense, watching KUWTK feels like the next best thing.
Cummings-Cove not only wrote nearly 10,000 words about the show, she is also an avid viewer of the series, which she describes as “fun, and ridiculous and utterly captivating.” And she says that feeling of connection is real. Because the Kardashians show every minute detail—from using Kourtney’s “home remedy” for Kim’s psoriasis to Kris Jenner’s grave-shopping trip—viewers become completely invested and immersed in their lives.
“Unlike most other reality TV shows, they record the most absolutely private moments of their lives—childbirth, heartbreak, addiction—and simultaneously share the most minute details of their lives on social media. These two things work simultaneously to simulate a feeling of intimacy and genuine connection between them and their audience, which is something I think people love and drives a huge amount of engagement,” says Cummings-Cove. “People love to be involved, and they make you feel involved.”
Many people—including Jennifer Lawrence—also feel a sense of familiarity watching the Kardashian family, compared to other reality shows where the cast is constantly changing and fighting with each other. Conversely, at its core, KUWTK’s brand is about the strength and importance of family.
“I’ve been watching [the Kardashians] for 11 years, so I grew up with them, and I know all of them personally,” Lawrence told ET. “The Housewives, they go in and out. They’re fighting all the time. There’s something more comforting about the Kardashians.”
KUWTK as a form of self-care
Lawrence isn’t just a fan of the show as entertainment, she uses it to decompress. The actress recently spoke to numerous media outlets about using re-runs of KUWTK as a way to unwind while shooting her intense psychological thriller Mother!
“It got to a point in the movie where it got so dark I was like, Ya know what? I need the Kardashians,” Lawrence told E! News.
It may sound crazy, but using re-runs to reboot yourself is actually a tactic with scientific backing. A University of Buffalo study found that the familiar characters and storylines found in re-runs can help restore energy when you’re feeling down after a rough day. The researchers noted that it can even help restore your drive to get things done.
And it turns out that Lawrence isn’t the only one using KUWTK episodes as a form of self care. When FLARE interviewed political journalists about covering a world where the president of the U.S. can break major international news at any given time on Twitter, multiple reporters said they were keeping it together by keeping up with the Kardashians.
“I deal with a lot of doom and gloom, so sometimes I just need to kill a few brain cells and watch mind-numbing TV when I get home,” said CityNews reporter Ginella Massa. “The Kardashians or Catfish usually does the trick.”
New York Magazine‘s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi agreed. “When I was on the road during the campaign, I would head back to my hotel as early as possible and watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which was the perfect escape.”
A modern-day fairytale
I can’t say that I ever bought into Kim’s bandage dress phase or even some of her recent attempts to convince people that lace bras can double as shirts, but I know that my fashion picks are undoubtably influenced by this fam. Particularly being a petite, darker-skinned and somewhat hairy woman, seeing the Kardashians with their curves, thick brows and glowing skin opened a door for a new type of beauty ideal.
For her dissertation—which earned her a “first,” the highest possible grade—Cummings-Cove interviewed nine women and found that many of them saw the Kardashians as a sort of modern-day, postfeminist fairytale.
“Without fail, every woman I interviewed said they aspired to at least some aspect of the Kardashians image or lifestyle, whether that was having a bigger bum or living in a beautiful house in L.A., and that that was part of the reason they followed them or watched the show,” she said—though several participants suggested that these beauty standards bred more negativity than positivity.
The family’s success, which is signalled through palatial houses and a luxe lifestyle that was seemingly built before our eyes, gives viewers the sense that we’re following along as these not-so-poor paupers become princesses. But unlike the Cinderellas and Snow Whites that came before them, the Kardashian women “embody the ideals of post-feminism—they are beautiful, intelligent, sexually liberated, wealthy, successful in their careers, and still able to catch a Prince Charming,” Cummings-Cove argues.
The story of the Kardashians may not be the type of fairytale to put your kids to sleep with—particularly since Kim initially shot to fame because of a sex tape—but it is nothing short of impressive how these women have managed to go from L.A. D-listers to household names. They didn’t exactly start at the bottom, but there is no doubt that the Kardashians have built an empire—seemingly out of nothing. In this way, Pruitt argues that the Kardashians play an important role in American society by reflecting a version of the American dream, while also pointing out problems with how we live today.
“I would argue that the Kardashians do provide something to our society, by forcing us to reflect on our values and ideals,” says Pruitt. “In my paper I argue that they act as a mirror for American culture and society, and merely reflect current American values and dreams, magnifying its flaws, and highlighting serious issues that American society has long ignored by bringing them into the national spotlight.”
As much as they’ve talked about fad diets and and lipsticks, they have also made headlines for being so open about fertility issues, surrogacy, mental health, dysfunctional relationships and having a transgender parent—topics which then encourage further discussion and debate both in the media, and at dinner tables.
You’re keeping up, even if you’re not trying to
Owning my fan status of the Kardashians has meant having to defend this family’s fame on more than one occasion. No, they are not the typical celebrities made famous by acting or music, but that doesn’t make their fame any less relevant.
“[The Kardashians are] super polarizing, yet still hold a really important place in our culture—in pop culture and culture in general,” says Pruitt. “People talk about them, even when they don’t want to talk about them, which I think speaks to how powerful the Kardashians are and how much they have permeated our society. Even my dad has an opinion on the Kardashians and he’s never seen a single episode of KUWTK in his life.”
Love them or hate them, the Kardashians have been a force to be reckoned with for the past decade, and we’re still just trying to keep up.