DASH-Amerikan:Keeping Up with the Social Media Ecologies of the Kardashians
DASH-Amerikan: Keeping Up with the Social Media Ecologies of the Kardashians
In 2015 the season premiere of Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK) was the most viewed Sunday cable program, outperforming the series finale of the critically acclaimed television drama Mad Men. While Kim Kardashian and company have never received the adulation that Don Draper elicited, the family's sheer popularity and infamy demands further inspection by scholars who claim interest in the cultural productions that reflect and shape our historical moment. As consumers of reality television and digital human-ists alike, we ask: what does it really take to keep up with the Kardashians? In response, the six members of the 2016–17 Praxis Program, an interdisciplinary cohort of graduate students in the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia, used digital humanities tools and methodologies to survey the media ecologies surrounding the Kardashians and discuss their impact on twenty-first-century notions of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality. By simulating the appearance of the Kardashians' online fashion boutique, DASH-Amerikan pushes past established understandings of the family to unpack the sometimes-competing constructions of femininity, ethnicity, and cultural power found within their media ecologies.
The Kardashian family, whose public figures include Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, and Kris in addition to Caitlyn, Kendall, and Kylie Jenner, is most often maligned as famous for being famous. Dominant industry opinions echo that of Barbara Walters, who, in a 2011 interview with the family, stated flatly, "You don't have any, forgive me, talent."1 The Kardashian origin story is defined by Kim's celebrity sex tape made with then boyfriend and hip-hop artist Ray J, which was leaked in 2007. In its libidinal aftermath, Kim's influence was often [End Page 609] reduced to her curvaceous body type on display in photos like those from Paper magazine, which allegedly "broke the internet" in 2014. These images feature Kim's nude body, a bottle of champagne, and visual emphasis on her famously large posterior. Partly because of this kind of highly sexualized self-promotion, critics have viewed the Kardashians as either the harbingers of society's moral decay or, relatedly, a symptom of narcissism in modern society. Against such facile and dominant judgments, the DASH-Amerikan project examines the Kardashian family's impact on contemporary American culture. If we forget what we think we know about the Kardashians, what other themes are revealed? The project began in 2016 by running web-scraping scripts to amass public data from the family's Twitter feeds, closed captioning from eleven seasons of KUWTK, tabloid articles from Us Weekly, and metadata from the fanfiction site Wattpad.2 The Praxis cohort then used topic modeling to identify clusters within the data and compose a digital essay devoted to the emerging themes of motherhood, ancestry, and adoption.
In sifting through the available evidence, we found that the social media ecology of the Kardashians does, in fact, foreground the desirability of female family members to spur financial gain. The content of the family's Twitter feeds, combined with the dialog from KUWTK and its surrounding tabloid coverage, share a performance of femininity that is uniquely aware of—and caters to—male heteronormative desires. Topic modeling clusters within the family's Twitter feeds confirmed this initial understanding of the platform as a promotional outlet for KUWTK. However, it also revealed a more empowered reading of the Kardashians regarding such themes as motherhood and women's biological selves, which the Kardashians addressed in surprisingly candid and realistic terms.
Within discussions of motherhood published on Twitter and aired on KUWTK, we found an emphasis on the path from marriage to pregnancy, with such discussions containing reflections on the female body's reproductive power as well as troubles with fertility and the difficulties of childbirth. Data from Us Weekly's tabloid coverage of the Kardashian women also featured a close surveillance of their physical form, specifically the monitoring of weight fluctuations and the recovery of prepregnancy body shapes. An examination of the family's wider social media ecology helped identify competing impulses to, at various times, revel in or sanitize the biological functions of the female body. These aspects were concentrated around the birth of Kourtney's son Mason, as well as Kim's desire for a third child. In these instances, we found a strong desire to create and sustain a pregnant body, matched with an accompanying need to scrub the postpregnancy body of any sign of childbearing. [End Page 610]
Topic modeling also revealed the family's Twitter feeds as an alternative version of KUWTK. In many instances, family members produced tweets as instigations to tune in on Sundays or promote commercial products featured in various episodes. Beyond genericized messaging, however, we deciphered unique authorial voices, among them the highly promotional voice of the self-declared "momager," Kris, and the spiritually guided Twitter presence of Khloé. Even more so, Kim's Twitter takes on her Armenian heritage and the Armenian Genocide, reinforcing her desire to maintain ties to her ethnic roots and position herself as an activist. The Kardashians' celebration of their ethnic heritage complicates critiques of the family's alleged appropriation of African American culture. Rather than view them simply as practitioners of cultural theft, we consider the way their ethnicity does not track within the United States' black/white binary.
Finally, in our analysis of the fanfiction metadata from the website Wattpad, we aimed to discover whether the themes of motherhood, the curation of female bodies, and ethnic identity were found in the public discourse surrounding the Kardashians. The data unequivocally reinforces the prominence of motherhood as the dominating theme; the overwhelming majority of Kardashian fanfiction involved the author's adoption into the family. By looking at this segment of the Kardashians' passionate fan base, we reassessed Kardashian convergence culture and, in the process, found a concentrated love for the Kardashians expressed in the ultimate fantasy of becoming part of the family's matriarchal lineage.
Jordan Buysse is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Virginia. His dissertation, "The Word and the Bit: Information in 20th/21st Century Fiction," joins the recent history of the term information with literary aesthetics in order to assess the legacy and future of the technologized word. His teaching in the English department includes such courses as The Literature of Artificial Intelligence and Writing about the Internet.
Alicia Caticha is a doctoral candidate in the history of art and architecture at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, "Étienne-Maurice Falconet and the Matter of Sculpture: Marble, Porcelain, and Sugar in Eighteenth-Century Paris," understands the sculptor Falconet as a key interlocutor between Enlightenment aesthetic theory and artisanal production outside the Academic sphere.
Alyssa Collins is a doctoral candidate in the English department of the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, "Racing the Posthuman: Blackness, Technology, and the Literary Imagination," looks at the intersections of race and technology as depicted in twentieth-century and contemporary African American literature, digital culture, and new media. When she is not writing her dissertation, she writes about race, superheroes, and embodiment around the internet.
Justin Greenlee is a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Virginia, where he works on topics pertaining to late medieval and early modern art in Italy. His research often deals with objects that are created, acted on, and restored many times—works that frustrate a study of the moment of creation and require an analysis that moves across time and geographic borders. His areas of interest include the history of art and humanism, the collecting practices of the Byzantine émigré Basilios Bessarion, and the Kardashians.
Sarah McEleney is a doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Virginia, studying the postwar literary history of the Soviet Union. Her participation in the DASH-Amerikan project was an element of her role as a fellow in the Praxis Program during 2016–17. Her interests include digital humanities, data science, and twentieth-century Eastern European literature and cultural history.
Joseph Thompson is a doctoral candidate in the University of Virginia's Corcoran Department of History. His dissertation, "Sounding Southern: Music, Militarism, and the Making of the Sunbelt," traces the economic and symbolic connections between popular music and the US Cold War military to reveal defense spending's disproportionate influence on the formation of sonic and political color lines in the late twentieth century.
The members of the 2016–2017 Praxis Program would like to thank the staff of the University of Virginia Scholars' Lab, particularly Jeremy Boggs, Alison Booth, Ronda Grizzle, Laura Miller, Eric Rochester, Ammon Shepard, Amanda Visconti, and Brandon Walsh. We are grateful for their expertise and enthusiasm and dedicate this work to them.
1. Laura Marie Meyers, "That Time Barbara Walters Told the Kardashians They 'Don't Have Any Talent,'" Huffington Post, March 11, 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/that-time-barbara-walters_n_6849892.html
2. These data sets have been submitted to the data repository Dataverse, also known as LibraData.