- 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...