I am not easily grossed out. As our so-called entertainment became rife with the raw, the vulgar, the pornographic, I promised myself I wouldn’t grow squeamish. I would stay hip and open and liberal minded. But occasionally I am blown away by what pops up on my TV screen: a four-letter-word-spouting western hero, a particularly gruesome corpse, a giggly naked female twosome, Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes. I don’t admire this stuff, and I thought I was largely inured to it. Of course, what’s available through the Web makes the television fare look pretty tame. I need not elaborate much. The things people do with each other, not to mention with children and animals, tend to turn my stomach while they titillate the libidos of others.
Recently I happened to see something on TV that was a yucky first. On a sunny Saturday afternoon as I was channel surfing, I landed on the cable series Khloé and Lamar. Ah, young love. Here we have one of the trendy Kardashian sisters and her new groom, Lamar Odom of the (recently disgraced) Los Angeles Lakers. Odom, all six feet ten inches of him, was in the bathroom of his swanky Tarzana mansion with Khloé’s brother, the twentysomething Robert, who also apparently lives there. The men were peering into a toilet bowl; Odom—for reasons I cannot fathom, save the need to push the envelope—reached in and picked up a bloody tampon and dangled it for the world to see. Eww, the men said as one.
This show is the latest spin-off of the successful E! series Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which features Khloé and her two older sisters, Kim and Kourtney; their on-again, off-again boyfriends; their mogul mom, Kris, who is the driving force behind the empire; and Kris’s second husband, the long-past-prime Olympian Bruce Jenner. They pose and preen and laugh and cry and even pee—audibly but thankfully just out of camera range—in a family display of primal urges and exhibitionistic zeal. They seem preternaturally free of any vestiges of self-consciousness, the logical hatchlings of the new-media world, intent on sharing (and making a buck off of) their every uncensored thought and feeling. The daughters Kardashian are the dark-haired children of Ayn Rand and Narcissus, marketing themselves with an exuberance that is amazing to behold. They own boutiques and have signed numerous endorsement deals; they put out books and perfumes and shoes. If they have cameras constantly following them around—even into the loo—well, so be it. All for commerce and commerce for all. I understand their appeal to other young women who cannot begin to imagine this kind of confidence and freedom and sass, along with the ability to make scads of money (mostly courtesy of those female fans). Brazenly and trashily and joyously entrepreneurial, the sisters are the female analogues to the Donald.
At the same time there is something retro about the shows, and that, too, has its appeal. The Kardashians represent family with a capital F, people loyal to their own tribe—make that to their own brand, which is thriving. You have the sense that they actually like to hang out together, swearing and eating and kibitzing and planning new moneymaking schemes. They are like an old crime family—albeit legit—eyeing the next plum target. They are hard workers, these Kardashians, and if they have to ratchet up the drama—and they do, having constant tiffs and kissy-face make ups—then they will. But they radiate a blood bond that appears to be genuine, not just an act for the camera. I have heard young women with difficult sisters say they envy the Kardashian girls their sibling intimacy, despite the occasional backbiting.
The Kardashians revel in their gaucheness, their nouveau riche-ness. The girls are the daughters of the late Robert Kardashian, one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys in the infamous murder trial. Though Kris Jenner is not Armenian, she and her clan are clearly proud of Dad’s ethnic roots. Mama Kris is one tough, sometimes cruel cookie—not the all-understanding supermom we’ve come to expect. This is what family in L.A. looks like—a successful family, a real one, the Kardashians seem to say. There is a refreshing quality in their drive, in their unapologetic disdain for decorum and the trappings of old-school wealth. The Kardashians are not aspiring Gatsbys hoping to pass in an upper-class world. Quite the contrary. They take pleasure in flaunting their goodies: the big new houses in Hidden Hills, with their limestone floors and shiny faucets. The Kardashians came along at a perfect time. Even during the economic downturn, you couldn’t hate these folks because, their sometimes rude and lewd behavior said, they’re just like you: They fight and belch and pee and work their tails off. No need to envy them. Come on in and watch the fun. Animated series like The Simpsons and Family Guy were already mining this we’ll-show-you-what-a-real-family-is-like turf, as did the sitcom Married…with Children. Those shows had a kind of hip edge (you knew that smart, somewhat smug creators were writing the scripts). With the Kardashians, you get what you see: a crude, unvarnished romp. No winking, no hipness.
Another reason for these shows’ success is that women (who make up most of the audience) are the ones in charge; they are the family dons. Too often in reality-TV land, it is the opposite. The females are the victims, the butts of jokes, the pathetic wanna-be brides or aspiring models. I have always loathed The Bachelor, for example, with all those overly eager, perky young things so desperate to get the rose and the guy that they turn themselves inside out. Most of us watching a program like this realize its artifice. Still the spectacle is unappealing—a bevy of lovelies stroking the ego of a strutting Adonis who sends them packing one by one as the weeks go by, their tears lubricating the ratings. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? See who gets kicked next in her pretty bleached teeth and thrown out of the marriage pool. Worst of all is America’s Next Top Model, where the cooingly nasty Tyra Banks dispatches the tall, skinny contestants with relish, enumerating their flaws and failings and then, with a flourish, telling them to get lost. Abasing women is the stock-in-trade of many reality shows; what makes me madder and sadder is when the humiliator-in-chief is a woman herself.
Along come the Kardashian women to shatter the mold. Their world is a matriarchy. Half coquette, half sergeant major, Kris waltzes rings around her weird-looking spouse, bending him to her every whim. Poor Bruce Jenner, affable and pale faced, is the eunuch paterfamilias of this brood. He even looks a bit female; speculation abounds that he had plastic surgery that went awry and/or that he overused steroids, depleting his testosterone production. He sits in the middle of a female maelstrom, tut-tutting at the outlandishness of the capitalistic coven that whirls around him. There is a bemused sweetness to him, as there is to Lamar Odom, another big-time athletic star brought to heel by a Kardashian female. Khloé cajoles and manipulates her man—to the point that she got him to agree to be on this show (and to pluck that tampon from the toilet bowl—I cannot believe that was his idea) even as the Lakers were trying to win crucial games. The symbolism is obvious: superstar tamed by ambitious vixen. Poor men, I often think as I watch these proceedings—poor silly, co-opted men. I feel just as kindly toward them as I do toward those starved-looking teenagers berated by Ms. Banks.
For me the major downside is when open malice manifests itself among the Kardashian women. The sisters elbow each other and call each other names, and Mom can be downright sadistic. In a recent episode of Khloé and Lamar she essentially told her daughter that she was fat. Thus ensued a full-tilt wailing meltdown by said daughter. “I’m so f—king fat,” she sobbed as her husband tried to comfort her. But never pity a Kardashian. Khloé turned her seeming humiliation into gold, appearing on the cover of Us Weekly with the huge headline Tortured for Her Weight. One could hear the commiserative sighs from her fan base.
Illustration by Gracia Lam