Keeping Up With the Kardashians: 8 ways one family became a hot topic

By Amelia Butterly
BBC World Service

The KardashiansImage source, Getty Images
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(L-R) Kris, Khloé, Kendall, Kourtney, Kim, Caitlyn, Kylie and Kim's daughter North West are famous around the world

After 14 years and 20 series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians airs its final episode this week.

Shown in dozens of countries, the programme has made megastars of Kim Kardashian West, her mother Kris Jenner, and her sisters Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall and Kylie.

With Forbes estimating Kim's net worth at $1bn, it's made them very wealthy too.

Regardless of whether you love them or loathe them, it's hard to deny their influence stretches far and wide.

Here are eight ways the famous family made an impact.

1. They (appeared) to champion being emotionally open

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(L-R) Rob, Kourtney, Kendall, Kim, Kylie and Khloé back in the early days of the series

Part of their success comes from their willingness to be seemingly open on camera.

"They consciously and deliberately played themselves," says Dr Meredith Jones of Brunel University in London, explaining how that level of authenticity is appealing to audiences.

Dr Jones is hosting her second Kardashian symposium - or Kimposium - later this year and she is an expert in popular culture and gender studies. For her, humour is also one of the key reasons the show has achieved longevity.

"People don't think of the Kardashians as being funny but they really are quite good at producing humour," she says.

"While the women constitute a matriarchy, the men [such as Scott Disick, ex-partner of Kourtney] are these kind of comic fools and so in many ways, in a patriarchal society, that's really attractive."

2. They prompted conversations about female beauty

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(L-R) Kris, Kourtney, Khloé and Kim have set beauty standards that critics say are unobtainable

"I would say that Kim in particular has had a profound effect on global notions of what we think a beautiful woman looks like," says Dr Jones. "Part of that is the ways that she presents herself as a work-in-progress."

The show frequently depicts the Kardashians' "glam squad", providing professional services such as make-up, tans, styling and haircare.

"Audiences will identify with people who look more like them so if this were a show of tall, thin, blonde women, I don't think it would have been nearly as successful," says Dr Jones.

But, she points out, in recent years especially, the Kardashians' appearances have become less relatable.

"You can light yourself, wear professional make-up, pose in all sorts of ways that make you look like a Kardashian but you can't have the continual cosmetic surgery, you can't afford the personal trainers, you don't have a glam team there every day," she says.

"There is a limit and I think their fans realise that."

But some people do go to extremes to achieve these kinds of looks. Surgeons in the UK have previously said they have "concerns" about a trend for achieving a bigger bottom, with implants, lifts and fat injections, but this is far from risk free.

"In 15-20 years we will be seeing some repercussions when fashions change and the ageing process takes hold," says cosmetic surgeon Marc Pacifico.

Meanwhile, the Kardashians themselves say they are "judged and pulled apart" for how they look. Earlier this year, Khloé tried to have an unfiltered photo removed from social media because she feels "almost unbearable" pressure to meet the "impossible standards" set by fans.

"In truth, the pressure, constant ridicule and judgment my entire life to be perfect and to meet others' standards of how I should look has been too much to bear," she wrote on social media.

3. They became 'pioneers' of social media self-promotion

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Kim Kardashian West has more than 227m followers on Instagram

The Kardashians are inextricably linked to social media - Kylie and Kim are in the top 10 most-followed accounts on Instagram, while Kendall, Khloé and Kourtney all feature in the top 20.

For Dr Jones, the family are "pioneers", shaping the way we use social media to present a curated form of our identities and images.

"It's impossible to separate their images and their success from the success of Instagram," she says. It wasn't long before the Kardashian family began to monetise their following.

"They created influencers," says comedian Marcy Jarreau. She's one half of the Kar Dishin It podcast, which breaks down the reality show episode by episode, and discusses the latest Kardashian headlines.

Fellow comedian and host Jessica Jean Jardine adds: "They made it not weird to use social media, which was designed to be a peek into your life for your friends, as an entire marketing and distribution system for their own businesses."

It's these businesses, which include Kylie's cosmetic lines, Kim's beauty and shapewear products and Khloé's size-inclusive jeans brand, that have helped earn the family millions of dollars.

"All of Kim's famous friends are doing the exact same thing," says Jarreau, "but they [the Kardashians] have done it the best."

4. They showed a different type of family

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Just before the pandemic took hold, Kim and Kourtney were pictured visiting Paris with their families during Fashion Week

One outcome of opening up your family life to a reality television crew is that viewers will also be exposed to the conflict in your relationships.

For many fans, these arguments make the most compelling moments. "I am always very impressed by them being a family that can fight and still love each other," says Jarreau.

"As much as people want to talk about them having no values and morals, I honestly think they are some of the most wholesome people you could watch on television."

We've seen them tackle complex issues, such as Caitlyn Jenner, who used to be married to Kris, coming out as transgender and her subsequent transition; Kim and Kanye West's use of a surrogate, their divorce proceedings - and all kinds of blended family situations.

"The idea of your life, your relationships and your occupation staying constant, I don't think that is what people relate to anymore and they [the Kardashians] model that over and over," says Jardine, adding they "created a mirror" for people who live in non-traditional family structures.

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Caitlyn has been a champion water skier, a star American basketball player, then an Olympic decathlon champion

Caitlyn, a former Olympic athlete, has said her "identity" is her greatest achievement. "I trained 12 years for the Olympic Games. I trained 65 years to transition in 2015," she told the BBC.

"It was less accepted. Everyone loved the Games. A lot of people when they see you transition hate your guts. Look at the quotes on Instagram. By far that was a lot more difficult."

Caitlyn has received awards for her advocacy. But she has also faced criticism from trans-rights activists for her politics and support of former US President Donald Trump.

5. Accusations of 'racial ambiguity' and cultural appropriation

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Kim has been criticised for wearing her hair in braids

The Kardashians may echo diversity in American life, but they also reflect some negative aspects of society.

They have been accused of cultural appropriation and so-called "blackfishing", when someone pretends to be black or mixed-race, often on social media.

"They've appropriated so much of what makes them," says Jarreau. "From their bodies, to clothing, to the way they do their hair, so much has been appropriated from other cultures, specifically black culture."

"The Kardashians are viewed as both white and non-white," says Adria Y Goldman, assistant professor of communication at the University of Mary Washington.

"The Kardashians' continued popularity and success despite criticisms, show that on some level there is an acceptance of cultural appropriation, a lack of understanding of cultural appropriation, or a combination of the two."

6. There were plenty of romances - and break-ups

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Kim filed for divorce from Kanye West earlier this year, after nearly seven years of marriage

A number of interracial relationships have been featured on the show, including between Kim and Kanye West, Khloé and Tristan Thompson, and Kylie and Travis Scott, all of whom have children together.

On the surface, Dr Jones says, the Kardashians "embody this fantasy of the mixed-race family".

But while these relationships are presented on the show as uncomplicated, in a wider context things aren't as straightforward. Prof Goldman says the relationship between Kim and Kanye (now seemingly on the rocks) contributes to her "racial ambiguity" and debates about her appropriation of black culture.

"Her association with Kanye and their children contribute to her position at the intersection of whiteness and blackness," she says. "Some may argue Kim's children with Kanye give her access to black culture. However, some may also view Kim's familial connection as increasing the need for cultural sensitivity, understanding, and appreciation - as opposed to appropriation."

7. Criticism for flaunting their wealth

Kim has credited Kanye with changing her attitude to her business ventures. Having endorsed products such as toilet paper and bespoke emojis, she now focuses on marketing things that fit her brand.

"He's just taught me as a person to never compromise and to really take ownership," she told Forbes. "Before, I was really the opposite. I would throw my name on anything."

Part of the penultimate and all of the final season were filmed during the pandemic and some of the depictions of wealth have made these episodes more challenging for fans to watch.

"We take issue with them a lot: private island trips, and flaunting of billionaire wealth, and having their full staff and clearly getting their nails and make-up done while so much suffering was going on," says Jardine.

8. They've planned for life after reality TV

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Kim has campaigned for the mass killings of Armenian people in 1915 to be called a genocide

Though the series is ending, the family have signed a new deal with US subscription service Hulu and their show will launch later this year.

Details are yet to be revealed, but it's likely we'll hear more about Kim and Kanye's divorce. Meanwhile the clan will continue to pursue their own opportunities.

"Kim is the one most likely to have an incredibly successful individual career," says Dr Jones. "She says once she's finished her law degree, she's going to open her own law firm that focuses on sentencing and prison reform. I don't doubt that's going to happen because Kim Kardashian does what she says she's going to do."

In a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kim revealed she had failed her law exam. "I'm not giving up and I'm preparing to take it again soon," she posted on Instagram.

Dr Jones believes Kim may have a future in politics. "The minute I heard that Kanye West was going to run for president, I thought it should be Kim," she says.

"A reality TV star [Donald Trump] has already been president of the United States and as I speak now, Kim Kardashian, who has half a law degree, is better qualified."

Another family member also trying for a politics career is Caitlyn, who's a member of the Republican Party and running for governor of California this year.

It seems unlikely that a show - or a group of people - will arrive to rival this success.

"I feel they've really carved out a niche for themselves that no-one else can fill," says Jarreau. "I don't know that there's going to be another single family that can captivate an audience enough to justify being on television for a decade."

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