What Kim Kardashian Really Sells

What Kim Kardashian Really Sells November 18, 2014

Alyssa Rosenberg has a smart analysis of the Kim Kardashian phenomenon:

What Kim Kardashian is actually selling us is not episodes of television or sheath dresses or shiny hair, but opportunities for social positioning. By putting her life on display in a 24-hour, globally accessible gallery, and by guaranteeing that we will have plenty to say about it, she has fashioned herself into the perfectly optimized celebrity for the outrage era.


I do not mean to say that any of these reactions are illegitimate (though, really, pearl-clutchers, naked Kim Kardashian is old news), or that the critiques and conversations are uninteresting. But I am fascinated by how Kardashian has positioned her career and her private life in a way that seems designed to meet our needs to stake out where we stand.

Let’s be honest: a lot of social commentary, even by very serious professionals, isn’t aimed at inspiring real social preservation, reform, or improvement. It’s about signaling to others where you stand so they know where to place you. People opine about the latest real or fake outrage, not as a way to fix a problem or seek out a solution, but as a way to gain acceptance and esteem from like-minded tweeps and would-be tweeps. It’s a game played for prestige.

We all do this to some extent, with or without hashtags, but the social media industry has made it into a powerful need. And celebrities, including politicians, make good money helping us to fulfill it. Herbert Marcuse wrote about this form of social control fifty years ago in his book, One-Dimensional Man. Create false needs and the means to meet them, and you’ve got lasting power. Liberty itself can be made into an instrument of oppression and domination if you know how to use it.

Kim Kardashian succeeds so well because she knows how to play on this need and is always finding new ways to do so. As Rosenberg says, she gives us the fuel to set fire to the internet. We play along because signaling that we have the right passions and beliefs is important to us. We think we’re free because we can choose from a range of acceptable opinions about whatever suits our fancy, but then we’re also responding to a strongly desired need, deep within us, that we probably didn’t choose with informed consent.

Kyle Cupp is the author of Living by Faith, Dwelling in DoubtFollow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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