Kapitalism: A Žižekian Analysis of the Kardashians by Anna Walters

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, it is next to impossible to not know who the Kardashians are. Whether you can tell them apart from a single butt selfie or you still struggle to put each “K” name with its contoured, surgically modified face, there’s no doubt you’ve heard the name uttered at least a few dozen times a day in a Snapchat story, on Instagram, or by a housewife flipping through gossip magazines in the checkout line at a grocery store. America seems to be mesmerized by this “famous for nothing” family, but what is it that makes them so enticing and more than just a wealthy group of people strung together by the same genes (or at least we hope so in Khloé’s case)?

With what seems like a new scandal leaking every day it can be easy to forget that the family has Kim’s exploited sex tape to thank for their initial tabloid exposure.  Fans are often too engrossed in worshiping the Kardashians’ lavish lifestyle to pause and wonder how they became so wealthy in the first place. The Kardashian empire coaxed 3.19 million[1] viewers into tuning in to their season 12 premiere, ironic given the fact that Kourtney doesn’t even watch television. Everyone seems to want “in” on the Kardashian way of life, but I doubt very many Kardashian hopefuls would be willing to exploit their bodies and families in the same way the Kardashians have. However, in this family’s case, the profits earned outweigh any loss of morale and the controversies created along the way.

Society’s thirst for living the lavish life has created even more opportunities for this family to make big bucks through the conception of Kylie Lip Kits, KKW Beauty, Good American, Rob’s sock line Arthur George, and Kim’s Kids Supply, to name a few of the family’s seemingly infinite amount of business ventures. Through introducing a variety of product lines, the Kardashian brand appeals to a large consumer base, propelling this family into the upper echelons of Capitalist America. From babies to teens to adults and even men, the Kardashians offer products for nearly every consumer demographic. This family certainly is everywhere, and consumers seem to be, well, consuming the hell out of them. Khloé’s denim line Good American made $1 million on the day of its launch in October 2016 and Kylie Cosmetics earned $420 million in sales revenue in just eighteen months[2]. Fans of the family will never be as wealthy or as famous, so they might as well do all that is in their power to look like a knock-off version of their favorite sister. The first step in this transformation process is purchasing the many products this family has to offer in attempt to gain a glimpse of life as it is lived in the Hidden Hills.

When it comes to retail the Kardashians seem to have capitalism down to a science, but their success doesn’t end there. The Kardashians have even managed to capitalize on their own bodies. Their empire has been built off of the blatant exploitation of Kim’s body in her sex tape, but since then the family has continued to make their bodies (or rather specific body parts) relevant in everyday society. Whether it be Kim’s butt, Kylie’s lips, Kendall’s bare chest on the runway, or Khloé’s revenge body from her post-divorce diet, America can’t seem to get enough of this family’s controversial assets.

Kim and all her sisters have made their curves and silicon-injected rears so mainstream that “bootys” seem to be all anyone talks about these days. Young girls are hitting the gym just to spent hours squatting in hopes of attaining a Kardashian approved booty (joke’s on them because there’s no way those Kardashian butts are real). People are buying waist trainers as advertised on Khloé’s Instagram, hoping that they too can achieve her perfect hourglass figure without even questioning if doing so is safe for their bodies. Kylie snaps selfies of her plumped lips and girls flock to the internet to order her lip kits in hopes of achieving the same perfect, plump pout (but let’s be real here, because those lips sure as hell aren’t). Kim has even created her own mobile app where fans can play as a member of the family and pretend to live the Kardashian life while wasting away their own. This family has society eating out of the palms of their perfectly manicured hands, and the more society consumes their products, the more rich and powerful they become.

When I was so graciously assigned readings from Žižek and Politics , a book that explains the ideas of contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek, for a college class, I never imagined these readings would ring a bell in my head saying, “this totally makes sense if you apply it to the Kardashians.” But they did, and now I can’t help but associate every Instagram post with a Slovenian philosopher.  Žižek’s theoretical work challenges political orthodoxies and critiques concepts of capitalism, neoliberalism, and political correctness. He is referred to as “the Elvis of cultural theory” because so much of his work is centered around pop culture phenomena. So, what I gathered from my reading assignment is as follows:

Modern day Americans live in a neoliberal society that places a heavy emphasis on the importance of the self. Neoliberalism is often associated with laissez-faire economics, or the idea that economies and businesses operate best with limited interference from the government. This self-centered society persuades individuals to rule themselves in a laissez-faire manner as societal norms force individuals to constantly work towards creating their best possible self. There is a constant pressure from society to create our best possible image, to realize our self-worth, and to take social media-worthy selfies. This sort of society completely differs from one that is rooted in collectivism and focuses on the success of the group rather than the achievements of an individual. Because everyone in an individualistic society is looking out for their own self-interest it is easier for them to fall victim to capitalistic vices. If everyone in a society wants to be better looking than the person next to them then what’s stopping them from buying that lip kit or overpriced dress to show off their new and improved body? Or more eloquently condensed in Žižekian terms, “the cultural liberation of ‘new individualists’, which is supposed to go with economic globalization, is really a new domination of the individual by capitalism.” [3]

In his work, Zizek gets into some Freudian analysis, again something I never thought would help me understand what makes the Kardashians tick. I’m far from a psychology major, but here’s my interpretation:

Zizek mentions the Ego Ideal, which I conclude to be the ultimate inner image one wishes to achieve. Freud says every person has their own id, ego, and superego. The id is the most primitive of the three and is inherited at birth; it consists of one’s personality traits and sexual desires. The ego develops as a mediator between the id and the real world. The superego works to incorporate learned values and morals to control the id’s desires.

During my Zizek assignment I was simultaneously looking for signs from the universe that the connections I drew between Zizek’s work and the Kardashians weren’t completely implausible. That’s when I came across the following quotation from an online news forum:

Kim Kardashian is simply the id of capitalism run wild, the narcissistic force that wants what it wants, when it wants it, an incarnation of the fulfilled wish to talk and think about absolutely nothing while rolling in snuggly designer sheets. Unattached and oblivious, the spoiled child becomes the American avatar of freedom and self-expression, something elevated and even holy.”[4]

I immediately thought to myself, “This might be what Žižek was getting at.” This description of Kim and her desirable lifestyle leads to the question: If so many Americans desire to live a life like hers, could it be that she is their Ego Ideal? Their perfect image of what they should aspire to be?

Žižek believes that, “what has emerged is a society without any reigning social ideals, where subjects are delivered over to the brutal injunction of an unrestrained superego.” [5] Could it be that the society we’re living in now, one that worships self-centered stars of social media, is exactly what Žižek is talking about when he mentions the emergence of a society without any reigning social ideals? A world where so much of society aspires to be just like a woman who takes selfies in designer outfits all day?

Kim Kardashian is the unrestrained superego personified. Every uncensored, unprecedented, unfiltered (well, her Instagram posts are definitely filtered) statement that comes out of her mouth just creates another trifecta of zeroes in her bank account. Take a look at Kim’s “Kimoji” merchandise line, from which consumers can buy anything from a sweatshirt to a mouse pad adorned with a variety of her favorite oh-so-intellectual sayings. Would you prefer your iPhone case to say Savage, Daddy, or Turbo Thot? All of the merchandise items available are based on emojis from Kim’s “Kimoji” app, available for download at $1.99 in the app store. This simple download earned her 1 million dollars per minute in 2016 alone. [6]

Žižek further emphasizes that, “It is as if an inverted moral conscience operated in all of us, forcing us to do our ‘duty’ of consumption. This breaks up social bonds and isolates the individual.”[7]  I picture this “inverted moral conscience” to be the superego, eroded away by modern day capitalism—the exact type of capitalism brought upon society by people like the Kardashians. Morals have shifted in society because the people we look up to lack them altogether.

It is noted that in today’s world, “Americans love to fetishize wealth, viewing a person’s monetary success as a direct sign of righteousness.” [8] In our contoured and airbrushed world people no longer focus on their “inner beauty.” Instead, we are tied up thinking about what sort of make believe image of our “best life” we can project on the internet. We feel that it is our “duty” to consume because we view wealthy individuals as righteous beings who can afford what is otherwise unattainable to us, the commoners. As long as Kim is consuming, society’s commoners will be too. Even in Kim’s video game players are expected to consume and go on shopping sprees in order to maintain the same high-profile image Kim maintains in real life.

In his writing, Žižek often refers to the phrase “late capitalism,” which refers to the time period from about 1945 onward when large, multinational corporations began gaining more and more power, ultimately leading into the modern day economy:“The new anti-authoritarian attitude of the late capitalist individual has become the norm in a society that can no longer tolerate delayed gratification, and that actually requires the desire for instant satisfaction as the driving mechanism of consumer culture.” [9] This “instant gratification” can come from getting likes on an Instagram picture the second it is posted, or from an influx of retweets directly following a thoroughly thought out tweet. Everything on social media is quick and easy and measurable in terms of “likes,” and if anyone knows anything about Instagram likes it’s the Kardashians. This might even be the new American Dream, making a living off social media. Getting paid to post pictures of yourself because you’re good looking and everyone else is jealous of you, so naturally they “like” your posts. They retweet, share, and comment on your posts until you’re satisfied with a falsified image of yourself simply because strangers are satisfied with it as well. The Kardashians acquired instant fame and fortune through the success of a reality tv show, a falsified and scripted version of their everyday life. Much like an Instagram post this family placed a filter over their ordinary life to make it appear extraordinary and all the more appealing to average citizens, fulfilling the new American Dream.

[1] Kissell, Rick. “’Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ Still Going Strong.” Variety, 6 May 2016, variety.com/2016/tv/news/3-day-ratings-survivor-keeping-up-with-the-kardashians-1201768322/.

[2] Mejia, Zameena. “How Kylie Jenner Turned Her $29 Lipstick Business into a $420 Million Empire in 18 Months.” CNBC, CNBC, 14 Sept. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/09/14/how-kylie-jenner-turned-kylie-cosmetics-into-a-420-million-empire.html.

[3] Sharpe, Matthew, and Geoff Boucher. Žižek and Politics: a Critical Introduction. p.139. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

[4] Parramore, Lynn Stuart. “Why Kim Kardashian Is the Perfect Icon For Our Sick Society.” Alternet, 3 Sept. 2014, 10:33pm, www.alternet.org/economy/why-kim-kardashian-perfect-icon-our-sick-society.

[5] Sharpe, Matthew, and Geoff Boucher. Žižek and Politics: a Critical Introduction. p.141.  Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

[6] Anton, Emil. “Kim Kardashian’s Kimoji App Broke the Apple Store.” Alux.com, 19 Feb. 2016, www.alux.com/kim-kardashian-kimoji-app/.

[7] Sharpe, Matthew, and Geoff Boucher. Žižek and Politics: a Critical Introduction. p. 141. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

[8] Parramore, Lynn Stuart. “Why Kim Kardashian Is the Perfect Icon For Our Sick Society.” Alternet, 3 Sept. 2014, 10:33pm, www.alternet.org/economy/why-kim-kardashian-perfect-icon-our-sick-society.

[9] Parramore, Lynn Stuart. “Why Kim Kardashian Is the Perfect Icon For Our Sick Society.” Alternet, 3 Sept. 2014, 10:33pm, www.alternet.org/economy/why-kim-kardashian-perfect-icon-our-sick-society.