Kim Kardashian and the Age of Schadenfreude
She is the modern-day Marie-Antoinette, and we all know what happened to her.
A few years ago, I made what could have been a deadly mistake.
It was late on a Saturday night; I’d been to the movies and was dropping off a friend at a house near Los Angeles’ Wilshire Ebell Theatre. I’d just pulled over, and was sitting in the car chatting, when I looked up to see a young man holding a gun.
Don’t ask me how old he was — late teens, maybe younger. I can’t remember anything about him — his age, his ethnicity, nothing. One of the many surprises of the incident was how little visual information stuck in my brain, even the following day.
Maybe that’s because I was concentrating on his gun, a small silver affair that trembled slightly in his hand as he held it two feet from my face. He kept it pointed at me as I stepped out and handed him my wallet.
We did what we were told. We stood on the sidewalk and watched as he got in the car — along with two of his friends, who seemed to emerge out of nowhere — then vanished into the distance. It was only then that I noticed a pick-up truck was following them. They must have been trailing us, waiting for the right moment to attack.
In retrospect, I’m sure I could have done things better. I hadn’t locked my doors and hadn’t kept an eye on my surroundings. It was foolish to sit in an idling car, parked half a mile from the edge of the hood. Perhaps I should accept some of the blame.
Except that they were the bad guys, not me. That’s the way most people saw it. Whatever mistake I’d made, they empathized and prayed it wouldn’t happen to them.
* * *
That’s how I thought the world would react to the news about the Kim Kardashian assault.
For those who’ve managed to avoid the story, the woman who’s famous for being famous was robbed Oct. 3 in the exclusive private residence she was renting in Paris, when armed robbers broke in, dragged her across the floor, bound her with duct tape and plastic handcuffs, and then left with millions of dollars worth of baubles.
The attack must have been devastating. I can tell you from personal experience, fear lingers.
Just imagine: You’re on your own, late at night, in the sanctity of your home (admittedly a temporary one), when assailants burst in — dressed as cops, at that — screaming in a language you don’t understand, and manhandle you. Are you going to be raped, tortured, murdered? You don’t know. Nobody deserves to go through that, no matter how heinous they are, no matter how many slip-ups they may have made.
And yet, within hours, critics were blaming the victim, as if there were a direct cause and effect between her flaunting a $4 million ring out in the public world and the hardened criminals who stole it in private.
The suspicion voiced by many that Kardashian may have staged the robbery was just an extension of that — a refusal to empathize.
Karl Lagerfeld, the venerable couturier, was quick to wag a finger. “[She is] too public, too public — we have to see in what time we live,” he said. “You cannot display your wealth then be surprised that some people want to share.”
Maybe not — unless that’s how you became famous in the first place. To blame Kardashian for flaunting her assets is akin to blaming Arnold Schwarzenegger for flaunting his muscles. It’s the very nature of her success.
The Kardashians created their brand on the premise that you don’t have to have talent, you don’t have to have brains, you don’t have to have skill — you just have to have.
* * *
And therein lies the problem.
When the Kardashians began their run on fame, America was not quite as clearly divided into the haves and have-nots. The class divisions that had been a hallmark of European life were out of sight, helped by being more porous than overseas.
There was still a sense of a vast middle class at the center of American life, of the possibility that the poor could become rich (and sometimes the rich could become poor). There seemed to be a pathway from the bottom to the top.
But all sorts of social studies have proved that’s no longer the case.
I can see it myself when I go into the public schools of east and south Los Angeles for The Hollywood Reporter’s Mentorship Program. Classes are enormous (sometimes 40 kids or more). Supplies are lacking. Teachers are stressed. And there’s none of the private tutoring or the personalized help with essays and SAT tuition and whatever — all the things that more affluent kids take for granted. There’s no money for food or rent; medical issues are overwhelming; large families are sharing tiny one-bedroom apartments.
A few years ago, the Kardashian lifestyle was something to which many of these kids (rightly or wrongly) aspired. But you can only aspire to something that you can realistically have. When the path to upward mobility is blocked, aspiration turns to resentment.
Resentment is the order of the day. It’s not just among the blue-collar workers voting for Donald Trump; it’s among the very people Trump has so consistently attacked, the young men and women and immigrants — legal and illegal — who are struggling to find a way to live the American dream.
This is Kim Kardashian’s base. And increasingly that base is turning from admiration to envy.
The brilliance of the Kardashians lies in how they toed a fine line, getting people to admire them without envying them. But now they’ve crossed that line. And it has nothing to do with parading one $4 million ring more or less. They haven’t changed, but the world around them has.
Envy and resentment are increasingly the order of the day — and those feelings will only increase as the gap grows greater between the haves and have-nots. It’s one of the things driving this election. And it’s also one of the things driving the shifting viewpoint toward TV’s number one reality family.
This is the Age of Schadenfreude. Anger is bubbling up on all sides of the political divide. Empathy for a young woman who’s hog-tied and abused? Forget about it. Not in the world we live in today.
It seems fitting that this modern-day royal was given a virtual guillotine In the land of Marie-Antoinette. The woman who’s made a career of saying “Let them eat cake” had a cream pie thrown in her face.
Kardashian was shorn of her ring, but what people really want is her head.
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