Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Kris Jenner: Role-Model Businesswoman or Queen of Exploitation?

Kim Kardashian - Filming in New York October 6 2010 - One Time Use Only - Getty - H 2017
Philip Ramey Photography/Getty Images

The Kardashian matriarch sits down with the NBA great, reality TV fan and THR contributor to explore her family's impact on culture and the millions of fans who "envy and pity" them.

When I recently sat down to talk with the Queen Valkyrie of reality TV, Kris Jenner, I was interested in exploring Kris Jenner and her family’s place in, and influence on, popular culture. Does the family that's "famous for being famous" have any social relevance or are they, considering the dozens of products they hawk, merely the longest-running infomercial in television history? I started by asking about her relationship to the landmark reality show An American Family, that first broadcast on PBS in 1973. The show followed the Louds, an upper-middle-class Santa Barbara family, as they went about their daily lives, oblivious to the fault lines that the viewers saw widening with every episode. The audience could see they were headed for a crash long before they even knew there was anything wrong. Because nothing like this had ever been done on TV before, the Louds were like innocent children oblivious to the turmoil having your lives exposed to millions can cause. They imploded under the weight.

By contrast, the Jenners/Kardashians seem genetically modified in utero for celebrity, flaunting their personal lives — more lifestyles than lives — with an abandon that is almost admirable in its audaciousness. I asked Kris what she and her family have discovered about themselves as a result of doing the show. “You learn things about yourself that hopefully you can make better,” she replied. “I look at it like a mirror.” At the same time, she lamented the fact that, with the lightning reaction to her show on Twitter and other social media, she faces public criticism before even having a chance to study that mirror. The show, and its spinoffs, have made her children the frequent targets of internet trolls who slut-shame and body-shame to vent their misogyny. But this family is now acclimated to surviving — and even thriving in — the radioactive atmosphere of celebrity.

This makes sense since their fame was born from the cauldron of America’s two most popular subjects: sex and violence. The O.J. Simpson trial launched the Kardashian name into the ether thanks to Robert Kardashian, close friend, spokesperson, and legal advisor to Simpson. Kris was married to Robert and their kids grew up home-schooled in sensationalism. There is no disputing that the family has greatly profited from their notoriety. And with that kind of exposure comes a certain level of influence. 

To many, Kris represents a powerful woman whose business acumen makes her a role model. Is that her main contribution? “I think so,” she replied. “I had [my daughters’] best interest in mind and I was able to navigate this very complicated world of entertainment meets modeling meets the endorsement world meets corporate America.”

While the mother presents an icon of business success, do the daughters promote a destructive image of women, perpetuating the boobs-over-brains ideology? After all, robust cleavage seems to be the default persona for all the women. In terms of role models, for the millions of girls who watch their shows and follow them on social media, there is a lack of emphasis on education. Only one of Kris’ daughters has gone to college, the others content to trade degrees for dollars. Hard to blame them when they had business opportunities shoved at them from a young age. And when they fall out of vogue, they will have plenty of money to see them through — but the young women following in their footsteps won’t.

One of the most positive impacts the Kardashians have is in promoting racial diversity. The family has had many romantic relationships, including marriages, with African-Americans. Naturally, this has resulted in some racist backlash. But Kris holds firm to the philosophy that “inside my family and internally inside our hearts it’s just, you fall in love with who you fall in love with.” Seeing this philosophy in action on their shows and in social media has more social impact than a hundred well-meaning speeches about racial equality.

Yet, at the same time, the family faces charges of cultural appropriation. Kylie’s popular website, The Kylie Shop, featured clothing that was similar to that of black designer Tizita Balemlay, whose clothing Kylie had publicly worn. Khloe’s Good American clothing line was accused of copying fashions from black designer Destiney Bleu’s line. Just a couple months ago, Kylie and Kendall released a series of T-shirts featuring images of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. with the sisters’ own photo or initials — KK — superimposed. Outraged backlash from the icons’ families was instantaneous and the $125 T-shirts were immediately withdrawn from the marketplace. The lingering question is whether these are calculated exploitations or naive missteps from fashion newbies. 

Reality shows about the wealthy are designed to evoke two emotions: envy and pity. We envy their lifestyle, but pity their melodramas. What makes Keeping Up With the Kardashians unique is its ability, whether deliberate or not, to evoke discussions about feminism, racism, cultural appropriation, parenting and so much more. It’s a show that, like Kris Jenner, is more than the sum of its parts.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.