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Fourteen years ago, a young, wide-eyed, freshly tanned Kim Kardashian introduced her chaotic family to America. “We’re the modern-day Brady Bunch with a kick,” she said in the premiere of E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the reality TV show dedicated to chronicling the lives of the eight Kardashian-Jenners. Tonight, with the final episode of the 20th season, a surreal chapter of American television history came to an end.
Of course, the finale of KUWTK does not mean the Kardashians are going anywhere. (The family has signed an exclusive multiyear deal with Disney to star in and executive produce a reality series on Hulu and other Disney platforms.) But it does present a unique opportunity for reflection. After all, no one has managed to capture the nation’s attention quite like them.
“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with us, but it’s like Louis Vuitton baggage,” Kim joked in that first episode. “You always want it.” And, well, she wasn’t wrong. The show catapulted the Kardashian-Jenners to unthinkable levels of fame and spawned several fortunately short-lived spinoffs, like Kourtney and Kim Take New York or Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons, that followed the siblings’ adventures in different cities.
Nothing quite hits like the original, though, and watching KUWTK has been like witnessing the story of America unfold — replete with its contradictions, vampiric relationship to Black people, obsession with remaking itself, capitalistic dysfunction and almost comical lack of self-awareness.
The early episodes, running about 30 minutes, were shorter, lower-quality productions that possessed a certain charm. The family was trying to “overcome” Kim’s sex-tape “scandal,” an endeavor that eventually morphed into an effortful attempt to ascend the mountain of celebrity culture. Seeing the Kardashian-Jenners grasp for a world that did not necessarily want them made it easier to accept their often silly, histrionic behavior — and at times even feel sorry for them.
Then, the tides changed. The family figured out the formula to fame, and applied it aggressively. Several of the Kardashian-Jenner women transformed right before our eyes: thickening their lips, hips and butts, rocking box braids, elongating their nails and publicly aligning themselves with influential Black men. They wantonly lifted their aesthetics from Black women, and became cool without acknowledging the source of their inspiration — as many white Americans inside pop culture and out have done, and continue to do. Naturally, they were rewarded: They graced magazine covers, launched business ventures and attended high-profile events like the Met Gala. They were no longer the punchline; they were the plot.
After they changed their looks, they changed their stories — or perhaps the two happened in tandem; it’s hard to say. Kim’s sex-tape fiasco was read as feminist (despite her protestations). She became a calm, compassionate mother, social justice advocate and wife to you-know-who. Kourtney broke up with Scott and came to represent fierce independence and unabashed honesty. She appeared sick of her family and her relationship with Kim soured, culminating in an on-air physical fight in season 18. Khloé shed her ugly-duckling persona and her narrative became wrapped up in two troubled relationships, first with Lamar Odom and then with Tristan Thompson. Kendall seemed to distance herself from the clan, started modeling and gave off easygoing, chill-girl vibes, while somehow never letting us forget that she was the family member with a “real” career. Kylie — well, Kylie had a baby, launched a cosmetics line to help other people get “Kylie lips” and became “the youngest self-made billionaire ever,” at least according to Forbes.
The parents had their own evolutions, too: Kris embraced her role as a savvy businesswoman and ferociously protective guardian of the tribe, while Caitlyn came out as a trans woman, nabbed her own reality show and recently launched a gubernatorial campaign grounded in frankly incoherent politics.
The truth behind these narratives was slippery and decidedly not the point. The Kardashian-Jenners, after all, weren’t like other celebrities: They had made themselves, and those selves were aspirational.
Yet the facades became harder to uphold as their fame increased, and their actions eventually lost them public sympathy. They preached sisterhood in the same breath as bullying Jordyn Woods after her alleged dalliance with Khloé’s on-and-off boyfriend Thompson. They asked people to respect their challenges with body dysmorphia while promoting weight-loss pills and manufactured body goals. They remained silent as Kanye West donned MAGA caps and launched a bizarre and misguided 2020 presidential bid. It seemed as though the Kardashian-Jenners were always victim to someone or something, rarely accountable for their own actions.
The series finale, which aired in two parts, seemed to nod at the direction in which the family’s public image has been slipping, and peddled a different kind of aspiration — one rooted in saccharine, unpersuasive gratitude. As a way to celebrate the end of almost two decades of having their every move recorded, the Kardashian-Jenner family (except Rob and Caitlyn) retreated to a luxurious house in Tahoe. They hung out and played not one, but two games that required them to take trips down memory lane and recall embarrassing, exciting and cutesy moments from past seasons. Between these scenes were interview clips where members of the family expressed ever-more gratitude for the show while bathed in a lush light that made them appear angelic.
I suppose the idea was to conjure nostalgic and affectionate feelings among viewers. Look at how far the family has come; aren’t you proud? The answer is no, not really. The Kardashian-Jenners live in a bubble that’s no longer fun to observe, even casually. As expert marketers of the self, they have figured out another way to commodify the sentiments of a particular moment. Their gratefulness has a perfunctory sheen to it, the product of people forced to recognize their vast wealth and celebrity for the good of the brand.
In the finale’s closing moments, Khloé asked the family to put memorabilia into a time capsule that they will unearth in a decade or two. The choices made by each family member were telling: Kourtney picked a T-shirt from her kids clothing store; Kim put her first fragrance from her perfume line; Kendall added a painting of their old home; Kylie, the first three lip kits she created; Kris, a framed “license” of her status as “Momager,” a moniker referring to her function as the mastermind behind their fame; and Khloé, a key to the Dash boutique and a hard drive of interviews she conducted during their stay in Tahoe.
Most of these objects, you may note, are tied to the women’s ability to generate capital, implicitly acknowledging the entire point of not just the series, but the empire. The act felt like a cheap reminder that, for this family, the end of KUWTK is probably the beginning of something else. Consider us warned.
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