Kim Kardashian, never a favorite of the intelligentsia, has come under withering fire this month for the Vogue cover featuring her and fiance Kanye West. The cover, which is perfectly nice to look at if you know nothing about the people pictured, becomes absurd when you do.
Nevertheless, in their indignation at Kim Kardashian’s very existence, people seem to have forgotten how much we, as Americans and as cultural consumers, owe her.
Americans, who as a people are capable of astonishing feats of cognitive dissonance, have an ambivalence about celebrity. On the one hand, we worship celebrities, we follow their every move, we have reality shows to create them and magazines and websites to chronicle them. But we lament our own interest, and hate ourselves in the morning.
This conflict runs deep within us, and is probably impossible to resolve. Celebrities are both of us and above us, and we emulate them even while resenting the time that we spend on them. On every online article about Kim Kardashian, there is inevitably one commenter who will ask, “Who is this woman and why do we care?”. Or, consider another example: a few weeks ago, when Scarlett Johansson was inarticulate about Woody Allen and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people were outraged, as though it were breaking news that Scarlett Johansson is not one of the great intellectual lights of humanity.
And why should she be? That was not the selection criterion for her job. People spent precious minutes of their short lives reading Johansson’s opinions (truly as pointless an activity as I can imagine) and then felt cheated when she failed to scintillate and inspire.
It is in these moments, when we have gone down the rabbit-hole of celebrity and come out only stupider and closer to death, that Kim Kardashian comes to our aid.
Kim Kardashian is a woman whose sole pursuit is fame. She does not excel at anything. She does not want to be famous for anything; she only wants us to look at her, and she doesn’t care if there is anything of substance to see there.
Kardashian is the worst of celebrity made flesh, and she exemplifies what we hate about it: the way it draws our attention without giving us anything in return, the way it wastes our time. And, yes, every moment that we spend on Kim Kardashian is, in a sense, wasted.
But now, when we grasp for the words to explain our simultaneous fascination and disgust, we can reference one person. Kim Kardashian contains in herself everything for which we hold fame-seeking in contempt, and because she possesses no real skill or distinction, we have no excuse for her. She is empty calories, and when we binge, we cannot but call it what it is. And that is clarifying. Kardashian gives us a name for our problem, and that makes our self-reflection more efficient. The first step to healing is to admit you have a problem, and Kim Kardashian is rock bottom. When we self-assess, we can (and do) point to her. She is the face of our weakness, and so she has become our scapegoat. And we need a scapegoat: we need to build up and then tear down – that’s how we prove to ourselves that, although we read about her, we are still better than she. It is not, perhaps, an enviable job, but she has volunteered.
And for that, Kim Kardashian, we thank you.
Image from Vogue.com.