by Mac Spencer
We begin at one of this century’s most infamous ascents to celebrity status, which I assume needs little retelling. In 2007, a leaked sex tape of Kim Kardashian and her then-boyfriend catapulted Kardashian, an individual requiring no introduction, to near-instant fame. After initially attempting to sue media company Vivid Entertainment and block the impending release of the recording, she abruptly took a U-turn, and instead brokered a deal ensuring profit based on view count. Since then, she has reportedly made $4.5 million from the tape, successfully transforming private material into a marketable commodity.
Fast-forward to early 2018, and that figure represents just the tip of a dollar-green iceberg. Last year, Kim Kardashian-West eclipsed her own personal pre-tax income at an estimated $45.5 million — including a gross profit of $14 million made within 24 hours of a product launch — landing her comfortably in the top 50 of Forbes’ highest earning celebrities of the year.
Forging an extant career from the aftershock of a (not uncommon) sex-tape scandal fifteen years ago is notable in itself. However, it is the entirely unusual way in which Kardashian-West has pursued and cemented business success, through a self-made nexus of femininity and market rationale, that I believe merits anthropological interest. By that I do not necessarily mean the way in which she physically represents herself: that Kardashian-West employs sex appeal in her ventures is a point verging on banality. It is instead a deeper inspection of her products and their marketability that brings to the fore a highly interesting methodology.
One example exists within her app, Kimoji. Capitalising on the Apple-induced frenzy of emojis, her app provides a package of Kardashian-themed ‘stickers’ for use in instant message services. One recent ‘add-on’ pack is named Kanye & North after Kardashian-West’s husband and daughter, respectively. Seven of these stickers depict her four-year old daughter in various poses and expressions. Her representation is then reused by myriad anonymous consumers to express their own intent or emotion in instant messaging.
Early 2017 offers another example: during rife media speculation on potential pregnancy, Kardashian-West evaded any direct questions on the topic. Later that same month, she launched a luxury clothing line for children, in what was conceivably a response to the press. In the following months, it was announced that she was indeed expecting a child through surrogacy.
A final instance, perhaps the most arresting, of Kardashian-West’s modus operandi arose during her 2015 pregnancy. She fervently endorsed controversial morning sickness prevention drug Diclegis in a much-criticised (and now deleted) Instagram post, a closely-framed self portrait of her holding the drug’s packaging. The bare-bones caption to the image, lacking in its initial form of any medical warnings or conditions, detailed her own battle against morning sickness, a condition of which she expressed her intent to “raise awareness”. Later, the parent company of the drug confirmed that “[s]he has been compensated for sharing her experience with our product.”
Though these seem like disembodied examples, each represents the end product of an incredibly specific process of economic translation employed by Kardashian-West. With all three, she takes an aspect of her private, domestic life, and transforms it into a marketable, bankable commodity, whether it be as tangible as a garment, or as abstract as an online representation of her gestation, acting thus as a signifier of her fertility. Intimate aspects of her corporeality and physical self are reformulated to achieve unconventional means. Though Kardashian-West’s career flourished precisely from such constant and minute exposure of her personhood, what is interesting is that here she is profiting not from the sexual intimacies of her life, but from tender, domestic moments that are rarely associated with economic revenue. Her personal, to allude to Carol Hanisch, is politicised, and she transforms her person into profit.
For those attuned to gender issues, the imagined and overly relied-upon dichotomy between the rational, productive, ‘male’ public and the puerile, fruitless ‘female’ domestic spaces will be familiar territory by now. Reproductive and industrial labour have long been seen as dissociated forms, coexisting but never blended. Here, Kardashian-West’s unconventional approach is to blur the distinction between the two, transforming reproductive matters into massively profitable commodities.
Much could be unpacked on the ethics of Kardashian-West capitalising on her toddler’s image and her fertility, indeed on her childbearing issues. It is this form of overtly moralistic analysis, however, that has dogged countless Kardashian-themed thinkpieces and responses. As a result, the staggering economic success of their undertakings have been largely neglected. Try, for example, Googling “kim kardashian economics”. A flurry of Forbes articles appear first, before quickly petering out into a stream of Daily Mail-esque offerings employing brash headlines like “Kim Kardashian dons sexy business suit”. Of course, little is said of what Kardashian-West pursued and accomplished whilst wearing said suit.
Bountiful in problematic lingo as the lower-brow articles are, the Forbes articles hardly act as a more charming adversary. Each dripping with homogenous contempt, a brief outline of income figures is given, before turning almost unfailingly to a sardonic and moralistic teardown of Kardashian-West. For example, Forbes’s The Kardashian Economy Is Thriving concludes with the somewhat self-countering
“This Kardashian economy will continue to grow as long as we allow our decisions to be swayed by those celebrities. Their fifteen minutes won’t end until we ignore them.”
Beseeching the readership of a top business and finance magazine to ignore someone who, just a paragraph earlier, is said to have a projected profit of $85 million from a single app seems counter-productive. But it is with the very issue of production that I suggest author Jeffrey Dorfman’s antagonism lies. Let’s imagine that he was instead reporting on a 37-year-old male, raking in a projected $85 million from a start-up business, perhaps, or a dazzlingly innovative technology. It is not excessive to assume that our unnamed entrepreneur would have been dedicated an altogether more complimentary concluding line. I argue that it is the process of Kardashian-West’s accumulation that so irks Dorfman, and those in his field. Sex, domesticity and fertility do not marry well with global economy and profit, at least in the paternalistic cogitation of popular business and financial discourse. Kardashian-West, in brazenly flouting the fiercely guarded sacrosanct border between the areas, commits, in Dorfman’s (and by extension, Forbes’s) view, nothing less than heresy.
Such hostile contempt is further elucidated in the general response to Steve Forbes’ tweet, celebrating “iconic businesswoman Kim Kardashian[’s]” presence at the Forbes Women’s Summit 2017. The largely vitriolic replies from Twitter accounts include “Didn’t know @SteveForbesCEO had summits featuring pornstars…”; “Business of sex sorry it is not interesting”; and “Iconic? Really? Sex tape leads to iconic. Great country America. Wow”.
This pervasive derision toward the conceptualisation of ‘Kim Kardashian as business woman’ takes fuel from multiple flames. I include my earlier analysis, her amalgamation of traditionally discrete spheres, as one reason. A much less theoretical reason is common misogyny, which I would hope is evident enough in common conduct toward Kardashian-West, and the intimate beginnings of her celebrity (including the Tweets above), that it need not be expanded upon. A third I would propose is the reaction, less against her transforming reproductive to productive, but more simply against her image as a voracious consumer in general.
Kardashian-West constitutes part of a modern breed of public figures who are in a cycle of constant promotion; every clothing choice is picked to maximise brand exposure, bountiful opportunities to consume and promote products under paid contract from corporations is taken, and forms of consumption at every social obligation are scrutinised. In regard to reputation, what further works against Kardashian-West and her cohort is that reactions to such discernible consumption have long been morally tinged. In simple terms, overt materialism is spurned, and Kardashian-West’s approach comes under fire for this very reason.
With her eponymous app based on ascent to fame, myriad product endorsements, and lack of a traditional job role, Kardashian-West is emblematic of late capitalist consumer culture. As consumption has often been mistaken as the antithesis to production, I argue that her form of production has been overlooked, or otherwise contemned, by the business world. This has bled into the common conception of Kardashian-West as frivolous, irrational, a puerile consumer; in other words, incompatible with the rational business world. Her position of celebrity has allowed her to utilise her position as a fertile caregiver in facilitating financial prowess, not through double-shift labour, but by commoditising the very aspects of women’s lives that are expected to be contrary to financial profit. Whether the obdurate field of economic journalism will eventually acknowledge her untraditional approach to business is an unsure question. Though, in support of her warranting financial and business interest — and here, allow me to to adopt the rationalist approach that has often led the hand of Kardashian-targeted vitriol — one need only look at the figures themselves.