Unpacking The Cultural Legacy Of ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’

Article by Elfy Scott /
Junkee /
September 11, 2020 /
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The reactions to the show ending have been seriously mixed (like all commentary around the family) but regardless of people’s opinions of them, the Kardashians have had a massive cultural impact.  

I want to figure out why the show became such a phenomenon and how it helped the Kardashians revolutionise pop culture.  

Keeping Up with the Kardashians first aired in 2007.  

The show was and is incredibly divisive, and the Kardashians have always been critiqued as being a family that are just famous for being famous. 

Despite that, they have been incredibly successful and while most of the reality TV stars of that decade were left behind, for some reason the Kardashians have just really worked.  

We spoke about this with Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne. She’s an expert in how pop culture meets and reflects society. 

Dr Lauren Rosewarne: “I think there’s a number of factors that indicate why they worked, and others didn’t. 

They offered an aspirational lifestyle but did it in a way that wasn’t as though they were rubbing it in other people’s faces. So, they weren’t coming at us as elites … they were showing that this was a lifestyle that was glamorous … but they were still saying they were accessible, and I think the accessible part is crucial.” 

The Kardashians used that accessibility to build their success on social media and they were really at the forefront of what we now see as pretty every day, in terms of how celebrities present themselves on those platforms. 

LR: “This idea of being able to monetise lifestyle in order to generate an income, they pioneered this. They weren’t the first … but the extent to which they’ve been able to do it, is incredibly important to their story.”  

The fame and success that the Kardashians have managed to establish on social media meant that their TV show started to matter less and less to their visibility.  

And now, even though they’re leaving the E! channel, their content is still going to be incredibly present in the lives of their audience.  

So, What Legacy Does The Show Leave Behind?

Not everybody likes the Kardashian and Jenner families. They’ve weathered a lot of legitimate criticisms, including offensive displays of wealth, appropriation of black culture and some extremely public embarrassments. 

But Rosewarne thinks that overall, the show has contributed to some big cultural conversations in its time on air – like Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.  

LR: “I think we underplay the fact that that was really an example of bringing trans stories into the mainstream media … I’m not saying she invented the concept, but the idea of a mainstream, hugely popular family being connected to this story, put it on the agenda in a way that it hadn’t been.” 

And while the beauty routines of the Kardashians and Jenners have been steeply criticised for being fake and cash-intensive, Rosewarne believes there’s something to be said for how they revolutionised female beauty expectations.  

LR: “If you look at the slew of models now on Instagram as an example, we are seeing so many shapes and sizes and colours of women, in a way that prior to the Kardashians, it was a much smaller market.” 

As for how it affected reality TV in general, Rosewarne believes that audiences have become too savvy about what’s happening behind the scenes in shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians.  

Ultimately, it takes a lot more for reality TV producers to hold audience attention today, than it did back in 2007.  

And besides the family dramas that people believe are contributing to the show’s end, the format of Keeping Up with the Kardashians simply might not work as well anymore.  

The Takeaway

Keeping Up with the Kardashians was a seriously divisive and heavily criticised show, but it was incredibly influential for pop culture.  

And even though the Kardashians themselves aren’t always the best role models, they opened the doors for a lot of important conversations and their impact shouldn’t be ignored.