When it comes to the Kardashians, one inevitable question arises: is this a successful ‘girlboss’ matriarchy or a continuation of the exploitation of 21st-century feminism by a handful of privileged and business-savvy women?

Building their Brand

Everybody knows the name. They’ve been coined ‘The American Royal Family.’ Their empire is worth billions. Forbes estimates that the sisters’ individual wealth ranges from more than 1 billion dollars (Kim) to 45 million (Kendall). They are famous for being famous, with a TV show that used to be televised in 90 countries. But the Kardashians are not only a brand, they are a coveted lifestyle that many of us feed into. Whether we’re mimicking their fashion and beauty style or buying the products they promote, the Kardashians have emerged from our screens and are dominating our everyday lives.

Six Kardashian women have built a hugely successful empire. For that, they deserve our admiration. Their business acumen is undeniable. But a more basic question we should be asking is what was that empire built on? According to the actress and presenter Jameela Jamil, the Kardashians are ‘double agent(s) for the patriarchy.’ Jamil explains that the term refers to a woman who is ‘perhaps unknowingly’ promoting a patriarchal narrative, and benefitting from it. There is some truth to this claim. Not only do the Kardashians encourage patriarchal body ideals through the ultra-feminine products they endorse and sell (such as the SKIMS waist trainer), but they crucially do this by utilising a ‘feminist aesthetic’ that appeals to women. Their professional success is certainly inspirational. But we shouldn’t stop there. Instead, we should step aside and consider whether feminism is being treated as a value in and of itself or a branding tag by the Kardashians.

The F-Word

In a 2016 interview, Kim Kardashian said: ‘I don’t think that I am,’ when asked if she saw herself as a feminist. A year later, a decade-old concept called #MeToo swept like wildfire across the internet and burst into popular consciousness. Feminism has rarely seen its cause become so mainstream. It was a revolution of sorts. In 2018, Kim launched ‘feminist stickers’ featuring slogans such as ‘My body, my choice,’ and ‘Full-time feminist.’ In the space of two years, the same woman seems to have changed her stance on the equality movement. Was the change the result of genuine reflection or a smart fail-proof marketing tactic? Before, Kim may have felt it to be too commercially risky to label herself a feminist. But when social media and popular culture embraced #MeToo — boom! Subsequently, the statement stickers were added to her merchandise. Call me sceptical, but it’s unlikely that feminism is the main drive of these entrepreneurs. Rather, the dollar bills that the ‘aesthetic’ of the label brings them seem like a more plausible incentive.

Money Money …

Let’s return to the beginning. A multi-billion dollar empire run by six powerful women screams ‘feminism’ louder than anything else, right? It’s just the sort of thing feminists have spent centuries fighting for.

The Kardashians’ growing wealth is proof of their enormous commercial value and apt business skills. But isn’t the symbolic and cultural success of a female-driven business negated, somewhat, if the prize is achieved at the expense of other women? Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney have all been criticised for promoting the QuickTrim diet pill, a weight-loss product that claims to help users ‘lose those extra pounds.’ Yet, these products have been proven to be not only ineffective but also unsafe. Diet pills such as QuickTrim can lead to mild cramping and, in rare cases, kidney failure. By continually hearing the celebrity-endorsed message that ‘thin is beautiful,’ young girls and women can become more prone to developing eating disorders or other body image hang-ups. We cannot honestly say the Kardashians are feminists when they perpetuate and benefit from a beauty standard whose foundations lie squarely within the patriarchy.

Perhaps we should sympathise. Even the Kardashians are not immune from the weight of the patriarchal archetype. Ever since she was thrust into the spotlight, Khloe Kardashian has been known to suffer from body insecurities as a result of being compared to her ‘smaller’ sisters. Viewed objectively, these rich and powerful women may knowingly promote toxic beauty standards but they are also their victims.

There are self-evident gaps between the Kardashians’ behaviour and their claims to the ‘sisterhood’ of feminism. An illusion is being cast. One that would have us believe women everywhere and a family of billionaires are all steering one merry Girlpower boat. Feminism is solidarity. Feminism is equality. Kim and her sisters may or may not be the F-word, depending on your definition of feminism. One thing is apparent, the Kardashians stand apart from the majority of women in their unscrupulous perpetuation of the commercialisation of feminism. I leave the rest to you.

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