I have a confession to make: I love TV. For someone who considers (and, ok, prides) herself on being an “intellectual,” I revel far too much and too often in the somewhat mindless joys of television, equally thrilled by Friday Night Lights, House of Cards, Elementary, New Girl, Dance Moms and even, at times, The Bachelorette (to name but a few). My propensity for shows is eclectic and scarily boundless. Sometimes it dismays me – there are way too many great books to read! I should be using my time more practically! But these thoughts are readily dismissed. I’m not sure if it’s the escapism of television, like that of film, that I’m drawn to, and, in truth, I don’t need to justify it. But I’ve found myself slowly becoming invested in TV as a medium not just as entertainment, but as worthy of academic treatment (I may just be trying to take the “guilty” out of the “pleasure"). I’ve become particularly interested in the ways in which paradigms of femininity (female identity?) are portrayed through popular television culture. Indeed, if I’m ever afforded the opportunity, I’d like to structure a class or freshman writing seminar around the idea (here’s hoping at BU), pairing feminist theory with representations of women in shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and The Mindy Project. The ways in which women on television conform to or subvert expectations about gender and their roles in society is, I think, worthy of serious attention as it, in important ways, provides a reflection of women’s evolving roles in the real (non-televised) world. All of this, then, leads to – slightly tangentially –an idea which I’ve been mulling over for some time: what is the value of a show like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians?” Here I should make a second, perhaps more sordid, perhaps more shocking, confession: I like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Partly, I could say that it’s refreshing to see someone who looks like me on mainstream television – slightly ethnic looking, dark, less than stick- figure thin and yes, hairy. Partly, I could say that their antics, however insane or inane, are actually sort of amusing and that they do seem to genuinely care for another as a family. But these and other issues merely scratch the surface. They do not fully broach the more incisive question I’ve been considering: how might the show, brimming with ostensibly vapid female characters, be situated in light of the feminist paradigm afore mentioned?
The answer, it seems, lay in the postmodern underpinnings of “Camp.” (I mean, of course, “Kamp”). In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote the formative work on Camp as a theory, “Notes on Camp.” She therein describes camp as a “sensibility” whose defining feature is its “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Sontag continues, “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Conventionally associated with a notably gay aesthetic or with something like drag, Camp’s reach in fact, goes further. It aims, more generally, to “dethrone the serious” – to be “playful,” in fact, “anti-serious.” Though I was familiar with the idea of camp, it dawned on me one day as I began thinking about it that the Kardashians’ show is contemporary realization of this aesthetic, at least as Sontag described it. It is full of the requisite “glamour and theatricality” that Camp requires. Moreover, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much,” writes Sontag. If I had to sum up the show and the family in a sentence, I might do so thusly. And I think, relatedly, what confounds us so often (how can these people be famous?) is that there is tangible tension between the serious/anti-serious (such as its campy nature presupposes; “camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”) At once, the characters – for indeed, they are not people, but exaggerated people, or, characters – are frivolously serious or seriously frivolous, but are not fundamentally meant to be serious, or at least, are not to be perceived as such. Despite the “reality” the show claims to represent (and here I must note that “camp sees everything in quotation marks”), it is far from real. The show, as only Sontag could describe, “is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”
While I don’t presume to take the show seriously, I do look at it through a certain lens, which may well render it “acceptable,” even delightful. But the issue, still, goes further, for I’ve yet to address the intersection of Camp and the show’s role in light of its representation of women. Originally conceived, Camp was meant to be apolitical. More recently, Camp has been viewed in terms of identity politics or queer theory as it has been largely relegated to a specific male, homosexual aesthetic. But there is also a vein of thinking promulgated by Pamela Robertson in “Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna” that is feminist (theory) or female-centric. (This is probably a reductive way of putting it, but I haven’t read the whole thing, only gleaned a sufficient sense of its content for my purpose here). She seeks, in her “analysis of feminist camp” to “reclaim a female form of aestheticism, related to female masquerade and rooted in burlesque, that articulates and subverts the ‘image-and culture-making processes’ to which women have traditionally been given access.” Feminist camp, in other words, does not simply affirm certain “oppressive images” of women, but uses its excess (artifice) to critique them.
It may be useful here to bring Kim Kardashian (she, most infamous of the Klan) into focus. In a rather provocative article I came upon just last week, Suchi Sundaram asks if Kim K is the “Overlooked Face of Feminism.” Jezebel, which tweeted out the link, was quick to denigrate the article. But I think rather unfairly. There might be something to what Ms. Sundaram is saying, though I do believe it’s a little overstated. To summarize, Sundaram suggests that Kim is the new Helen of Troy who uses her beauty and her intellect as a means of controlling her own image. She also likens it to the Gaultier corset concept – it’s a garment that restricts but that ultimately is a symbol of liberation – so the “corset” is worn by Kim while she wears it (her image) and it, ultimately, affords her power and thus, makes her a feminist symbol. I do agree with Sundaram that Kim K uses her obvious beauty and her intellect (the latter more than we give her credit for, though I’d say it’s more like “saavy”) and that she wields these things to her advantage and they, in turn, both constrain her and liberate her. But in saying so, I think this really relates back to the idea, more pointedly, of feminist camp – returning to the quote in the previous paragraph, Kim uses a certain kind of aestheticism (related to female masquerade and rooted in burlesque) that allows her to define her own image and gives her a novel access to the “image-and culture-making processes” from which women have often been excluded.
Kim’s highly cultivated image is one of hyper-or extra- femininity. She is a bombshell, a sex-symbol, the apotheosis of a sort of female ideal. Her business deals equally reflect this idea: fragrances, makeup, clothing. She is, in many ways, the exaggerated (camp) female. This coincides nicely with Robertson’s concept that feminist camp is often concerned with self-parody in which “a woman might flaunt her femininity, produce herself an an excess of femininity, in others words, foreground the masquerade…to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and one’s image;” put differently, “she plays at being what she is always already perceived to be.” This, I think, is what Sundaram somehow reaches toward but doesn’t quite get to in her article and this, I think, is what, if anything, makes Kim K. a kind of “feminist” character (if unconsciously) and a good subject of inquiry for feminist camp. I wouldn’t go so far to say she’s the “face of feminism” because I’m not sure you could entirely ascribe Kim’s actions to a feminist impulse or that she’s even deliberately acting out a kind of feminist camp – but she is certainly conscious of the choices she is making. Acutely aware of her “being-looked-at-ness” (to invoke Laura Mulvey), she, indeed, vamps it up; constraining and/or freeing, it puts her firmly in control of the image-making process.
Positioned, too, at the intersection of feminist camp, there might be a way in which to say that Kim’s (for example) “playing” at femininity (or her masquerade) “shows that gender and sexual identity is but a sheer performance.” But I’m not sure I’m yet fully ready to take the discussion that far. I will, at last, conclude by noting that Camp, importantly, as Robertson points out, “exists both at the level of performance [Kim’s/The Kardashians] and of spectatorship [ours/TV viewers ].” There is a certain amount of “splitting of the image” of “dualism” and “irony” that comes with feminist camp – at once “female spectators” (specifically) might view Kim and recognize themselves in her image but may at the same time fail to identity with her. It may explain why Kim and her family are viewed with equal parts adulation and vitriol (but again, another discussion for another time…I could write a paper).
At the end of the day, though, I simply find it fun to “Keep Up.” As Sontag says, “it’s good because it’s awful.” Bona Fide Kamp.