The Kardashian conundrum

How much do you care about Kim and Kanye? Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, seems to think that the pair hold a significant cultural relevance, or at least that they can sell magazines. She has faced a healthy dose of criticism and backlash since her decision to feature them on the cover of the April issue, and I probably don’t even need to explain why.

Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar tweeted that she was canceling her subscription, and nearly 20,000 people retweeted or favorited her in support. According to The Daily Beast, the magazine’s Facebook page has also been inundated with angry comments and threats of cancellation from customers who feel that Vogue’s brand is associated with class and prestige, and that featuring someone like Kim Kardashian on the cover irrevocably tarnishes this brand. Many call her talentless. Others call her immoral.

I have to admit, I was initially angered by the cover as well. I even registered on Vogue’s website to leave a comment. I think part of the reaction came from previous press reports that Wintour had held out against giving Kardashian the cover for a long time, and it looked like a concession. Another question that many people have is who, exactly, are Kardashian’s fans? If her influence on society seems so universally scorned, who is watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians or buying magazines with her face on them? Well, I can answer that, in part. The day that the cover was released, I ended up arguing with a close friend of mine who happens to be a legitimate, non-ironic fan of Kardashian and Kanye West. She found the backlash against the cover ridiculous, snobby and hypocritical.

There is nothing wrong with my friend. She is on the President’s List and has a higher GPA than I do. She is more well-read than I am, and she watches all the same so-called cerebral television shows I watch: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and things like that. She just also happens to watch Kardashian’s show, The Bachelor and those Real Housewives shows that I don’t know the difference between.

She made several compelling arguments, some of which are also addressed in The Daily Beast’s article. The best-selling issue of Vogue was in 1992, and it featured a collection of the biggest supermodels at the time, including Naomi Campbell. Campbell made news for her obviously catty response to being asked about the Kardashian cover, where she refused to comment and insisted on being “politically correct” while laughing and making her feelings obvious. Yet Campbell herself is a recovering cocaine addict who has been arrested for assault ten times and has pleaded guilty to attacking assistants, housekeepers and even police officers. It would be hard for anyone on Facebook to argue she is more talented or moral than Kim Kardashian.

As my friend pointed out, it is very trendy to hate the Kardashians. Their magazine covers are not selling well. In 2012, covers featuring one or more Kardashian sisters were among the worst-selling issues for Glamour and Allure. Not only that, Keeping Up with the Kardashians has seen ratings plummet to less than half of the numbers they pulled in during the first season. And that’s fine. Their cycle of relevance may be ending, and consumers are deciding that with their wallets and their Nielsen boxes, which is how it should be.

Whether Wintour made a smart business decision in putting Kardashian and West on the cover remains to be seen, but I have been left wondering whether the backlash against it is really fair or warranted. It all depends on whether you see fame and notoriety as something you must deserve (and how could you?), and whether you draw arbitrary distinctions between some celebrities and others.

Don’t get me wrong, in a perfect world it would be great if everyone we celebrated was a brilliant artist or innovator who truly deserved to be famous. But even in that world, your opinion on who is a brilliant artist or innovator would be different from mine. In reality, people get famous for all kinds of different reasons.

Admittedly, the Kardashian family seems to have chased fame in a very deliberate and calculated way, but it’s not like it didn’t work for them. And a Vogue cover is not a Nobel Peace Prize. Many famous models who have graced the cover have just as few accomplishments and arguably greater moral failings than Kardashian.

The rules about who is scorned and who is celebrated are random and changeable. I remember everyone thinking it was tacky when the Spice Girls covered Vogue in January 1998. Critics thought the magazine was pandering to the lowest common denominator. Years later, those women are regarded with affection and nostalgia. I really like Victoria Beckham, but I wouldn’t say that she is all that different from Kardashian either.

So what exactly is my problem with Kim Kardashian? I’m not a fan, but I’ve never really put the effort into hating her, so I wasn’t sure why her cover bothered me. I actually respect Kanye West for his talent, and I do find it curious that he is half-hidden behind a woman in a wedding dress who is now famous just for being engaged to him.

Looking at Kardashian from a feminist perspective creates a sort of conundrum. Yes, it bothers me that a young woman would engage in that much plastic surgery, that she would market her pregnancy or that she would gain notoriety for a romantic relationship with a man who actually is a brilliant artist and innovator. But it also bothers me that her role as a leader of a successful business empire is diminished, and that she receives so much vitriol from other women. Those same critics glorify what Vogue is “supposed” to be and the often despicable fashion industry, which is more detrimental to women than almost anything these days.