We can look at the formation of late 90s reality television as the formation of several states, embodied by the emerging celebrities springing forth from each show. Think of them as warring tribes, eager to reach the pinnacle not only of television viewership, but of becoming the dominant discourse in the cultural landscape.
1992 established itself with The Real World, an MTV show that gathered seven strangers into one house in a particular city, with the hopes that they would fight and fuck their way through several hours worth of television gold. The only skills needed to enter said house were, other than applying, that you had to be good-looking, narcissistic, and have a personality the producers deemed interesting enough. Can anyone remember anyone from The Real World? No. There were too many of them, as disposable as X-Factor contestants but unable to assert themselves by perhaps releasing an album. The control remained solely in the producers’ hands. Nothing much changed, apart from the fact you could now be famous by merely existing.
Enter 1997’s Big Brother. bios (public life) and zoe (private life) become one. No longer a victim to the whims of producers and editors, each contestant was followed for twenty-four hours a day by cameras in every room of the house, apart from the toilet, because the show’s creators wanted you to know they had some semblance of standards. This included a 24 hour live feed channel dedicated solely to watching contestants sit around the house and give each other handjobs under blankets. In the dislocating localization of the Big Brother compound, anything went. Whatever it took to stand out from the crowd, and secure yourself a television presenting career or a novelty single. Cue disappearing champagne bottles into orifices, tears and tantrums, and hot tub shenanigans. By the time subsequent seasons rolled around, the veneer of sociological curiousity was abandoned. Sex sells.
Still, too many contestants. What could possibly set you apart from everyone else, if the stakes are this equal. How about money? 2003 brought us The Simple Life, with hotel heiress Valley girl Paris Hilton in her very own show. Now we’re talking. She’s mean, she’s dumb, she’s spoiled…but she’s rich! She’s hot! She doesn’t need to work for a living! The dream is real, the biopolitical template is formed. And if you can’t be rich and can’t lay around the pool all day, you can at least pretend. The aspirational capitalist machine turns its wheels, and Paris Hilton becomes a brand. In 2004, Paris Hilton’s perfume was one of the biggest selling of the year.
Yet the army was at the door. You can only rule over your state for so long in this manner. A state is formed by land, order, and birth after all, the birth being the important part if you want a nation. What did the Kardashian clan do better than the Hiltons? Have enough fame-hungry family members, and keep having babies with fame-hungry significant and insignificant others, who have enough time and ego to spend their day on Twitter spreading the rules and regulations of a Kardashian State.
A skinny white blonde girl does not tap into the hip-hop video vixen zeitgeist, but a half-Armenian brood with a penchant for fake tan and plastic surgery certainly can. Even half-sister Kylie Jenner, with no drop of Kardashian blood in her, can lip plump and silicone inject her way to Instagram fame, a synonymous make-up collection inciting queues and riots in department stores around the globe.
Here then, is the Kardashian biopolitic, the living law of each family member disseminated through social media. A dream of luxury and leisure filtered through carefully constructed photo montages. Their ten-season strong reality show a manual on how you too, can have it all, without even stepping foot in Los Angeles or having the millions of a celebrity lawyer father. Follow the rules and you can sit with us, while we visit the clinics of Beverly Hills. Just buy our products.