For much of the person I am today, I have Ryan Seacreast to thank. For at least one prolonged period of my adolescence, Seacreast produced the vast majority of the entertainment media I consumed. This was in no small part due to my peculiar middle school homecoming ritual, which consisted of one bowl of Special K Red Berries cereal, consumed as I watched an hour of programming on the E! television network. I’d watch E! News first, where Giuliana Rancic (née DePandi, for the bulk of my TV-watching consciousness) offered a pillar of Cronkite-like consistency throughout my teenage years in her coverage of the Hilton-Lohan feud; after that came 30 minutes of another program, usually an episode of whatever new reality series the network was promoting that month. It was a lineup of now-forgotten shows, relics like “Sunset Tan,” “Taradise” and “Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood” that would alternate daily.
I have little to show for this brief obsession with E!, save for a strange hyperawareness of American pop culture during a time that roughly approximates George W. Bush’s second term in office. But one thing that has lingered is a keen interest in Kim Kardashian, one of the celebrities most closely associated with that era of the network. Though the narrative of her celebrity primarily offers insight into my fantastically age inappropriate choices of media circa the time of my bat mitzvah, it also reveals much about contemporary celebrity culture more broadly.
Kardashian has of course been notorious for many years. Her roots are quasi-famous already: her biological father a defense attorney for O.J. Simpson and her stepfather Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian. Her own career took off in 2007 thanks to the leak of Kim K Superstar, a film best described as an explicit video that also featured Ray J as head performer. Following the sex tape incident, the family rode its momentum to a reality show on E!, and it was out of this brouhaha that the now long-enduring “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” was born. Now in its ninth season, the program continues to style itself as a pseudo-unscripted look inside the Jenner-Kardashian household, with Kim the often-volatile center of the project’s “Brady Bunch” meets “Big Brother” variation.
It’s worth mentioning that the result of this entire operation is certainly not more offensive than anything else E! has ever done, a history that includes the complete chronicles of Hugh Hefner’s three live-in girlfriends via “Girls Next Door” and all nine episodes of “Pretty Wild.”
All of this history has led us to today. Now Kim Kardashian is married to Kanye West, the “New Slaves” provocateur. Both something of outsiders themselves, the pair recently burst into the public spotlight again with their recent cover for Vogue magazine, which dubbed them the #worldsmosttalkedaboutcouple. (The pair occupies the front of the recent issue in a wedding-themed shoot; their infant daughter, North, appears in several accompanying promotional shots.)
For their appearance in the magazine the twosome has been the subject of much media attention, a significant portion of which has been dedicated to vilifying Kim Kardashian. Critics have castigated her as unworthy of her newfound status as a cover girl in one of America’s most aspirational publications — had the magazine, its critics asked, lowered its standards by including her? Tina Brown, the Daily Beast editor, suggested as much when she dismissed Kardashian as “the reigning queen of trash television,” writing that the socialite hardly exemplified the “women of excellence” to which the magazine ought to devote its covers.
To me, such outright dismissal is simply a project of revisionist history — something I, as an expert in reality television of the period from 2004-2008, am uniquely positioned to rectify. While it’s true that Kim Kardashian lacks the creative credentials of a bona fide content producer, it’s hard to explain away her success; there’s a reason the women of “Sunset Tan” aren’t on the cover of Vogue magazine, and it’s not for lack of trying.
Kim Kardashian, for better or for worse, possesses a formidable power in the contemporary media landscape; to captivate the narrative, for better or for worse, with or without any sense of newsworthiness. What we value in her is not the content she produces but her ability to survive in the face of biting criticism and escape the looming threat of irrelevance. The “Girls Next Door” have been long forgotten, but it’s a testament to her stardom that Kim Kardashian remains. That alone warrants the cover of Vogue.
Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .