When Paper Magazine “broke the Internet” with its Kim Kardashian cover, I was playing a video game. Or sleeping. Or eating. Or doing anything except getting broken by Jean-Paul Goude’s pictures of the socialite and reality TV star.
But as one story gave way to another, I eventually couldn’t ignore the countless reams of virtual paper e-published in its wake. The spread was history-making. Wait, it wasn’t history-making; it was a recycled image from an overrated photographer’s bag of tricks. It recalled nothing so much as the Hottentot Venus and her steatopygian assets; was Kardashian complicit in or simply ignorant of its racial implications? Kardashian was a “bimbo.” No, Kardashian wasn’t—in fact, she was a feminist hero who was driving the movement forward. Other, cooler heads wrote commentaries on the commentary: Why were we talking so much about Kardashian, and what did it mean? Most concluded that it amounted to so much sound and fury signifying nothing, which of course also meant that it signified everything.
“And they say I didn’t have a talent…try balancing a champagne glass on your ass LOL,” Kardashian tweeted, earning 52,561 retweets and 57,755 favorites for her trouble. It was, under the circumstances, perhaps the only thing anyone could say. To quote the great sportswriter Red Smith, “Now the story ends [because] reality has strangled invention.” Although even that remark isn’t totally accurate, because reality long ago gave way to spectacle, simulacra, and stage-managed pseudo-events.
Among “famous for being famous” personalities, Kim Kardashian brought so much more to the table, in principal part because she brought so much less.
When I lecture about the 1990s to undergraduates in my U.S. history course, I make them experience the decade through footage of the unavoidable “top stories” that defined it: the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Nancy Kerrigan kneecapping, the Clinton impeachment, and the fantastic and utterly inconsequential legal wrangling that concluded the closely-contested 2000 election. The coda to this era—an innocent and hapless time, in retrospect—was 9/11; finally the media had a juicy story of great import, a story that could be covered from all angles, a story that demanded round-the-clock coverage.
But for people like me, who were caught up in our own petty goings-on, each of these stories amounted to nothing more than white noise. One year could be distinguished from another only by the top story playing in the background. 9/11 was more consequential, to be sure, but it was covered in a way that undermined its significance. Twenty-four hours of anything, even something leading to an expansion of executive power as unprecedented as the USA Patriot Act, can’t help but make the subject seem absurd.
In other words, by the time the media found themselves covering a meaningful event, they could only report it the way they reported everything else: sensationalistically, repetitively, and with little value or insight added to each subsequent retelling. SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, which prospered by mocking stories already made ridiculous by the actions of the original participants, further deepened and enriched the sense of unreality now surrounding us.
Even though there’s nothing left to see of her, there’s always much, much more.
Arriving at the tail end of a decade spent cultivating “famous for being famous” personalities (i.e., the “famous famous”), Kim Kardashian represented that character’s final and fullest form. Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Heidi Montag and various others paved the way for her, but Kardashian brought so much more to the table, in principal part because she brought so much less. Kardashian was not the punching bag for the society of the spectacle; she was its patron saint.
When Kim Kardashian acts, she doesn’t act at all. Nothing she does affects anything in any appreciable way, but people know about her life nonetheless (or at least sorta know about it, much as they know ebola is sorta dangerous and sorta happening somewhere). Jennifer Lopez was praised for possessing some of the same physical attributes as Kardashian, but was limited by the fact that she was also an actress and singer. Many other individuals who warrant incessant tabloid scrutiny, such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, have a handful of accomplishments under their belts, thus ensuring that the attention they do receive is at least semi-justified.
Kim Kardashian has none of those problems, because she exists beyond history: her shiny plastic features are ageless, her ethnicity is ambiguous, and she is capable of sparking intense public interest merely by posing somewhat provocatively—this in spite of having appeared in a sex tape that enjoyed wide circulation years earlier. Even though there’s nothing left to see of her, there’s always much, much more.
Kardashian, then, didn’t so much break the Internet as unlock its fullest potential. At this stage, the web can’t be shattered or even bent; it is infinitely pliable, capable of projecting a dizzying array of images that contain no content and serve no purpose. We lucky residents of the First World now find ourselves in the Age of Kardashian, an era of nothings and nowheres compounding behind us on those Facebook walls and Twitter feeds we skim unceasingly and without explanation, which is perhaps the best explanation anyone can think of.
A hundred years from now, American historians might try to define the 2010s as a time of growing inequality and deepening social divisions. But they’d be wrong, for much the same reason as those folks who will try to convince you that the heady, go-for-broke 1990s were characterized by the collective malfeasance of bankers, e-commerce barons, and stockbrokers. No, at the halfway point, it appears that the 2010s have played out against the backdrop of Kim Kardashian’s famous fame: She is akin to the persistent dull hum that emanates from our household appliances, reminding us that things are still working, at least for the moment.
(Top image: Jean-Paul Goude/papermag.com)