Kardashians Forever, but The Situation is New
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Armenian people. They suffered genocide at Turkish hands yet many governments don’t recognize their suffering. Now they have to deal with the fact that arguably the best known Armenian in America, if not the world, is Kim Kardashian.
To be fair, I kind of like Kim Kardashian. I used to enjoy her reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Apparently, many people are still watching. As Alessandra Stanley reports in The New York Times, the show is still extremely popular, now entering its fifth season.
Stanley’s main point is that this is nothing new.
These kinds of series are an extension of a time-honored form of entertainment, one that reaches back to the era of landed gentry, debutantes and social seasons in places like Newport, R.I., or the French Riviera.
More than a century ago, ordinary people avidly followed the follies of the idle rich in the society pages and passenger lists of liners like the Atlantic or the Mauretania….
There were celebrities back then too, and their claims to fame were not so much nobler than those of Kim Kardashian or even Mike, a k a the Situation, of “Jersey Shore.” Women and men made news by spending money frivolously or having grand weddings with millionaires or titled Europeans; they became infamous in lurid sex scandals and even murder cases, as when Harry K. Thaw killed the architect Stanford White in 1906 out of jealousy over White’s affair with his model-actress wife, Evelyn Nesbit.
Stanley observes a difference between Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore. While the former follows the above tradition of celebrities who are “famous for being famous,” the latter follows an equally old idea, that “bad behavior serves as a warning but succeeds as entertainment.” She references the 1900 Gellett Burgess poem, “Goops and How to Be Them”:
The Goops they lick their fingers
and the Goops they lick their knives
They spill their broth on the tablecloth
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
An obvious difference between Kim Kardashian and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is one of class. Stanley mentions this briefly, in addressing the difference between “celebrities” of yore on the more modern incarnations, stating: “Television merely invades the process and broadens the social pool.”
She does not really go far enough here though.
Kim Kardashian, and her celebutante predecessor Paris Hilton, are famous for three reasons: they have famous relatives, they are fantastically, fabulously wealthy, and they are young (relatively) attractive women who made sex tapes. The last of the three made them famous, but the first two were pre-requisities. If I released a sex tape tomorrow nobody would care (except for maybe my family, my advisors, my students, and my wife).
America has long been fascinated by wealth, from Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class to the more recent Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and MTV’s Cribs. As Bill Simmons pointed out a while back when comparing Beverly Hills 90210 to The O.C., ” You’re probably going to have a hit show if an outsider is dealing with rich people.” The point there is that the wealthy people, the Dylan McKays and the Kelly Taylors, were exotic and fascinating, but the “normal” people, the Walshes, were relatable (of course, when watching The O.C. I related to Seth Cohen, not Ryan Atwood). We have ideas of what rich people’s lives are like in our heads, but these shows, whether “reality” or fictional, offer a window inside.
Jersey Shore is different. When watching Jersey Shore, those of us in the educated middle to upper middle to upper class receive a voyeuristic pleasure watching seemingly stupid people behave badly. The ethnic factor, that these people are supposed to represent an (offensive to many) Italian-American stereotype, adds a degree of familiarity even if many of us do not know anyone who conforms to that stereotype. But even beyond that, I think, there is a familiarity that the typical viewer can have with J-Woww and Paulie D. and Snooki that he or she cannot have with super-rich reality stars like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.
Several weeks ago, I attended a bachelor party in Atlantic City. Our experience was rather different than that of Jersey Shore cast members, but it was within the same universe. In some ways, I am closer to Sammi Sweetheart than I am to Paris Hilton.
Shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have an even greater “familiarity” appeal. Sure, the contestants are better looking than normal people, but other than that, they’re basically normal people who happen to be fame-whores. MTV’s The Real World was of course the original in this genre, as it purported to mimic “real” life. The same can be said of Survivor. We watched “real” people in a strange, uncomfortable situation yet found it familiar. We wondered: “what would we do in their position?”
There’s something basically democratic about shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and Survivor. Shows about celebrities, like Us Weekly and OK! Magazine might provide a window into our fantasies, or at least what we imagine distant lives to be like. But Jersey Shore and The Bachelorette and Survivor tell us about ourselves.