Kapitalism, With Kim Kardashian

By Megan Garber

What is it like to be Kim Kardashian? What is it like to live her life, and know her mind, and walk a mile in her rhinestone-studded stilettos? 

You probably have not asked such questions, partly because it would be extremely uncomfortable to walk any more than a few feet in Kim Kardashian's shoes, but also because Kim herself does not seem to be terribly interested in engendering empathy. There are generally two types of Young Female Celebrity: the ones whose personas are based on their personalities—the ones who, in interviews, drop f-bombs and mention The Method and talk about Hollywood's treatment of women—and the ones who attempt to transcend their own pesky personhoods in the name of Fame itself. It's not a sharp divide—they are all, on some level, objectified, and they are all, on some level, on Twitter. But it comes down to a difference between those celebrities who primarily want to be heard, and those who primarily want to be seen.

Kim Kardashian, she of the airbrushed cheeks and the synthetic lashes and the lips glossed in paradoxical shades of Nude, falls squarely into the "wants to be seen" category. She has a doll-like quality, like an American Girl who grew up to become a mannequin. She is plasticine. Her favorite activity seems to be posing. As a self-conjurer—as a Whitmanesque singer of herself—Kim is prolific. There are the reality TV shows, certainly, and the sex tape, but there are also the US Weekly spreads and the red carpet appearances and the endless stream of mirror selfies. There are, inevitably, the meta-selfies. Kim gives an age newly obsessed with self-documentation a perfectly vacant-stared mascot. Her preferred medium, the TV shows and the sex tape notwithstanding, is the photograph. And photos are extremely good at making their subjects seen and not heard. 

* * *

So while Kim Kardashian may in fact be flesh and blood, while she may have a mind and a heart and, if we can be a little presumptuous about it, a soul—and while there may well be a rich inner life trembling beneath all those layers of hair spray and spray tan and StudioFix Powder Plus—what makes Kim Kardashian so supremely Kim Kardashian is that you're never quite sure, with her, about the stuff that isn't stuff. What is Kim like, actually, as a person? That question makes a lot of assumptions. Whatever thoughts Kim may have as a Self remain, like her pores, generally hidden from view; in the Kardashian cosmology—er, the Kosmology—one's humanity is generally something to be disguised rather than displayed.

Reuters

There is something refreshingly honest about this. There is something, literally, daring about it. Knowingly or not, Kim takes Hollywood's basest expectations about women—its treatment of them as, essentially, walking sex dolls—and doubles down. Was this what you wanted? Kim's Spandex would like to know. Kim is self-satirizing, certainly, but it's an especially cutting form of satire. By laughing at herself, she also laughs at a system that allows for a Kim Kardashian to exist in the first place. (At the recent, lavish wedding that made Kimye a matter of legal concern, Kanye West gave a 45-minute toast. It was not about his new bride. It was about the nature of celebrity.) So while Kim Kardashian is certainly not the first person to be famous for being famous, she embraces her own shiny nihilism with a gusto that is, in its way, novel. 

And also, in its way, rare. It has become trendy for other celebrities in Kim's peer group, upon realizing the impermanence of their nubility, to outwit the inevitable by turning themselves into "lifestyle brands." Gwyneth would like to share some hard-won truths about yoga and breakups and vegan s'mores. Blake has some pressing thoughts about olive oil. Lauren wants to sell you a pencil skirt that manages to be sassy and practical at the same time. Ambient commercialism has turned a certain subset of our stars into walking SkyMall catalogs, and this probably says a lot about The Way We Live Now, especially since most of the meditation-peddlers don't actually walk so much as they teeter precariously upon six-inch Louboutins while posing for the paparazzi.

But Kim! Kim steadfastly refuses to sell anything but herself. Or, to be more specific, she refuses to sell anything but the image of herself. She will feign no interest in baking or knitting or meditating. She seems to have no thoughts whatsoever about kale. She seems to have no thoughts, really, about much of anything. And therein lies her particular gift. She is a human, we can safely assume—she puts her Spanx on one leg at a time—but being human is, by definition, ordinary. And Kim is, by her own definition, extraordinary. She is a person who is also A Way of Life. She is her own ecosystem. She is her own value system. 

* * *

That is the premise, at least, of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, an app that is also a game that is also, now, a phenomenon. ("It might be our biggest game of the year," Niccolo de Masi, CEO of the app-maker Glu Mobile Inc., told Bloomberg.) 

The game is free to download and play; but it allows—and encourages—in-app purchases. You use real-world money to win at Kim World. Which has meant, among other things, that Kim Kardashian is becoming even more explicitly what a reality star always will be, underneath it all: an entrepreneur. While she has long ranked among the highest-paid of the reality ("reality") stars—her estimated net worth, as of this June, was $45 million—the game is on track to earn $200 million, with Kim's 45-percent cut coming in at $90 million. So you can accuse Kim Kardashian of vanity or vapidity or any manner of metaphor, but, if you do, she will laugh all the way to the bank. And then, probably, use the ATM mirror to reapply her mascara. 

But back to the game. In it, Kim is a cartoon. So are you. You play a character who works in an L.A. clothing boutique, but who is—obviously—destined for greater things than working in an L.A. clothing boutique. (This is obvious because the character you play is cute, and be-stiletto-ed, and small-waisted-and-big-everything-elsed, and in form very much like Kim Kardashian.)

In very short order, your boutique—So Chic, it is called—is visited by … Kim Kardashian. Which is not just a cool thing, but a useful thing. It is An Opportunity, and you are meant to take advantage of it. (Taking advantage is a big theme of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.) You are given two options: stay open late and help Kim get an outfit for a party she's attending … or refuse her. (The game, however, will not actually let you refuse. Striving, in this moral universe, means always saying yes.) 

So things continue apace. Your relationship with Kim grows. (Like everything else in the game, however, Kim is merely a means to end, and that end is Fame.) Kim, being magnanimous, invites you to a photo shoot; you go to said photo shoot; you go, afterward, to a party. And to more parties. And to more parties, each of escalating awesomeness. In each setting, you are given a set of tasks to complete and also a series of binary options: either take Kim's call or don't; either spend money on new clothes or wear something old; either flirt with a fellow named Dirk or network with him. The game has three primary currencies (Kurrencies?): energy (which comes in the form of little lightning bolts), money, and K-stars, which are basically a combination of the two others, and which sociologists might prefer to call "capital." You can expend K-stars on "charm." Which you can in turn deploy to help you to climb, socially, from the E list to the A list.

And that is the point of the game.

There is a brute logic to all of this. There is also an economic essentialism to all of this. Every possible move in the game that is Kim Kardashian: Hollywood represents a strategic violation of the categorical imperative: The whole point is to use anything available to you—goods, money, other people—as means to your own self-furtherment. This is capitalism, essentially, stripped of its remaining niceties and applied to the unique vapidity of Hollywood social life. 

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the game that Ayn Rand might have written, had Ayn Rand lived in the age of the smartphone and been a fan of bodycon skirts. It is what happens when objectification gives way to objectivism. "This game is so freakin stupid," iTunes customer Dmon555 complained, before giving it a 5-star rating.

In the Android store, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is sold under the category of "Adventure." And this is where Kim really gets the last laugh. Because the adventure being undertaken is, essentially, to become Kim Kardashian. It is to mimic her life—the striving, the posing, the stubborn conviction that fame is its own reward. And it is also, outside of the game's ecosystem, to help Kim Kardashian to realize her own quest to become Kim Kardashian. The game equates Kardashian with Hollywood itself; it might as well have thought more grandly. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has made its way to Stephen Colbert. And to federal agencies, with the EPA mistakenly tweeting about the game. And to the House of Representatives, where John Dingell, D-MI, was recently compelled to declare, "I have no idea who/what a Kardashian is." 

The thing is: He does now.    

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/kapitalism-with-kim-kardashian/375252/