Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET on November 17, 2020.
Kim Kardashian West’s original vision for her 40th birthday was to fly all of her friends to Wyoming for a “wild, wild Miss West” party, where, one presumes, her signature taupe shapewear would complement the rocky vistas. But, as Kim said in a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, “with COVID, I just don’t honestly feel like now is the time to celebrate anything.” Bummer—but not too big a bummer, because her family still organized an elaborate surprise bash at a studio in Los Angeles. Ponies, like the ones she rode for her first birthday, stood at the venue’s entrance, where attendees were made to take coronavirus tests. Sundaes were served at a mocked-up version of the diner Kim had partied at as an 8-year-old. The nightclub Tao, that hot 2000s palace of Patrón and EDM, was recreated in miniature. “All my favorite people were there—all my best friends and family,” Kim told E!’s cameras after smizing her way through this pop-up museum of her life. “And that’s really all that I needed.”
It was, however, clearly not all she needed. By now the internet is well aware that Kim also rang in her 40th year by flying dozens of people to a private tropical island. Attendees were not told where they were going, but they were told to quarantine beforehand and pack for sunny fun, as well as for three fancy dinners. In late October, when about 220,000 Americans had died from the coronavirus and 11 million were unemployed, Kim spammed social media with photos of beach banquets and boat rides. “I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time,” she wrote. “I realize that for most people, this is something that is so far out of reach right now, so in moments like these, I am humbly reminded of how privileged my life is.”
The public quickly went into rage-LOL mode. Social-media users paired Kardashian’s photo captions with images of cursed paradises: the Fyre Festival, a Game of Thrones wedding hall, a Midsommar ceremony, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Other responses to Kardashian’s vacation pics simply expressed white-hot offense. One tweet with 4,300 likes: “You know what would have felt normal for me, Kim? Not having to say goodbye to my mother over FaceTime as she was dying of COVID … Rubbing in this in our faces is cruel & clueless.” Another tweet (from the rocker Peter Frampton, who has surely done some reckless partying in his time): “Are you that insensitive you don’t realise this is not what the majority of people during the worst covid spike yet want to hear? People are going to food banks not private islands.”
The kerfuffle was, as with so many Kardashian-related things, a minor mess that also seemed to point to something profound in our culture. Less than a week after Kim posted her pictures, her sister Kendall Jenner faced backlash for throwing herself a Halloween birthday bash with 100 people in a West Hollywood bar. In a video, you can see Kendall blow out candles on a cake held by a masked server who appears to move his head away from her outflow of droplets. Soon after that, Kourtney Kardashian endorsed a baseless theory that surgical masks—a cheap and effective means of curbing COVID-19—cause cancer. The impression had been cemented: The Kardashians were proving that a certain kind of celebrity is ill-suited for—and might even become obsolete during—the coronavirus era.
The reckoning couldn’t happen to a more fitting family at a more fitting time. When E! announced earlier this year that Keeping Up With the Kardashians’s 20th season, airing in 2021, would be the show’s last, it seemed to promise the end of an era. Ever since the reality series premiered in 2007, the Kardashians have pioneered the archetype of the influencer, their show serving as the flagship for a multimedia empire fueled by marital intrigue and skincare products. Today, the way that millions of people dress, tweet, and shop has been somehow influenced by the Kardashians’ innovations in beauty and self-promotion.
Yet the family might insist that its empire isn’t built simply on voyeurism and consumption. All along, the Kardashians have maintained a patina of relatability by broadcasting their banal sibling squabbles and romantic travails. Kim, in particular, has publicly lived out an All-American, arguably feminist story of transformation: from humble stylist and ogled sex-tape object into formidable entrepreneur and effective criminal-justice activist. Other members of the Kardashian diaspora have become mascots for shifting social currents—whether the example is Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, or Kanye West’s political ungluing in the Trump era. Unsurprisingly, the current season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians portrays the Calabasas clan as huddling from and subdued by the coronavirus pandemic. But their pandemic partying shows the truth about Kardashian culture’s sway, and its limits.
The first time the Kardashian family discusses the coronavirus on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it’s during an early 2020 dinner at Nobu, the famous sushi restaurant offering $80 truffle-lobster plates and a bottles-in-the-club vibe. Kim and her sister Kylie Jenner first negotiate who will get a lychee martini and who will get a mango martini. Kim then proposes that the family all go to Paris Fashion Week to see Kanye West’s runway show. There’s general acclamation for the idea, but Kris, the matriarch of the family, has a question: “Wait, have you guys heard about this new virus?”
Keeping Up With the Kardashian’s 19th season unfolds from there as a perfectly dopey document of the pandemic seeping into the lives of the rich and famous. Most of the Kardashians do go to Paris, but as their family friend Fajer Fahad puts it, “the vibe” is “off,” thanks to the global pandemic. At home in Calabasas, Kourtney Kardashian’s ex, Scott Disick, starts to feel fatigued and worries that the virus is to blame. After a six-hour wellness treatment and consultations with specialists, the diagnosis is that he’s just low on testosterone and should eat more pumpkin seeds. Two episodes later, Kris is disturbed to see Khloé walking around in a face mask. “What is happening with our family?” Kris says. “We’re falling apart!” Khloé shoots back, “It’s not our family; it’s the world!”
Indeed, the show does seem somewhat committed to the idea that the Kardashians are Just Like Us when it comes to quarantine.“This is going to be tough for a lot of people,” Disick says after reading through some pandemic news coverage, causing Kim to flick her eyes to the side in an expression of either fear or distraction. The show’s timeline eventually catches up to mid-March, when California implemented a mandatory stay-at-home order, and E!’s camera people disappear, as do any visible cooks or maids. The Kardashians are left to film their life with iPhones, and the vibe becomes tepid. They peer listlessly into video calls and get confused about the Zoom interface. They run low on hand sanitizer and Cheetos. They take coronavirus tests and are horrified that the results may not arrive for 10 days.
Lockdown, in a way, suits the modern Kardashian aesthetic. In the show’s early days, the family’s closets and decor flaunted the logo-encrusted, ticky-tacky trends of the late Bush era. Plotwise, the show thrived on the chaos of breakups, makeups, drinking, cheating, and fights. But by Season 19, many of the principal characters have settled into parenthood, the family’s fashions have trended toward maximum minimalism, and the producers seem to want to leave the hunt for juiciness and humiliation to the Real Housewives franchises. Keeping Up With the Kardashians now plays as a sparsely populated fish tank you can enjoy with one eye on your phone. The Kardashians fritter away a huge amount of time, in fact, playing harmless pranks on one another. “If we all got quarantined, we would have a lot of fun,” Kris says in the Nobu episode. Disick replies that they’re basically quarantined already.
Plenty of viewers may have also sarcastically cheered the thought of being confined to domestic hijinks in the early days of the pandemic. But any giddiness quickly turned into terror-laden tedium. So it was for Khloé, who tested positive for the coronavirus and then spent more than two weeks in her bedroom. That bedroom is enormous, and whatever her kimonos cost could probably pay for a truckload of PPE. But as she coughs in bed and talks about missing her young daughter—who’s being tended to by her ex on the other side of her bedroom door—you do feel that the show has captured part of this pandemic’s particular nastiness.
Kim’s pandemic storyline is about struggling to care for her four kids while Kanye, himself infected with the coronavirus, is quarantined. The young Wests barge in while their mom tries to film makeup tutorials, and Kim’s patience runs thin. More alarming, while Kim videochats with a group of students about her prison-reform work, her toddler Chicago bolts toward the pool, and Kim has to rush to grab her.* “You guys, I’m actually going to die if you don’t leave me alone,” she says at one point. Though Kim’s brand of stardom was never about respectability, it’s still remarkable to see her risk seeming like a cruel or careless mother on camera. Of course, the satisfaction of watching the manufactured reality of the Kardashians has always been in guessing why the cast members have chosen to show you something, and in this case, the intention isn’t hard to discern. Child care has been an excruciating challenge for so many parents during stay-at-home orders. If the Kardashians want you to know that the pandemic has been hard for them, they also want you to know that they know it’s been harder for you.
That message was, incidentally, also what Kim attempted to convey when she released her island pics. She went out of her way to acknowledge her “privilege” in getting to plan a celebration that is “for most people … so far out of reach.” Yet her efforts to hedge and justify herself seemed to only enrage followers more. Yes, the partygoers took safety measures; yes, Kim has given money to pandemic relief. But on a fundamental level, the island voyage—which hasn’t made it onto Keeping Up With the Kardashians yet—undermined the “we’re all in this together” narrative that the family had been trying to broadcast. The episode about Kim’s surprise party was predicated on the idea that it wouldn’t be, as she put it, “right” for her to throw the getaway celebration of her dreams during a global health crisis. What changed?
That Kim couldn’t resist this vacation, and certainly couldn’t resist posting about it, suggests how well she understands what her family’s appeal has been all along. That appeal is not really in the things the E! series has often stressed: the interpersonal dynamics, the individual personalities, the dusting of social awareness, the cute kids. On TV, the pandemic turns the Kardashians into bored normies, and the resulting ratings are as low as they’ve ever been. What’s more engaging—if enraging—to the general population is the news, via Kim’s party pics, that this family can, in fact, buy its way out of the pandemic. The allure of the celeb-glam circuit has always been the otherworldly and outrageous: the unrelatable, not the relatable.
The critical theorist Guy Debord once argued that spectacle can be defined as “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” Kim herself, my colleague Megan Garber has written, has “a doll-like quality,” with “the airbrushed cheeks and the synthetic lashes and the lips glossed in paradoxical shades of Nude.” She is a living spectacle, a person made superhuman by money. Spectacle is a break from the norm; it often implies a reprieve from laws of nature and society. It’s fitting that on the private island, Kanye showed a holographic rendition of Kim’s father, Robert Kardashian, who died in 2003. On Instagram, you now can watch this figure tell his daughter how proud he is of her while wearing a mostly neutral expression. Kim says she was deeply moved by the display. From the outside, though, it is a trophy of money’s strange powers.
Popular culture has always rewarded Kardashian-style spectacle, perhaps because that spectacle has been leavened with the striving, bickering banality showcased on reality TV. Kim clearly believed that her family’s old formula still worked and that she could find a way to balance conscientiousness and abandon, just-like-youness and not-at-all-like-youness, with her party pictures. But the ensuing scorn shows that her calculation was off: The pandemic has been so deeply and universally disruptive that flaunting one’s escape from it triggers more disgust than fascination. This leaves the Kardashian class stranded for now. What are these celebrities for if not to flaunt luxury and impunity? The answer—which may not be shocking but is now definitive—appears to be that they’re for nothing at all.
* This article originally referred to Kim Kardashian's daughter, Chicago, as "him."