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The Kardashians, explained

Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner attend the Givenchy show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2015/2016 on March 8, 2015, in Paris, France.
Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner attend the Givenchy show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2015/2016 on March 8, 2015, in Paris, France.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There was a time when we didn't know who Kim Kardashian was, nor did we care about the Jenners. Lindsay Lohan was still a Mean Girl, Tobey Maguire was still Spider-Man, people were still listening to Evanescence, and we were saying goodbye to Friends. Eleven years later, Kim Kardashian and her family are bigger than those pop culture relics.

The Kardashians are one of the most famous — and most hated — families in the world. Knowledge of them transcends age, class, and race. They're on television, they're in music videos, they're in fashion campaigns — everything the light touches, so do the Kardashians. I'd wager that more people would be able to name any single Kardashian (Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Rob) than could name the UN Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon).

Yet their significance remains a mystery to many.

The Kardashians are a riches-to-even-richer story, all predicated on the idea that you can turn absolutely nothing into an industry. There are better models, better moms, better sisters, and better celebrities than the Kardashians. Tracing their indomitable appeal to a place of perfection would be a lie.

But the key to the Kardashians has been an element of owned and measured imperfection — the idea that all you need to do to become somebody is to unashamedly live your life for the cameras, ridiculous parts and all.

Who are the Kardashians?

The only thing you need to know — and you probably already do — is that the Kardashians are everywhere. It's quite a feat to be everywhere, on every television show and seemingly every magazine cover, when there are basically only four Kardashians devoted to the ultimate goal — the sweet intersection of massive fame, massive wealth, and/or world domination.

Everywhere is, of course, huge, and four is, of course, not that many. It's a testament to how relentless the Kardashians are at plunging themselves into cultural conversations and how relentless American culture is that so many of us cannot get enough of the Kardashians.

When people talk about the Kardashians, they're talking about the stars of E's reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK), which debuted in 2007 and most recently finished its 10th season. The close-knit Kardashian family is led by matriarch Kris Jenner (née Houghton and formerly Kardashian). It consists of sisters (in order of age), Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé, and brother Rob. In later seasons, the Kardashians' half-sisters Kendall Jenner (a supermodel) and Kylie Jenner, as well as stepbrother Brody Jenner (previously on the reality show The Hills) gained more prominence on the show. Caitlyn Jenner, then known as Bruce, was also on the show as the family's low-key father.

The multi-year deal the Kardashians have brokered with E (rumored to be worth $100 million) to appear on KUWTK is known as the most expensive in reality television show history. Their societal contributions range from the reality show, modeling, and a retail store to spinoffs shows, a highly addictive and profitable iPhone game, and an extremely powerful infant named North West.

How did the Kardashians get famous?

If the Kardashians were a house in Game of Thrones, their motto would be "Family is our business."

The Kardashians' road to fame was paved by several rounds of nepotism and a very rich father. It all begins with Robert Kardashian, who was famous for being on football player O. J. Simpson's legal defense team, known in some circles as the "Dream Team." Dream Team, of course, usually refers to the 1992 USA Olympic basketball team, which assembled the best players in the US to gut-stomp the rest of the world. Simpson's legal dream team was like that, but instead of winning a gold medal, the attorneys successfully convinced a jury that the alleged murderer was not guilty of killing his ex-wife, in what was dubbed the "trial of the century."

Now, because Robert Kardashian was a rich father with rich and famous friends, it allowed his offspring to have equally rich and famous friends. And that's exactly what happened with his daughter, Kim, and Hilton Hotels scion Paris Hilton.

We didn't know it at the time, but Paris was the first Kim Kardashian, a cruder prototype of the pop culture behemoth that we know today.

Leading up to 2003, when Paris got her reality show The Simple Life, Paris and her sister, Nicky, were constant tabloid fodder. Magazines were obsessed with their parties, appearances, and friends. Kim was part of Hilton's entourage and doubled as Paris's personal assistant and closet organizer.

Like the trucker hat, Paris reached her peak in 2004 — thanks in large part to a sex tape that was illegally circulated, then officially released. She would never achieve that same level of fame again.

Like Paris, Kim had a sex tape that was circulated in 2006. Her co-star and boyfriend was Ray J, brother of R&B singer Brandy. But unlike Paris, she and her family managed to parlay that into even more fame — a reality television show with the backing of human can of pomade turned American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Kardashian family and executive producer of KUWTK, is the genius who pitched Seacrest the show and is the motor behind the Kardashian machine.

In May 2015, the New York Times Magazine wrote a powerful piece praising Kris's business acumen:

Without Kris, Kim might not have pulled in a reported $28 million in 2014. Kendall wouldn’t necessarily be an in-demand model, walking runways for Chanel and Marc Jacobs and appearing on the covers of Allure and Harper’s Bazaar. There would most likely be no Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a choose your own adventure (presuming it’s an adventure Kim Kardashian would go on) game app, starring Kim, that brought in many millions last year, or T-Mobile commercial, or book of selfies (Selfish), released this month. Kourtney and Khloé and Kim might not have three retail stores, named Dash, in Los Angeles, New York and Miami; a hair-and-makeup line, Kardashian Beauty; a bronzer line, Kardashian Glow; and Kardashian Kids, a children’s clothing line sold at Babies "R" Us and Nordstrom. Kendall and Kylie might not have licensing deals with PacSun, Steve Madden, Topshop and Sugar Factory, where they each have signature lollipops and several contractual agreements to appear at the candy stores.

The show benefited from prior reality shows like The OsbournesLaguna Beach, and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. In particular, The Osbournes and Newlyweds carved out a new niche of reality that didn't involve competition, but instead spent time on the banality, humor, and banal humor of celebrity family life (respectively, the family of rock musician Ozzy Osbourne and married pop stars Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson). Those shows weren't afraid to cannibalize their subjects, showing them being dumb or shallow.

KUWTK does the same. There are several moments where the show hits a sweet spot between brattiness, vapidness, and melodrama. There are also endless moments where the sisters discuss things like vaginal maintenance trends:

But what the Kardashians have done better than any celebrity reality show stars before them is show that they're in on the $100 million joke.

But really, who are the Kardashians?

Here's the thing about the Kardashians: They're whomever we see on screen.

Over the years, the Kardashian sisters have carved out personalities for themselves that are akin to the three bears in Goldilocks — but, like, infinitely richer, with much nicer houses.

Kourtney, of late, has become the stern sister. Khloé, the youngest, is the "funny" one. Kim, Mrs. Kanye West, is somewhere in the middle. Kendall, their half-sister, is known for her modeling career, while Kylie, their other half-sister, is known for being a teen, at times a petulant one.

But these characters are all just constructs of the television show.

These sisters are defined by their various storylines on the television show and how their producers decide to package them.

With Kris at the helm of the show as an executive producer, the Kardashians have control over their narrative. They create exclusives (see: how the show dealt with Kim's weddings), create their own stories (see: how Kim got an x-ray of her butt to dispel rumors of implants), and promote themselves and their own stories (see: any episode). The Kardashians live to sell themselves to pop culture, and know better than to give it away for free.

The show has created five spinoff shows: Kourtney and Kim Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Khloé and Lamar, Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons, and Dash Dolls, which was announced in April 2015. Each of those shows feels like a companion series to the tabloids we read, exploring things like Khloé's relationship with basketball player Lamar Odom at the time or Kourtney's various pregnancies. And more importantly for the Kardashian empire, they helped establish distinct personalities and name recognition for Kourtney and Khloé.

Would the Kardashians win the Game of Thrones?

Without a doubt, yes.

Game of Thrones is about endless deals and alliances. It's about how one can parlay small bits of power into something more enduring. Kris Jenner has proven she can do that. She makes Cersei Lannister look like Martha Stewart.

What is the Kardashian legacy?

It would be too simplistic and myopic to consider the Kardashians a troupe of famous, fantastic idiots, a threat to everything we hold steadfast and dear.

"You don't really act; you don't sing; you don't dance. You don't have any — forgive me — any talent," Barbara Walters told the family in 2011.

No, better to view them — especially Kris — as geniuses. There are people smarter, richer, and exponentially more talented than the Kardashians, but the Kardashians have found a way to turn themselves into one of the most successful empires in the world. They've bent celebrity culture to their will, and created their own avenue of fame.

"Famous for being famous" is usually the insult tethered to the Kardashians, but I'm just not sure that's as much of an insult as people want it to be. There have been many people famous for being famous (Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, any of the women on The Hills, Paris Hilton) who haven't lasted as long as the Kardashians or made as much money.

Staying "famous for being famous" is actually difficult. And it's a testament to Kris's savvy that she's turned her family into a sustaining business, got fame in a stranglehold, and never let go.

The Kardashians now go beyond the Kardashians. They've grown to include the Jenners, America's newest power family and another part of that legacy.

Who are the Jenners?

When people talk about the Jenners, they're referring to Caitlyn Jenner, her sons from her first marriage — Brody, Brandon, and Burt — and the two daughters — Kendall and Kylie — she had with Kris Jenner.

Kendall might be the most successful up-and-coming young Jenner. She has a burgeoning modeling career, landing campaigns for fashion houses like Givenchy and Fendi:

A Balmain ad featuring Kendall (in red) and Kylie (in blue) Jenner.

But to be sure, at least some part of Kendall's success is owed to her family's high profile and notoriety. Her critics have said as much, believing that her fame grabs attention that design houses want to cash in on. Her success has also pumped up the family's fashion credentials and helped them break into and network with the world of high fashion.

Why are the Jenners important?

In KUWTK canon, the Jenners began as the stepfamily to the Kardashian sisters and, over time, slowly became an extension of the Kardashian empire. Caitlyn, who was known as Bruce at the time, was portrayed as a doting father who was downplayed and dominated by Kris and his stepdaughters. Kris and Caitlyn's rocky marriage became a storyline on the show, and the show explicitly addressed the tension between Brody and Kris, with him telling her she was not respecting his father while they were married. The show's ninth and 10th seasons explored Kris and Caitlyn's divorce and its impact on the children.

Caitlyn came out as a transgender woman in an ABC special, and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair's June issue. In July 2015, she debuted her new docu-series, I Am Cait — a show that explores her transition.

Caitlyn has quickly become the most famous trans woman in America. And she has made a point of using her fame to shed light on the discrimination that transgender people face.

What is Caitlyn Jenner's show like?

The first episode aired Sunday, and it was a different in tone from KUWTK — it feels more earnest and altruistic. Brody, Brandon, and Burt, Caitlyn's sons, have said that they are not participating in the series. (It should also be said that Kris isn't involved in this project, but it is produced by Bunim/Murray, the same production company that works on KUWTK.)

Since coming out, Caitlyn has been talking about the struggle and discrimination that transgender people face and how her story is one that comes from privilege. Many people don't have it as easy as her.

And with this show, there seems to be a conscious effort to show how welcoming and at ease Caitlyn's television family is with her coming out:

The cynical side of me is afraid the Kardashians will use I Am Cait as another PR opportunity — Kim and her husband, Kanye West, made an appearance in the first episode. And after the show premiered, there were already headlines written about a preview showing an argument Kim and Caitlyn have regarding Caitlyn bashing Kris.

Nevertheless, there's something more measured and kinder in I Am Cait than you see in KUWTK. It's not going for the addictive vapidness that you find in KUWTK. Instead, there really seems to be an overt focus on seriously telling Cait's story in a gentler manner and it does something that KUWTK has never done — it addresses Caitlyn's privilege of wealth and fame.

Caitlyn not having to deal with the discrimination and hate on the level that non-famous transgender people do has been one of the criticisms since her coming out. And there's a sense that Bunim/Murray and Caitlyn have taken it to heart. She talks about other transgender people's struggles, and the first episode shows her visiting the family of a transgender boy who killed himself.

I Am Cait genuinely cares about what you think of Caitlyn, and it wants to be a "good" show in a sense that it wants to do good by opening up the struggle transgender people face. It genuinely wants you to like Caitlyn. The Kardashians don't seem to care, just as long as you keep up.

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