USA Today's most recent weekend edition hit the Kim Kardashian beat hard, with two discrete articles in two different sections condemning the reality TV star, her boyfriend and her sisters, as symptomatic of the decline and fall of the American experiment.
"Let's hope this is the bottom," wrote liberal Bob Beckel in the "Common Ground" column, a space devoted to finding an easy target on which a liberal and a conservative can agree. (Beckel is the conservative.) "Today's pop culture awards celebrity and treasure to people who have done nothing to deserve it, other than being outrageous enough to get themselves in the tabloids." So different from the halcyon days of the Bush administration, when Nobel laureates like Paris and Nicky Hilton were stars, or the high public profile of postmodern novelist Zsa Zsa Gabor in the 1950s and 1960s, one supposes.
Indeed, Kim Kardashian is just the latest target for the ire of a certain sort of commentator who is convinced not merely that culture used to be more intelligent (which is probably true; Michael Chabon isn't likely to go on a late-night chat show any time soon, as top novelists used to) but that celebrity culture is some completely new idea originating in the last 10 years or so.
"Today, it doesn't matter why you're known (sex tape, shacking up, etc.) it only matters that you're known," writes Beckel's conservative counterpart Cal Thomas. Pamela Anderson, who became famous on the back of a Playboy pictorial and even more famous after "shacking up" (whatever that means) and making a sex tape, will be surprised to learn she wasn't actually famous in the 1990s, because the Kardashians hadn't invented the idea of being famous for being famous yet. Later, the Kardashians are compared to soldiers in Afghanistan; the disparity in self-sacrifice makes Beckel "sick," as though he learned America was a celebrity-focused culture 15 minutes ago, after a lifetime of believing that it was a nation full of noble self-sacrifice.
"There's a disparity when Adele won't even reveal her son's name, but the Kardashians will reveal just about anything," writes Donna Freydkin in a different USA Today piece nominally pegged to "The Bling Ring," a film about celebrity worship. Sure, the lesson is that people are comfortable with different levels of disclosure. But far more celebrities seem like the Kardashians than Adele, and using the sisters as an example just feels lazy. That's hilariously proven when Freydkin uses Jennifer Aniston -- who gave Vanity Fair its highest-selling issue ever by crying, smoking cigarettes and talking Brad and babies in 2005, and just recently talked about having diarrhea after eating a Big Mac -- as an example of a celebrity who's far too dignified to ever reveal more than "bare-bones details."
The Kardashians aren't pioneers; they merely exist in an ecosystem that has always rewarded crass, transparent grabs for attention divorced from achievement. Reading a piece that uses them as examples of a new and chilling current in American culture feels as though the author did a find-replace with a think piece from 2000, changing every mention of "Survivor" to "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and every mention of "eating bugs" to "sex tape." And for all that Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian don't do anything aside from appear on a stagey reality show, they're at least upfront about the degree to which they're venal. Beckel and Thomas are shocked, shocked at Kim and her beau Kanye West reportedly thinking about selling baby pictures, as though beloved humanitarian and actress Angelina Jolie hadn't done that already, twice over. Aside from the fact that one appears in movies and one on television, how is Aniston talking about her stomach upset any different from a Kardashian getting her butt X-rayed on camera? Is there any meaningful difference between Khloe Kardashian tweeting pictures of her workout and the acclaimed comic actor Chris Pratt posting a picture of his shirtless torso (again and again), aside from the fact that the person getting praised is a man and the person who's a comic punching bag is a woman?
The Kardashians are apparently so inescapable that a New York Times correspondent wrote this Sunday that he'd only been able to get away from them at an electronics-free camp. "iPhones were buzzing with the breaking news of Rupert Murdoch’s divorce and Kim Kardashian’s baby. But I was looking for shooting stars, not reality ones," wrote the reporter in Sunday Styles, the same section that profiled Kardashian as businesswoman in 2010 and in the same paper whose website has some 1,700 entries about Kardashian. Hopefully USA Today's writers are holding their noses when they read their own newspaper, which has some 9,450 entries about her, including "Kim Kardashian braved bikini days before birth" and "Kim Kardashian has Marilyn Monroe moment."
It's impossible to guess on which target the professional-outrage industry will turn its gaze next. Maybe Beckel and Thomas will stumble upon Amanda Bynes's Twitter feed in 2015? More likely, another, younger socialite will eventually supplant Kardashian, and will be the next to endure the ginned-up outrage of the professional commentariat. They'll be angry that their colleagues are covering figures of public interest but thankful for an easy, evergreen column topic, one that will be illustrated, of course, by a big photo of the woman who's getting too much deplorable attention.