Early on in Netflix’s royalist drama The Crown, the future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Phillip brace before a bucolic backdrop for their official marital portrait. “Quite magnificent,” chirps the cameraman as the lights around them flash. Later, King George VI gifts his daughter a camera, with which she will document the candid moments of her rapidly shrinking private life. The scene foreshadows the family’s attempts to control their public image amid the rapid expansion of mass media in the second half of the twentieth century. It also resembles the opening scene of another popular show, in which a family similarly assembles before a backdrop to have their portrait taken.
In the original credits for Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the rolling English countryside has been exchanged for the brutalist angles of downtown Los Angeles; instead of lace gowns, there is leopard print, gold sequins, and skin-tight Hervé Léger bandage dresses. Despite their obvious aesthetic differences, what these scenes play out in shorthand is a crucial commonality between the two famous clans: careful cultivation of their public image has enabled both the Kardashians and the British royals to maintain their economic and cultural dominance—even as scandals and other conditions continue to threaten it—by bridging a curious contradiction between the exemplary and exceptional family unit.
Kanye West might have put it best when, in his first Keeping Up confessional, he likened his family to that of titular family of the 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles, who also partake in on-screen interviews. In one of them, Mr. Incredible divulges that “every superhero has a secret identity . . . who wants the pressure of being super all the time?” The scene cuts to his future wife, Elastigirl, who agrees. “Can you see me in this,” she says, gesturing to her spandex costume, “at the supermarket?” West’s comparison here is apt, not because of his now-ex-wife’s penchant for Balenciaga bodysuits, but for the way that it captures the two sides of his family’s image: like their superhero counterparts, the Kardashians routinely disguise their notoriety by cosplaying as an average civilian family, camouflaging their incredible influence in the process.
This illusion was maintained for a long time by Keeping Up, which successfully played into the tropes of the beloved family sitcom. Though the show’s existence owed to a sex tape and was not family-friendly in any traditional sense—the first season alone featured drunkenness, a DUI arrest, a nude photoshoot controversy, threats of strangulation, and a child pole-dancing in stripper heels—these hijinks only reiterated, episode by episode, that not even the most outlandish tribulations could jeopardize the strength of familial bonds. Even as the family’s already considerable wealth skyrocketed into an unfathomable stratosphere, Kris Jenner emphasized this message to bring their image back down to earth. “We remind [our audience] of things that their family might be going through,” she said in a 2019 interview with Ryan Seacrest, “because it’s real.”
The British royals may have been more reluctant than the Kardashians to step into the limelight, but they did so with the same calculation. After enjoying centuries of privacy, the establishment was forced by the economic crises of the immediate post-war years—and growing hostility toward royal privilege—to publicly present not as rulers, but as a family. After commissioning a biography of Elizabeth in 1947 that depicted her as representative of other twenty-one year-olds (it emphasized her “normal” qualities, among them, her “simple, warm-hearted . . . and above all friendly” nature), the royals seized upon her wedding to Phillip to frame the future Queen as a wife and eventual mother. In a speech celebrating the new couple, the archbishop of Canterbury emphasized that theirs was “no politically arranged marriage as the past once knew,” but instead “springs from a true accord of hearts between two young persons.” The archbishop of York extended this sentiment while sermonizing at the royal wedding. “Notwithstanding the splendor and national significance of the service in this Abbey,” he began, “it is in all essentials the same as it would be for any cottager who might be married this afternoon.”
Since then, other royal marriages have served a similar function, particularly when they involve a so-called commoner: royal popularity soared with Diana, labeled “the people’s princess” despite being born into nobility, then again with Kate, whose ascension from the upper-middle-class (with ties to aristocracy on her father’s side) was framed as a rags-to-riches fairytale, a narrative routinely reinforced by praise for the affordability of her outfits. Describing William and Kate as “a new kind of royal,” The Vancouver Sun wrote in 2016 that the couple was “a sort of mirror that we can look into and see ourselves”—an effect that relies heavily upon the reproduction of their image in media. Beyond the “invisible contract” described by Prince Harry that exists between the British royals and the tabloids, women’s magazines have also allowed the royals’ familial image to unfold in readers’ homes: having grown up in Australia, the most mundane of my childhood memories involve my mother reaching across the conveyor belt at the supermarket checkout, toward Women’s Weekly in the magazine rack, a Windsor often poised on its glossy cover.
Decades before the Kardashians established their reign over reality TV, it was the royals who set out to beam their image directly into homes around the world. Phillip in particular took television’s humanizing potential seriously: at his suggestion, Elizabeth’s coronation was televised in 1953, then a documentary of the family was made by the BBC in 1969. In a scene from the resulting film, Royal Family, the Queen buys young Prince Edward ice cream from a village shop. Jean Varnahm, identified in an interview as a “voluntary worker from Nottinghamshire,” recalls thinking, “good gracious me, [The Queen] enjoys the same kind of things that we do.” While the documentary also includes on-screen moments which belie the family’s claims to commonality—at their Scottish Highlands estate, the Queen chops vegetables with an awkwardness that summons to mind Kendall Jenner’s viral efforts at slicing a cucumber—Royal Family was met with wide acclaim because, again in Varnahm’s words, “a great many of us hadn’t necessarily seen [The Queen] in the role of a mother or a wife. We saw her as head of the state.” Today, this humanization happens largely on social media, where @princeandprincessofwales documents in particular the youngest generation of royals, featuring seemingly candid photographs of Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis on their birthdays, first days of school, and family vacations.
But on either side of the Atlantic, the world’s most formidable families are currently being ushered, perhaps unwillingly, into their next phase. The recently departed Queen has left behind an unpopular heir and renewed scrutiny of the monarchy. Meanwhile, the Kardashians have embarked upon the second season of their Hulu show, a kind of hackneyed, streaming-only revival of Keeping Up, which after 2015 steadily dropped in ratings. Of their new effort, The Kardashians, Emily Kirkpatrick wrote in The Cut that the family had “failed to evolve with their audience, the times, and their own megastardom”—a condemnation that could just as easily apply to the British royals. Is it possible, then, that the Anglo-American dynasty is officially in its flop era?
Certainly Kirkpatrick is right that the audience and the times have shifted significantly in recent years, prompted by worsening inequality; the widespread failure of social safety nets; a global reckoning with racist, colonial histories; and for many, the time to digest all of these changes while sequestered at home. Gaffes and PR maneuvers committed during the pandemic were met with particular scrutiny: see Kim’s fortieth birthday on a private island; Kendall blowing out candles as a masked server presented her cake; Harry and Meghan broadcasting, with Oprah Winfrey’s help, that Meghan was not silent, but in fact silenced, by her racist in-laws; William and Kate’s disastrous tour of the Caribbean, which produced a series of embarrassing photos—including one where Kate extends her manicured fingers through a chain link toward a group of anonymous Jamaican children, which bore a disturbing resemblance to a made-up Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez crying at the border in 2019.
If public exposure once fed a kind of unprecedented fame, it has in recent years proved its ability to unravel it. As Ellie Woodward has noted for BuzzFeed, The Kardashians ascension from reality TV royalty to genuine celebrity was marked by Kourtney’s first pregnancy in 2009, when the family first took advantage of the fact that their plotlines were now unspooling beyond the confines of their show. Riding a wave of tabloid speculation over the baby’s paternity, Kourtney teased that those hungry for further details would just “have to see on the show.” Days later, Kourtney & Khloé Take Miami premiered to huge ratings, and a $300,000 exclusive magazine deal followed, all of which culminated in Kourtney yanking Mason Disick from her birth canal before 4.8 million viewers on season four of Keeping Up: a record-breaking number in E!’s history. By holding their off- and on-screen lives in perfect symbiosis—and nurturing both with a healthy dose of tabloid media—the Kardashians had succeeded in cultivating a self-sustaining, profit-yielding ecosystem.
But over the years, their off-screen lives have become harder to corral into on-screen plotlines: scandals both outpaced their show (Kim called long production times, “like, the death of us”) and grew too thorny to address on television. The Kardashians once used their show to answer questions posed by tabloids; now, they were leaving unsatisfied viewers with more unsettling questions. Recently, the most egregious example might be their non-response to Kylie Jenner’s on-off boyfriend Travis Scott’s deadly Astroworld concert, which was clunkily expunged from the show’s last season by a scene which erroneously suggested Kendall had been receiving intravenous vitamin infusions in Miami with Hailey Bieber at the time. As with the royal family’s sparse acknowledgements of various embarrassments and transgressions—from Megxit to Prince Andrew’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein to the death of Princess Diana—any opportunity for reckoning is traded for damage control.
As they continue to weather a downpour of scandals, the Kardashians and the royals have only clung tighter to their crumpled familial images. In an attempt at absolution, the Kardashians have doubled-down on Christian morality—their show’s last season featured prayers for Kim to pass the bar and praises to God for her recovered sex tape—as well as their longstanding affinity for all things Disney. Working from a similar playbook, the British royals met Meghan and Harry’s accusations of racism—and global disaffection with the Commonwealth, including Barbados transitioning to a republic—by casting the Queen in a cuddly light: not a monarch but a congenial white-haired matriarch, a beloved icon who has won the affection of corgis, her young great-grandchildren, and even Paddington Bear, with whom she filmed a sketch for her Platinum Jubilee. Meanwhile, Will and Kate have diligently feigned informality through affectionate displays shared on their wedding anniversary, candid photographs with captions authored by Kate herself (signed “C”), and a YouTube channel full of videos that, like a Kardashian confessional, are shot from their meticulously styled home. On the other end of the spectrum, Kylie has taken to TikTok—a platform perceived to be more authentic than the curated squares of Instagram—to rehabilitate her immediate family’s image through seemingly informal videos of her building science projects with daughter Stormi and Travis, baking strawberry Duncan Hines box cake, and lactating through her T-shirt.
Current disillusionment with the first families of the United States and UK points to something more than an audience unconvinced by their relatability, however. It also reflects a growing skepticism of the idealized nuclear family altogether. If the pandemic provided both occasion and time to reexamine the failures of government institutions, it also invited scrutiny of the family unit within which many people suddenly found themselves trapped—particularly the family’s capacity to propagate and obscure abuses of power. These dynamics are of course plainly discernible in patterns of dysfunction like abuse or ostracization. But critics have also been taking aim at historically lauded “family values” for the way they reify power imbalances not just within families, but between whole social classes.
This critique extends back to Frederich Engels’s 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which framed the family as we know it not as an inevitability, but a specific product of class society – a structure which, like the state, serves the interests of a small ruling class, allowing them to maintain control over property. While Engels details how the “modern, individual family” first evolved out of the industrial revolution—from the subjugation of women to the tyranny of domestic labor and the winnowing down of extended households, as men migrated toward factories for work—its currency as an ideal since then has been most inflated during periods of crisis or decline. In both Britain and the United States, post-war reconstruction emphasized the centrality of family life to the social order and citizenship. And from Seven-Up advertisements to family sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Leave it Beaver, and The Brady Bunch, pop culture supplied the collective imagination with a common vernacular through which to envision and model these ideals. Such domestic propaganda might have succeeded at boosting birth rates and the economy along with them, but successive social movements have since revealed the hidden costs of organizing a society around the nuclear family.
Sparked by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, second-wave feminists emphasized how the archetype of the young, attractive female homemaker—a re-interpretation of the Victorian “angel in the house” figure—naturalized women’s relegation to the private sphere after they’d spent years in the workplace during WWII. Marxist feminist scholars have further explored the role that social reproduction—that is, the perpetuation of societal structures centered on the care of future workers—plays in supporting the labor market. In their view, capitalism makes commitment to the family inseparable from investment in an enterprise, whose idealized state is marked by the production of human capital and the accumulation of property.
This ideal is epitomized by the first season of Hulu’s The Kardashians, which in its mission to remind viewers that the Kardashians are above all else family-oriented, pays particular attention to their domestic spaces: confessionals, once filmed in a studio, now take place in various living rooms; the opening sequence of its first episode consisted of vertiginous, panning shots through each star’s multi-million-dollar dream home. The season’s principle narrative arc is incited by the transgression of this domestic bliss when, at a family barbecue, Saint West encounters an advertisement for Kim’s sex tape while playing Roblox on his iPad. Kim remarks to her lawyers that she plans to sue the distributors and “burn them to the fucking ground.” As a wholesome Christian mother, Kris consoles Kim that “God put you here to raise kids, and have a family, and be with each other”; as a momager, she declares in a shoulder-padded blazer from behind her desk at Kylie Cosmetics that her first piece of business advice is to “never go against the family.” The underlying message here is the same, but the subtext is clearer in Kris’s mafioso delivery: family is serious business.
Her words bring to mind those of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, who reportedly declared, “we’re not a family, we’re a firm,” in acknowledgment of the secretaries, advisers, assistants, chauffeurs, servants, gardeners, and other staff that enable the royal family to function as a well-oiled machine, all while projecting the image of an idyllic domestic household. The Kardashians, of course, also rely on a host of surrogates, nannies, housekeepers, and chefs, whose invisible labor becomes obliquely perceptible at certain moments—say, when Kris and Kylie delight in the novelty of going to a grocery store or a carwash on the show, which Kris of course describes as “Disneyland”; when “self-made” billionaire Kylie asked fans to pay for her stylist’s emergency surgery; or when a lawsuit revealed that Kim withheld from her staff overtime pay and legally mandated breaks.
Engels once wrote that the emergence of the nuclear family marked the era “in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.” If the family has for some proven a profitable venture, then the last few years have provided a salient reminder of the ways it fails most others. Lacking an extended network for support, mothers and low-income households in particular have struggled with the ongoing child care crisis, leaving the average person asking, as Angela Garbes does in her recent book Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, what an equitable public child care network could look like. Meanwhile, the rich have done what they always do: spend their way out of the situation.
Yet recent shifts seem to indicate that no amount of spending can purchase public opinion—especially when the ideal of the nuclear family is already fraying at the edges. Certainly, the declining popularity of the Kardashians and the royals (at least among younger generations) indicates something of a miscalculation on their part: continued investment in their image as a benevolent family might only accelerate their exposure as anything but by revealing a wealth-hoarding reality beyond disguise. Though of course, one bad stock doesn’t matter much to those whose portfolios run the gamut from property to private equity—and who will benefit from keeping it all in the family.