Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class describes a particular breed of upper-class families in the 19th and 20th centuries: the kind of elite American nobility that summers in the Hamptons and travels to Europe on a whim. This class, he writes, is defined by conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. In order to display their wealth and status, they (deliberately and obviously) abstain from working any kind of job and instead spend their time buying wildly expensive things. A constant stream of money being spent, with no money coming in, creates an image of bottomless riches and almost royal power.
In some ways, the leisure class has disappeared from today’s society. Even the richest of the rich often still work, and over-consumption is viewed with judgment rather than admiration. However, the modern leisure class lives on through one family, possibly the most conspicuous consumers there are: the Kardashians.
It’s fitting that this family’s reality show is called “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” That title is a play on the old phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which refers specifically to the New York family at the top of the leisure class in the late 19th century. Just like the Joneses, the Kardashians have made a lifestyle of shunning traditional jobs and showing off their outlandish purchases. On their TV show, their Instagrams and Snapchats, they display the designer dresses and million-dollar gifts that used to inhabit the pages of society magazines and city streets. However, society has changed since the turn of the 20th century. While old money and traditional class used to rule, now the social ladder is climbed through talent and philanthropy. The Kardashians, lacking in the kind of talent that is respected in the entertainment industry, are at a disadvantage; just like the “nouveau riche” of the past, they are seen as trespassers and fakes, unworthy of respect.
The spotlight of the leisure class, whether at the turn of the century of today, shines especially harshly on women. Edith Wharton (incidentally, a member of the Jones family that one keeps up with) wrote her famous novel House of Mirth on this very topic. The book follows a young upper-class woman who is running out of money and must find a man of her own class to marry before she becomes destitute. At every turn, she is judged for something: spending time with a lower-class man, playing bridge for money, being too old without a husband. Without giving any spoilers, the pressure and judgment cause bad things to happen and the book doesn’t end well. Similarly, the dislike for the Kardashians is sharpened by the fact that they are all women. Not only are they censured for their lack of talent, spending, and drama, they are criticized for their plastic surgeries, makeup, and nude selfies (the very things they do to fit in with the media’s standards of beauty). How often are male celebrities torn down for “not being a good role model” to young boys? For posting shirtless photos to social media?
The Kardashians serve two purposes in our culture. They give people someone to mock and scorn, whether out of jealousy or judgment for their actions; and they create an aspirational fantasy that’s addicting to watch. Their fame is built on people’s reactions to their unusual lives. Will this kind of wish-fulfillment lifestyle continue to be a popular part of our entertainment? Or will the Kardashians and the rest of the leisure class fade away as society becomes more progressive and class distinctions blur? I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to keep up.