Congratulations, Mariu Rodriquez
The What, How and Why Behind Kim and Lena.
As I grabbed my binder full of random article about the different trends, artifacts and currencies of our culture, or at least the microcosm that I am part of – one filled by people’s magazine subscribers, WSJ’s marketplace readers, movie theater frequenters, and Rottentomatoes.com customer base – I thought to myself: I got this, I know her story, I watch her show and I’m fairly perceptive. Little did I know the place where both of them where about to take me.
Let’s start with the most striking differences. Kim; girly, curvy, sexy and glittery, resembles the classic full glam Hollywood style when women lived their everyday in perfect makeup. Lena, ladylike as well, presents herself in a colorful and quirky Brooklyn style.
Kim’s tone of voice is soft, she is poised, doesn’t swear much and is neutral and almost laconic about many things, from voting (her first-time vote was in Obama’s initial run) to even her haters’ nastiest comments. On the contrary, Lena is completely outspoken, spontaneous and opinionated. She speaks her mind out in an “I’ve always found paella kind of pretentious…” kind of way.
In terms of social class, it seems fair to say that Kim belongs to a “lower-upper” segment, often characterized by the need to get attention and “guard” their status through material possessions. Lena belongs to an artistic elite, both her parents are artists, a couple of her writings have appeared in the sophisticated and notable “The New Yorker,” and she even appeared in the “super snob” Vogue magazine at eleven, as part of a reportage about fashionista teens.
Another radical difference between the two is their stand on feminism. Lena is an openly feminist and Kim approved the idea of posing for Playboy because “sex is powerful and I think it’s empowering.” (Brockes, 2012)
Lastly, Kim could teach us all a master class on branding; every aspect of her persona – including her businesses – is consistent with her value proposition: “the full glam experience.” Dash – her store – does not have many items, but it is strategically stocked with products that attract girly teens that collect bottled water with the sister’s pictures in them. This is by no means a marketing trick because Kim is herself the personification of the full glam experience.
In terms of branding, Lena is not there yet. Even though her show, writings, movies and even twitter account share the same honesty and soul search, I do not think she is purposely committed to make her offering a revenue generating machine.
Loaded with differences, I am now ready to pass the torch to my deeper observer and unifier. From a personal standpoint, Kim and Lena are both relatable. Yes, Kim is financially well off and her lifestyle is completely aspirational to most of us, yet the dynamics inside her family, the sometimes rivalry and more often alliances, respect and closeness between each member are aspects one can relate to, either by experience or by wishful thinking.
Her type of show, classified by Susan Murray as a “docusoap,” is scripted and filled with artificial locations but it gives us access to real people, a family that is genuinely close and whose members at some point get tired of posing. This makes Kim as a brand, human and approachable.
(Murray & Oulette, 2009)
At the same time, Lena represents that stage in life when we need to find who we are at our very core and need our friends to share the journey with us. Be it to end a relationship, to find a job or just to go down the spiral of self-discovery, this is a stage we all can relate to as well. Aware or not, we all want to be as true to ourselves as possible.
From a sociological standpoint, they both serve as social factors in the socialization process of millennials. According to Durkheim, “individuals internalize cultural models of society and after assimilating these rules, they convert them into their own personal rules of conduct and behavior in life”. In this sense, Lena and Kim are opening the path of authenticity and family closeness for millenials to follow, and in a broader sense, are helping society rethink these values. (Farzaneh, 2013)
Perhaps in the future, we might see more closely tied families, nurtured by authentic relationships, which main challenge would be finding a technological bridge between generations.
They are also modeling our vision of entrepreneurship. Murray said that a reality star is an entrepreneur trying to establish a brand. However, I would argue that only when these stars have enough reach to impact a portion of their audience’s behavior and when its proposal is innovative enough is when they jump from being an independent business owner to being an entrepreneur.
Some wonder what is Kim’s innovation? It is definitively not a product or service, but rather an ability to cut through the judgmental clutter of being famous for nothing and build her persona around the fulfillment of accumulating experiences in life. Her show, her marriages, her brands, her latest Christmas Card photo shoot are not mere eccentricities but an urge to cease every opportunity that enriches life, her proposal is about accumulating interesting experience.
Perhaps this value proposition is made out of thin air, but it is a successful representation of what many millennials stand for today, especially when the Great Recession of 2008 made them rethink about what’s important in life.
Finally, let’s revisit the infamous narcissism of millenials. In a recent article, Emily Asfahani and Jennifer Aaker pointed out how new data is shifting this perception and showing instead that “millenials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than …happiness.” (Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, 2013)
Meaning is about having a purpose, value, impact and connecting to a higher purpose, others, even the world. The key though is that “there are many sources of meaning…that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.” (Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, 2013)
So yes, Kim and Lena are big time narcissists, but don’t we all need to see the light in ourselves in order to connect to the light in others, thus create meaning?
1. Emma Brockes. Kim Kardashian: my life as a brand. The Guardian, Friday 7, September 2012.
2. Susan Murray and Laurie Oulette. Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. New York University Press, 2009. Pp 67
3. Arash Farzaneh. http://suite101.com/a/the-influence-of-society-on-the-individual-a70121
6. Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker. Millenial Searchers. The New York Times, Sunday 1, December 2013.
We have four winners (4!) of the recent Minerva contest that asked entrants to compare Kim Kardashian and Lena Denham (see the post below). We are not ranking the winners. We found virtue in them all.
Thanks again to everyone who participated, both the entrants and the judges. Hats off once more to Caley Cantrell, Noah Cruickshank, Ruby Karelia, Janet Kestin, Leora Kornfeld, Adrian Ho, and Nancy Vonk for their judging work.
Here is one of the winners. (We will post the remaining three essays over the remainder of the week.)
KIM KARDASHIAN AND LENA DUNHAM: COMPARE, CONTRAST, EXPLAIN.
Ali Tilling, strategy planner at BMF Advertising in Sydney. @hamsterwish
Once upon a time there were two women wearing two different floral dresses on two different red carpets.
We start at New York’s flashy Met Gala, May 2013. A seven-months pregnant Kim Kardashian fronts the paparazzi in a floral Givenchy number to near-universal horror.
Cut to the Emmys, September 2013. Lena Dunham (nominated in three categories) makes more noise for her teal-green floral Prada creation. Though it makes the Vogue best-dressed list, it’s reviled almost everywhere else.
The sub-text to the outcry against each dress reveals something of the complexity of these two characters.
Kardashian’s dress proved to the masses that while Kanye can get her into the Gala, he can’t buy her class; and Dunham’s that there’s a limit to hipster irony (even with her self-aware tweet of her sister’s snidely-sweet comment the day before the event, that the dress looked “like the Delia’s catalogue made a red carpet dress”).
In other words, neither woman was embracing society’s ideal of how femininity should look. Which is odd because in everyday life, that’s precisely why society embraces them. So what’s going on?
Both Kardashian and Dunham have become caricatures of often opposing cultural movements. There are the obvious clashes: east versus west coast, intellectual versus entrepreneurial, and clashes of social class. Dunham is all hipster, liberal arts graduate, filmmaking, over-mentored whiner who is wondering whether it’s cooler to acknowledge all the ways she’s typical or try to escape them.
Kardashian on the other hand has morphed from 2008’s get-rich-quick endorser of anything to 2013’s slightly classier, hip-hop groupie fashion front-row mom, She is one of Lorde’s “Royals” in money and excess, if not in coolness.
Because they are effects of different cultural milieu, each represents a different way in to ‘feminism’.
Dunham is one of very few successful TV writers, which one might imagine is the strongest of her feminist credentials: actually it’s her non-societally perfect body type that’s grabbing the headlines. Dunham is one cause among many of a key response to the west’s obesity epidemic: becoming increasingly accepting of our increasing average weight. She’s certainly a cause of its accelerating its transition from ‘ok for the rest of us’ to ‘ok for the celebrities’ – even while the equal and opposite response, of ultra-health, gathers pace and flows in the other direction.
Kardashian’s feminism on the other hand feels like an effect of the post-recession focus on entrepreneurialism and the idea that everyone can be a maker. Hers is the American Dream 3.0. Her specific talents (writing, or acting, or singing, or designing) are not obvious; her relentless hard work, self-belief and business focus are. She’s an effect of the way the early 00’s reality TV ‘everyone’s life is interesting’ experiment morphed into post-recession ‘anyone can make a go of anything.’ The Kardashian family started with some material advantages, sure, but not to the extent some celebrities are born into wealth; Kim has made the best of her opportunities, and indeed has displayed what to many is a decidedly unfeminine thirst for success, whatever the cost.
In this she is, with Dunham, an unexpected cause of a trend that’s beginning to emerge: they both encourage our slowly-growing discomfort with the notion that the hard work of feminism has been done, that equality has been achieved. Even in the entrepreneurial, maker trend there’s a decided inequality: only 7.5% of patent-holders worldwide are female , and for every 10 male entrepreneurs there are only 8 female . In Dunham’s sphere, most TV writing is done by men, and celebrated by men – leading to books like “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution”, celebrating male writers of the 2000’s. The world continues to be designed and written by men, but the very different actions taken by Kardashian and Dunham are starting to coax us out of our apparent apathy. Of course there are more extreme examples of this emerging trend, like Pussy Riot: but Kardashian and Dunham are more relatable examples.
Kardashian and Dunham are both effects of post-GFC narcissism. Both mine their own lives and themselves for material, though as Katherine Boyle has pointed out in the Washington Post, one is more upfront about it than the other . Girls, particularly in Series 2, sometimes comes across as an extended-play selfie, and “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is confected reality at its finest. And both Dunham and Kardashian are lucky enough to have an alter ego on whom to blame the worst excesses, though. In Girls, Hannah can explore things on Dunham’s behalf and even in Keeping up with the Kardashians, a ‘purer’ reality show, Kim and family get to decide which side of themselves they present to the camera, and especially how ‘business Kim’ is portrayed.
Dunham, Kardashian and their alter egos have focused more, in the balance of their careers, on the truths behind women’s relationships with other women. That’s then been used that as the prism through which to view women’s relationships with men. Of course with motherhood and her relationship with West, Kardashian’s focus has now shifted somewhat; but her courtship and short-lived marriage to Kris Humphries, for example, was brought to life more effectively through her sisters’ and her mother’s views on it, rather than interaction between the couple themselves. Dunham’s show is at its acerbic best in its brutal honesty about female friendship and, well, girls.
They’ve moved on the work started by Sex and the City: in its TV form, that was a predominantly male-written sisterhood united, while Dunham and Kardashian at their best represent a truer, no-holds-barred look at female friendship. As Hannah writes in Girls 2, “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance” . For all their differences, the most important cultural effect that Kardashian and Dunham might leave behind is this recognition of the power, grandness and lasting interest of female relationships.
Articles referenced above
Lots of copies of OK and Who magazines
Chats with friends and some strangers in a café, to check impressions
Two puzzles have crossed my path this week:
1) Why is Gill Sans winning out over Helvetica? (If it is, and, come on, it is.) Long the visual language of public institutions in the UK (the subway, especially), it looked until recently (to me at least) a little out of touch. But now it seems to be to have all the punchy clarity of the sans-serif regime without giving away the ability to evoke something bigger than the message at hand.
There is a follow up question: will Gary Hustwit ever make a documentary about it of the kind he made for Helvetica? I would so love to see this documentary. The Helvetica doc is a thing of wonder. “Gill Sans” as a follow-up doc would have lots more historical depth and charm. No modernist hoodlum this.
2) Why is that in at least two instances in popular culture, the role of the guardian angel is occupied by a psychopath. I refer to Dexter and the BBC show Luther, and in the case of Luther specifically to the character Alice Morgan. Strictly speaking, the last person who should serve in this capacity is a psychopath, but somehow in our culture right now, the notion is not implausible.
Anyone want to write fewer-than-a-thousand words on either topic (or for the very daring both at once) should send it to me and if it’s really good, you will win a Minerva.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the Gill Sans Demo.
Every Harvard Business School case study seems to open with a manager sitting at his or her desk, contemplating a problem. The case study put us in the manager’s shoes. Here’s the problem, the case says, what would you do?
Let’s say, you’re Patricia Lindbergh. You are the newly appointed CCO at the XYZ corporation.
And your CEO has a question.
Last night, in a rare moment of respite, he was sitting with his wife and kids watching their favorite TV shows. And the family got to talking. Is TV changing? They thought maybe it was. But no one could figure out how or why.
The CEO says, "Hey, not to worry. We just hired a Chief Culture Officer. I’ll ask Pat tomorrow. She’ll know."
So this morning, when you got to work, there was a little note on your desk from the CEO. It reads, "Hey, my wife and I were wondering: is TV changing? Clue us in! Thanks. Charlie."
Geez. Big question. As a CCO, you follow TV. And there’s lots of stuff in play. One of the ways to approach this question is to look at Charlie and his family were watching last night. If you knew what they was looking at…that might help.
As a CCO, you subscribe to lots of data sources, and one of your favorites comes from Marc Berman. Marc writes The Programming Insider, and here’s the snippet that gets your attention.
It’s clear that CBS and ABC are in pretty good shape. And it’s clear that NBC continues to struggle. It’s not that the NBC programming is bad programming. You like some of NBC shows that are tanking. They’re smart, interesting, funny television.
As you sit at your desk, and gaze down into the tidal flows on the Avenue of the Americans, you think, "hmmm."
There’s something here. But what?
Something tells us that this comes down to the cultural difference between what Berman calls "yesterday’s winners" and "yesterday’s losers." What is the difference between these two groups of shows. What do they tell us about TV and our culture?
Please answer this question ("What’s the cultural difference between Berman’s Winners and Losers?") as briefly and as pungently as you can. Please keep your answer to fewer than 500 words.
Best three answers get a copy of Chief Culture Officer and my undying admiration.
Berman, Marc. 2010. The Programming Insider. Media Week. January 15. here.
Winners of the last contest
The winner’s of the last competition are:
Congratulations on great work. Please send me your best mailing address, so I can send you your copies of Chief Culture Officer.
Note: this post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009. It was reposted here December 25, 2010.