This past month marked the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth, a man still idolized and adored decades after his death. The Kennedy’s are the closest thing that America ever had to a royal family. They were rich, glamorous, powerful and completely charming. It was hard not to love them, they looked like royalty. They represented an image of glamour and privilege that once reflected the aspirations of an entire generation.
Today that image of glamour and privilege looks very different and the Kardashians are a perfect example of this. The most obvious difference is racial. Whereas the Kennedys defined whiteness, a family like the Kardashians exemplify the hybridized ethnic identity that is becoming increasingly the norm. You could even say that the popularity of the Kardashians is a sign that we are living in a post-racial world. This is a controversial idea that seems superficially plausible, however, if you immerse yourself in enough pop culture.
The Kennedy’s became famous by being successful bankers and businessmen and later politicians. This allowed them to reach a place of prominence in society over generations of hard work. The drive of the Kennedy children is legendary, with many of them reaching high levels of political success and influence. This was accomplished with single-minded determination and a tremendous amount of work, running campaigns, drafting bills, meeting with foreign dignitaries to discuss policy, etc.
The biggest criticism of the Kardashians is that they didn’t get famous by doing anything. They just smile in front of the tv cameras and post selfies and somehow inexplicably make millions of dollars in the process. Maybe part of our fascination with them is driven by our curiosity around how a group of people with no apparent skills or talents can make so much money by basically just being themselves.
Maybe legacy is the important thing. The Kennedys established a tradition of political progressivism and social engagement with the political process. The Kardashians, on the other hand, have redefined the definition of what it means to be successful in America. As Americans, we aspire to be wealthy, beautiful and famous. What has changed is that there is no longer a desire to do the work necessary to earn these things, we just feel like we deserve them. Perhaps more than anything then, the Kardashians symbolize our cultural entitlement.
In many ways, you could not find two families that were more unlike each other. And yet, both these families represent the values and ideals of the cultures that support them. When somebody says that they love the Kardashians or that they hate the Kardashians, they’re basically describing how they feel about America. For better or worse, this is the culture that we have created and it is a reflection of us. The America that gave rise to Camelot and the Kennedy family is a place that now exists in the past tense. For better or worse, this is what we have now.