How the Kardashians used media swerves and myths in their meteoric rise : It's Been a Minute The Kardashians. Whether you're into them or not, one thing is true: You can't avoid them. When they're not releasing new episodes of their long-running reality TV show, they're making headlines about Halloween costume reveals or ex-husbands who go on anti-Semitic rants. Because somehow, over the past decade, the Kardashian family went from Hollywood D-listers to American institution.

Host Brittany Luse unpacks that journey with MJ Corey, known by her social handle Kardashian Kolloquium. Corey, who also runs a newsletter where she applies media theory to the Kardashians' antics, breaks down their rise to the heights of American society and power – and how they got there using beauty, traditional milestones and a media playbook that might look similar to another first family.

You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at ibam@npr.org.

Are the Kardashians America's family?

Are the Kardashians America's family?

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Hulu; Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images; Jennifer S. Altman/Washington Post via Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR
The Kardashians, the Kennedys, the Trumps
Hulu; Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images; Jennifer S. Altman/Washington Post via Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR

The Kardashians. Whether you're into them or not, one thing is true: You can't avoid them. When they're not releasing new episodes of their long-running reality TV show, they're making headlines about Halloween costume reveals or ex-husbands who go on anti-Semitic rants. Because somehow, over the past decade, the Kardashian family went from Hollywood D-listers to American institution.

Host Brittany Luse unpacks that journey with MJ Corey, known by her social handle Kardashian Kolloquium. Corey, who also runs a newsletter where she applies media theory to the Kardashians' antics, breaks down their rise to the heights of American society and power — and how they got there using beauty, traditional milestones and a media playbook that might look similar to another first family.

The below interview highlights are adapted from an episode of It's Been A Minute. Follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, and keep up with us on Twitter. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

The Kardashians as "America's family"

MJ Corey: I think they are America's family in the same sense that the Kennedys were – which the Kardashians have really tried to situate themselves accordingly – and in the Trump sense.

Becoming an institution and learning how to "swerve"

Brittany Luse: What's a major moment in the Kardashian timeline that really cemented their institutional status for you?

Corey: Her fairytale wedding with Kris Humphries. I think 4.4 million people tuned in to part one of it and then 4 million to part two. It reminds me of the JFK funeral, like it manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process. And I think that's true for a wedding, too. The Kardashians have made a business of these really traditional family milestones that are actually so everyday. How much people paid for exclusive photos... It was a whole machine. So I think the 72-day marriage was already this televised event of a personal experience being made very public. And then it was very controversial because Kim had to go on an apology tour when it didn't work out. So using public shaming, failure and scandal to remain relevant. And then Kanye sweeps in and makes it all better. I mean, it's an incredible myth. I feel like they almost provide a playbook for how media narratives are spun. I think that so many other institutions are doing the exact same thing.

There's a book I really like called United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation and a Post-Truth America and it really breaks down the different media strategies that Trump used to weaponize the press to achieve dominance. And it's a lot of media swerves. When people are kind of honing in on a mistake he made or something wrong he did, he'll start discourse about, "Did Obama do it that way? Did he not? What's right or wrong about that?" So media swerves are a big thing [for the] Kardashians. A good example is after Astro World, which they were kind of taking heat for because of Kylie Jenner's proximity to Travis Scott. They kind of were frozen in time and didn't do anything or say anything for a few days. And then [Kendall] went to a friend's wedding wearing a very revealing dress.

Luse: Yes, I remember. And for those unfamiliar, we're talking about the Astro World Festival last November, where 10 audience members died at Travis Scott's concert. Travis Scott of course is the father of Kylie Jenner's kids. But... because of [Kendall's outfit], the conversation became: should someone wear this type of revealing dress to their friend's wedding?

Motherhood as a Kardashian

Corey: I think Kimye reflected, but then also subverted, very old school nuclear era ideals of family/the American family... For example, in the Paris episode in 2016, when Kim was robbed in Paris and then the Keeping Up with the Kardashians has a whole episode reconstructing that trauma.

There's a montage on that episode where they're really playing out those roles. Kim is saying, "I begged them not to kill me because I'm a mother and I have children." And Kanye says something like, "They knew not to kill you because they knew I wouldn't rest until I found them and killed them myself." So they really play the husband is the protector, [and] the wife's life has meaning because she is in relation to a family.

And I think that there's been a challenge leveled at their critics for boxing Kim in as this sex tape sort of hoe when she's also a mother and has all these traditional values. So she straddled the Madonna whore paradigm in a really unforeseen way. And I think the brush with tragedy allowed Kim proximity to a kind of iconism that we associate with Marilyn [Monroe] or Jackie O. without having to actually...

Luse: ... Actually kick the bucket.

Kim's response to the recent Kanye controversy

Corey: This new turn that Kanye has taken – to make the loss of all these major partnerships worth it like he's going to have to do something with it. And there's money to be made from the right wing with him. And I do feel like Kanye is sort of emerging as the essential Trumpist figure right now. So Kim's response was self restrained for a while. And then notably, she went out to dinner, according to TMZ, with Ivanka Trump at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And apparently Kim was overheard talking to Ivanka about anti-Semitism. And then the next day, Kim made her long-awaited story post condemning not specifically what Kanye is saying, but condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric. And I think there's something interesting about that, because Kim likes to play both sides. She's said before that she's socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and she's never fully committed to a party, but she's been very aligned with establishment Democrats. So I think she doesn't want to lose the right entirely by fully condemning Kanye. That's sort of my read on it.

This episode of 'It's Been a Minute' was produced by Jessica Mendoza, Liam McBain and Barton Girdwood. The digital post was written by Jamila Huxtable. It was edited by Jessica Placzek and Jessica Mendoza. Fact checking support from Julia Wohl and Zazil Davis-Vazquez. Engineering support came from Ko Takasugi-Czernowin and Carleigh Strange. You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at ibam@npr.org.