Keeping Up with Reality: The Western Fascination with Low Culture and "Keeping Up with the Kardashians"

May 16


Brian J. Smith

Brian J. Smith

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Western culture's obsession with reality television, particularly shows like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," is a fascinating phenomenon. This article delves into the reasons behind this obsession, exploring the concepts of high and low culture, ocularcentrism, scopophilia, interpellation, and the aesthetics of camp and kitsch. By examining these elements, we can better understand why reality TV has such a strong hold on Western audiences.

The Dichotomy of High and Low Culture

Culture serves as a medium for self-expression and mutual understanding. It can be broadly categorized into high culture and low culture. High culture,Keeping Up with Reality: The Western Fascination with Low Culture and as defined by Sturken and Cartwright, includes classical art, music, and literature that only an elite can appreciate. In contrast, low culture is the commercially produced mass culture accessible to the general public (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009).

High Culture vs. Low Culture

High Culture Low Culture
Classical art, music, literature Commercially produced mass culture
Appreciated by an elite Accessible to the general public
Examples: Opera, Ballet Examples: Reality TV, Pop Music

Ocularcentrism: The Visual Dominance in Western Culture

Western culture is often described as ocularcentric, meaning it prioritizes vision over other senses. This visual dominance stems from living in a world saturated with images. Philosopher Roland Barthes suggests that culture tends to naturalize nonsensical behaviors, a phenomenon evident in reality television (Barthes, 1972).

The Role of Reality TV

Reality TV offers easy and inexpensive programming that follows individuals in their daily lives. Shows like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" exemplify this trend, turning the family dynamic into a spectacle. The show's popularity can be attributed to Western culture's ocularcentric tendencies.

Scopophilia: The Pleasure of Looking

Sigmund Freud's concept of scopophilia, the pleasure derived from looking at others and being looked at, is crucial to understanding the appeal of reality TV. This voyeuristic pleasure often results from making a spectacle of oneself, a common theme in shows like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" (Freud, 1905).

Voyeurism and Exhibitionism

  • Voyeurism: Viewers get an "inside" look at celebrity life, experiencing the luxuries and challenges vicariously.
  • Exhibitionism: Characters know their actions will be seen by millions, often pushing boundaries to elicit reactions.

Interpellation: The Viewer-Character Relationship

French Structuralist Louis Althusser's theory of interpellation explains how culture and its images speak directly to viewers. In "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," the portrayal of the family as "normal" despite their fame appeals to viewers, creating a sense of relatability (Althusser, 1971).

Spin-offs and Instant Celebrity

The show's success has led to several spin-offs, such as "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami" and "Kourtney and Kim Take New York," further emphasizing the allure of instant celebrity.

Bourdieu's Capitals: Fiscal, Social, and Cultural

French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of fiscal, social, and cultural capital are essential to understanding the Kardashians' rise to fame. Fiscal capital refers to economic value, social capital to individual connections, and cultural capital to cultural knowledge (Bourdieu, 1986).

The Kardashian Legacy

The Kardashian family's public presence dates back to the O.J. Simpson trial, where Robert Kardashian served as a defense lawyer. This historical connection has contributed to their cultural capital and ongoing fame.

Camp and Kitsch: The Aesthetics of Reality TV

Susan Sontag's ideas of camp and kitsch aesthetics explain why low culture in the Western world loves reality TV. Camp aesthetic celebrates the excessive, while kitsch aesthetic values objects or individuals for their "bad taste" (Sontag, 1964).

The Appeal of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians"

  • Camp Aesthetic: The show is celebrated for its excessive and often absurd qualities.
  • Kitsch Aesthetic: The show's "bad taste" has become a defining feature, attracting viewers who revel in its lack of aesthetic value.


The Western fascination with reality television, particularly "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," can be understood through the lenses of ocularcentrism, scopophilia, interpellation, and the aesthetics of camp and kitsch. These elements combine to create a compelling spectacle that continues to captivate audiences.

Interesting Stats

  • Reality TV Popularity: As of 2021, reality TV accounted for 50% of all television programming in the United States (Nielsen, 2021).
  • Kardashian Wealth: The Kardashian-Jenner family has a combined net worth of over $2 billion, with Kim Kardashian alone worth $1.2 billion (Forbes, 2022).

By examining these cultural and philosophical concepts, we gain a deeper understanding of why reality TV, and "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" in particular, has such a strong hold on Western audiences.


  • Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. Hill and Wang.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-258). Greenwood.
  • Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books.
  • Nielsen. (2021). The State of U.S. TV Viewing. Retrieved from Nielsen
  • Sontag, S. (1964). Notes on Camp. Penguin Books.
  • Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2009). Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Forbes. (2022). The Kardashian-Jenner Family Net Worth. Retrieved from Forbes