Kimye’s rewriting of some common cultural scripts about family might have felt like a political act, but their mission also came with a clear subtext: commerce. (“I am Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney. Nike. Google,” West declared, in a 2013 radio interview. “Now who’s going to be the Medici family and stand up and let me create more?”) According to May, the formation of the atomic-age family—which offered “security at a time when public life felt very unsettled and scary”—coincided with a newfound prosperity and consumerism. During the Second World War, May said, “there weren’t a lot of ways to spend your money,” which led to a “pent-up desire for consumer goods.” This was also an era in which purchasing became political. “If the Soviet Union represented the opposite of American individualism, because communism was based on collective values, then the U.S. would celebrate individual consumerism,” May explained. “They were going on vacation. They were remodelling their homes. They were getting new furniture.” A similar dynamic can be seen in “K.U.W.T.K.,” which faithfully documented this kind of family spending: every season followed the Kardashian-Jenner clan on an annual vacation to a different resort in a new destination, the camera resting on the names of the hotels and restaurants they visited. But they didn’t just provide product placement for other businesses; they also had a keen interest in promoting their own ventures. They followed a path charted by Walt Disney, who had once been described by his brother Roy as having found “the answer to using television both to entertain and to sell his product.” In 2015, a “K.U.W.T.K.” plotline was devoted to the launch of a cosmetics brand created by Kim’s younger sister Kylie Jenner. Later, when Kardashian started her own beauty brand, KKW Beauty, she capitalized not only on her show but on the domain most associated with the Kardashian-Jenners besides reality television: Instagram. KKW Beauty homed in on a makeup technique called contouring—inciting a homogenous craze among influencers—and, by 2020, the business was valued at a billion dollars.
For the Kardashian-Jenners, cosmetics—another booming industry during the atomic age—came with a distinctive family flair. Kim and Kylie advertised with sister-focussed content campaigns. Kim also posted videos of her daughter trying on makeup (“North, what are you doing? Why do you have my Mario palette?”), and a “K.U.W.T.K.” episode featured North’s admiration of a KKW model. In 2019, Kardashian launched SKIMs, her shapewear business, which could seem like a pantyhose company, or a lingerie brand, depending on how you looked at it. “K.U.W.T.K.” episodes showed the sisters lounging around in the brand’s pajamas as they gossiped, argued, or talked shop. In 2021, Kardashian released a “Christmas card” featuring herself with her four kids, all donning SKIMs—a holiday portrait doubling as an ad campaign. As the family has grown—Jenner went from having no grandchildren to ten during the show’s run—its cultural significance has swelled, calling to mind an idea from Roland Barthes’s “Mythologies.” The concept was summed up by a character in “Birdman,” a 2014 movie about a superhero actor: “The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry detergent commercials and comic strip characters.” The Kardashian-Jenners were like comic-strip characters who were willing to star in laundry-detergent commercials.
By the time West formally joined the “K.U.W.T.K.” cast, in 2019, his wife was, as Mrs. Incredible would say, “at the top of her game.” But his own public image was in rehabilitation following a nihilistic few years of pro-Trump tirades and a visit to the TMZ offices, where he’d declared that slavery had been “a choice.” In spite of this, he was flourishing as a father and as a musician; he was working toward unveiling his gospel group, Sunday Service, and preparing to drop the album “Jesus Is King.” It couldn’t have been a better time for him to jump on board the “K.U.W.T.K.” ship, which was decidedly on brand for West, a born-again Christian and family man. Since its 2007 inception, the show’s fable-like episodes had always concluded with the same message: at the end of the day, what matters most is family. “The Incredibles” told a story about a family that achieved greatness by combining their superpowers; 2019 was the year that Kimye joined forces to defend their family’s brand.
Walt Disney once said that “all cartoon characters and fables must be exaggeration, caricatures.” Kimye has almost always adhered to this notion, though the couple’s self-mythologizing reached new heights during their divorce. In July of 2021, six months after filing for the dissolution of her marriage with West, Kardashian attended the first listening party for “Donda,” his new album, named after his late mother. With the kids in tow, she wore a head-to-toe red getup that matched his Yeezy-Gap puffer jacket. Photos from the event, in Atlanta, showed West dropping to his knees at the center of a stadium as he repeated, “I’m losing my family.” With this performance, West, perhaps unwittingly, was reënacting yet another scene from “The Incredibles.” In the first movie, Mr. Incredible is led to believe that he has “lost” his family when a plane they’re flying in explodes. After they reunite, Mr. Incredible tells his wife, in the movie’s emotional climax, “I can’t lose you again. . . . I’m not strong enough.” (His power is superhuman strength.) West’s “Donda” event set an Apple Music record, with 3.3 million people tuning in to the live stream.
That record was broken less than two weeks later, at the second “Donda” event, which attracted an additional two million viewers. This one ended with West ascending to the ceiling in a harness—or “flying”—amid an epic light show. At the third and final event, in his home town of Chicago, a masked West performed in front of a replica of his childhood home. Then he set himself on fire, and unmasked himself to meet Kim Kardashian, on stage, who wore a Balenciaga wedding gown. In front of a bewildered audience, the former power couple again “married.” The scene concluded an operatic, multicity experience, which had somehow felt both precariously improvised and hyper-curated.
The “Donda” events—a blur of red, white, and black; fashion, flight, fire, home, wedding ceremony—were prime for headlines, memes, retweets, and TikTok takes. It was an innovative hype model, one that leveraged the rapidity and multiplicities of late-capitalist new media. Throughout this period, Kardashian continued to dress in Balenciaga, sometimes wearing outfits that resembled costumes from “The Incredibles”—monochromatic body suits, thigh-high boots, and eye masks. The superhero cosplay coincided with the next chapter in her career: a nine-figure deal with Disney. That year, the Kardashian-Jenners ended their E! show and signed on to star in a new reality series, “The Kardashians,” on Hulu, a streaming service owned by the Walt Disney Company.
Six months before her new show’s première, Kardashian hosted “Saturday Night Live.” In one raunchy sketch, she played Princess Jasmine, and kissed the comedian Pete Davidson, who played Aladdin. A few weeks later, the two began dating, and the quirky couple captured tabloid media. West, agitated, began tweeting about Davidson. He coined a viral nickname for the comedian—“Skete”—properly situating his ex-wife’s new boyfriend as the unwitting villain in his self-styled superhero story. But who was the real bad guy here? As Kimye’s divorce grew more acrimonious, West transformed from a lovably eccentric patriarch—the kind of dad who surprised his kids by taking them to school in fire trucks—to the villain of the Kardashian universe. While his ex-wife suited up in hot-pink and neon-green lycra, he’d begun dressing in all-black and wearing full face masks—not unlike Screenslaver, the villain in “Incredibles 2,” who sought to dominate society by projecting hypnotic content across screens. West’s antipathy toward Davidson had also turned into full-blown harassment. He took to Instagram, his ex-wife’s home turf, to post screenshots of his terse text exchanges with Kardashian and Davidson, and he released a Claymation music video that depicted Davidson with a decapitated head. West, venting about the relationship in a now-deleted Instagram post, claimed that the entire thing had been manufactured by Disney. “THIS AINT ABOUT SKETE PEOPLE IT’S ABOUT SELLING YALL A NARRATIVE,” he wrote. “SKETE JUST PLAYING HIS PART IN FROZEN 3.” It was a Disney movie that wasn’t in theatres, West wrote, but, rather, on the Daily Mail, and Disney had picked Davidson for the role in an attempt to appeal to a wider age group. The post may have sounded conspiratorial, but at least part of what West said was true: his ex-wife was in a new relationship that made for good television. When “The Kardashians” aired, in the spring of 2022, Davidson was portrayed as her good-guy boyfriend.