My daughter has been watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians since we moved to the United States in August. She first glimpsed them in eighth grade, on YouTube segments snatched in-between homework sessions in our German farmhouse. But now we are here, in the land of reality TV. And it is 2018.
"Finally I can watch it live. It's so exciting," she says. "Oh my God, Mom, it is the best thing about living here!"
I try to keep my eye-rolling to a minimum. We are an academic family, and our children were all raised abroad. At the beginning, I figured media use was the least of our challenges in moving her to America as a teenager. Just ignore it, I tell myself. But every once in a while, when her hour of television on a school night coincides with a new Kardashian ploy, I snuggle in next to her as she curls up on the living room sofa. I'm mindful of those parenting books. I'd better pay some attention to what interests her. I don't want to be out of touch.
So I've seen parts of the show's segments, mostly showing Kim, Kourtney, or Khloé moseying around an ultra-modern, five-acre kitchen with their one-inch nails and over-round bottoms—scenes spliced with ten-second snaps of jokes and interaction, spliced with admittedly kind-of-cute scenes with adorable little children at dinner or high-heeled adults climbing in and out of huge, white SUVs. Most of their conversations seem to revolve around publicity—which channel is showing what and why the rumors won't be stilled.
I don't like the Kardashians. And I am hoping Zoe will tire of the show.
And then came Kylie's announcement on the weekend.
"Mom, guess what?" Zoe comes running down the stairs.
I look up. "What?"
"Harry has a new girlfriend."
"No," roll of eyes but secretly pleased I would know her second star choice, Harry Styles.
"Taylor Swift has released a new song."
"No." But I'm earning brownie points with this.
"Kylie had her baby!" And she proceeds to monologue for five minutes on how the young celebrity decided to stay out of the public eye while she was pregnant, and how nobody really knew but people were guessing, and how she put a really cool video online just now that shows the whole pregnancy and the baby. And it already has four million views.
"Here." She holds out the phone to me.
"Awww," I say. Nobody can not love a pregnant woman photo, no matter who she is.
"Want to see the video?"
"Yes, Mom, here, just watch. And then you'll know why I like them so much."
We watch the video together; I figure I'd better give her this. I comment snarkily, as always, on the nails and the makeup, and I ask what the dude boyfriend does in his life, and I wonder aloud why her girlfriends are all wearing white silk pajamas for their interviews.
"It's her baby shower, Mom," my daughter says, as if that is what all baby showers require.
I'm able to keep my cynicism intact, watching this weird version of modern life until they play an old video clip of Kylie as a just-born baby in her mother's arms. There seem to be adult family members or friends all around.
"Awww." I feel a tear well up.
And then I watch the new footage, scatter-filmed in the style of a few handheld cameras spliced together, of grown-up Kylie arriving at the hospital.
"Why does she have to go to a hospital?" I interject with my reviewer's voice.
"Because, Mom, not everyone is like you. Most people are afraid."
"But she has the whole world looking at her," I grumble halfheartedly. "I just wish she could take that chance to be a role model for another way of birth."
Zoe had been born at home, as were many of our friends' children.
"Yes, Mom. You do know that's what I'm going to do too!"
"What? What do you mean? No, you won't."
"My friends are all freaked out about birth, you know that."
"Oh my God, don't be so American."
All this is being repeated in a rehearsed, jokey way between us as our eyes stay glued to the screen. We are used to this familiar bicultural banter with each other.
And then, suddenly, I see what appears to be a delivery room with Kardashians sitting all around. And clearly many of them are, in fact, there, in a five-star hospital suite somewhere in Los Angeles. And for a mini-glimpse, I see something real. There is nothing more intimate than birth.
They are helping her to breathe through a contraction, and I feel like saying to Zoe: "When you hear them counting, it means she has an epidural and can't feel anything herself." But we are both watching quietly now.
I think I am finally beginning to understand Zoe's gushing.
"See, Mom, they are a family and they show that."
Yes. I get it.
Indeed, they have all gathered. Whether for ratings or for support, it doesn't matter in that moment. What matters is they were present.
The next day I wake up strangely emotional, disconnected. Eventually I decide it is envy I feel. I did not have that kind of "family who gathers" as a child. But I was drawn to friends who had it, went searching for cultures that honored it, and tried to create it for my children. I am suddenly aware that my daughter recognizes companionship and connection, even in this dislocated, post-modern form, and wants it for herself. I relax. Maybe there is hope for the future after all.
Image provided courtesy of Susannah Kennedy.