The best part of watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians for the first time hasn’t been, as I expected, immersing myself in froth, glitter, and celebrity culture. No: the real pleasure is watching an older woman build an empire. Kristen Mary Jenner, née Houghton, the once and future Kardashian, mother of billionaires and trademarked Momager, the Grandmother of Calabasas, one MILF to rule them all: this song is in praise of you.
Kim and her sisters may pose for magazine covers and have hordes of followers on social media, but Kris Jenner is the true star of the show. KUWTK is the story of Kris: how she suffered, how she dreamed, and how she molded six children into modern day warriors, which we now call “brands.” Kris is an enigma. She can be vulnerable, easily hurt by the occasional cruelties of her young daughters. She can be capricious, casually lying to her partner, going back on agreements, failing to show up for daughters feelings and photo shoots. Usually, she is the wise matriarch who brings the family together at the end of an episode, a gentle moral ready on her lips.
Jenner reminds me of the compelling medieval women I study: at times peacemaker, at times powerhouse, scandalous and motherly all at once. Most of all, she brings to mind Eleanor of Aquitaine, another woman who ignored public opprobrium to help build an empire. And although they were born over eight centuries apart, both of them grew up in societies not comfortable with women who desire power — and even less so with those who win it.
There are plenty of differences between the two divas. Eleanor was born to a noble family descended from the Carolingians. Her status as Duchess of Aquitaine gave her territories, strong ancestral pride, and a sense of her own independent authority, even as she wed the future King of France, and, fifteen years later, the future King of England. Kris was born to a middle-class family in San Diego; she worked brief stints in her mother’s clothing store and as a flight attendant before marrying a lawyer-qua-entrepreneur, and thirteen years later, a former Olympic athlete.
Once we put those minor quibbles aside, though, it becomes clear how much Kris and Eleanor have in common. Their first marriages ended in mysterious ways. Medieval chroniclers accused Eleanor of having an incestuous relationship with her uncle Raymond while in Syria with her husband. But these were clerks writing after Eleanor and Louis VII had annulled their marriage because they had not managed to produce a male heir. It is hard to tell what really happened in Syria, but it seems most likely that chroniclers aimed to destroy Eleanor’s reputation by attaching grotesque sexual sins to her. The incest accusations were part of the so-called “Black Legend” that built up around Eleanor over the centuries: various writers accused her of cross-dressing, falling in love with a troubadour, murdering Henry II’s mistress Rosamond de Clifford, and being descended from a devil. These accusations probably aren’t true, but they don’t make me love her less.
Kris has not always had an easy time in the public eye either. As with Eleanor, rumours swirl about the dissolution of her first marriage. To be fair, she did have an extramarital affair, which she described in her 2011 memoir. But other people have inflated the scandal: Norman Pardo, who claims to have managed O.J. Simpson, once spread a grotesque story about a one-night-stand between Jenner and Simpson, which tabloids immediately picked up despite no evidence it was true. Ever since she became a household name, Kris has been accused of being a “fame whore” (a contemporary parallel to an affair with a troubadour?), of using her daughters’ most vulnerable moments for profit, and of orchestrating their humiliations to boost ratings. She has also, repeatedly, been referred to as a “devil” — Satan being, after all, the only creature who works nearly as hard as Kris Jenner.
I have been wondering what makes Kris Jenner so hated. I suspect one reason has to do with the roles women are expected to play in show business. Women can be ingenues or stage moms — rarely are they impresarios. While Kris often allows herself to be mocked on KUPTK, and certainly pushes her children hard to excel, she never slips into the pathetic stage mom role. At no point does she seem to want to live out her abandoned dreams through her daughters. She simply wants to fulfill her still-vital dream of making as much money as possible out of every opportunity that presents itself.
The Jenner hate is also driven by ancient ideas in the West about women and their relationship to power. Men — men like Henry II, Robert Kardashian — are supposed to go out into the world, lead armies, engage in trade, and argue in courts of law, while women ought to care for their children and household. If a woman is to enjoy any influence, she should do it through the man she married, by gently suggesting a course of action or advising him when he needs counsel.
Many women live differently now, but it is still unusual to see a woman not only run the show but also be on the show. What is even more disconcerting, I think, is that Kris upends expectations of women not by entering the world of men, but by making her home and family into her empire. This flip is hinted at in the opening credits of KUPTK’s first season: Kris arranges the kids into a family photo in front of a city backdrop; the backdrop then falls to show the mansion in which they purportedly live . The message, especially in hindsight, is clear: Kris’ power starts in the house.
The running joke about Kris Jenner is that she is a “control freak.” The clan is aware that Kris has favorites, and her greatest affection will always be for the child who works hardest and makes the most money. It is an uncanny blend of private feeling and commercial ambition.
We’re not used to this kind of mother figure. But people in the Middle Ages were. Medieval royal women were accustomed to playing multiple roles: giving birth and educating children, running households, working on arranging strategic marriages for their children, and taking over the masculine duties of rulership when their husbands were away.
Kris Jenner treats her children the way a medieval queen would, as extensions of herself that she can deploy both for their good and her legacy. As the mastermind, or at the very least, the amplifier of her daughters’ images, she has helped change American ideas of beauty over the past fifteen years. Likewise, a popular view of Eleanor is that she was responsible for the spread of “fin’ amor,” or courtly love, through her literary patronage of troubadours, though her daughter Marie of Champagne was probably more influential in this respect. And as if all of that were not enough, Kris helped found the California Community Church — religious patronage is exactly what a royal woman would have done eight centuries ago.
Watching Kris Jenner maneuver the space between wife, mom and magnate is a chance to see how an older woman can build her power, despite living in a society that is not fully comfortable with her doing so. She does it, for the most part, by owning her experience and ambition, knowing that both scandals and triumphs are what make a legend.
Irina Dumitrescu‘s career highlights include delivering a conference paper in interpretative dance, being featured in a course on “Bad Immigrants,” and the publication of several indignant letters to the editor.
Lead Image: Screen shot from “Keeping Up With The Kardashians“
Michael Evans, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Images of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Sarah Manavis, “How Kris Jenner became the internet’s arch villain” New Statesman, 24 October 2018
Mariah Smith, “Kris Jenner Is Frequently Compared to the Devil, and the Kardashian Matriarch Seems to Like It.” Vice, 29 March 2019.
Ralph Turner, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Yale, 2009)
Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parson, editors, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)