Kim Kardashian's visit to Israel this month – with husband Kanye West and sister Khloe in tow – was an exciting event for many Israelis, including some A-list artists and intellectuals. Nor was I immune. When I lived in the United States, I followed the follies of the Kardashian family – mainly during moments of melancholy or existential angst. Watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” – a secret vice that I occasionally indulge in even after returning to the Holy Land – always stirs a strange yearning, together with a slightly sour but nevertheless addictive taste in my mouth.
The yearning is for a world in which you are swaddled, well-protected from unwanted externalities, and never alone: There is always one sister or another at home to whom you can complain, not to mention the ultimate lion mother, who devotes all her time to advancing your career. The sourish taste, in contrast, lingers and does not let go as long as you are still discovering the far-reaching implications of constantly being with your parents, your brother or your sisters beyond the age of 30: the loss of privacy, the loss of shame, loss in general.
What kind of sex life can an adult have when they are constantly sharing it with their nuclear family, a term that contains not only the potential for consolidation but also destructive force? How can anyone develop an identity, much less become a productive human being, when your family is running or involved in your career?
Even if those who cluck their tongues at “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” seem to think it’s a special and extreme case of American trash television, it’s hard to ignore the phenomenal success in recent years of cultural representations of nuclear families that remain together. The old-new eternal nuclear family crosses national, ethnic and class lines, and the cultural representations span the entire range of popular culture – from reality shows such as “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” to dramatic classics such as “The Sopranos” and “Transparent” [the Amazon series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender parent].
Despite the critical potential inherent in the series’ engagement with various expressions of non-heteronormative sexual identity, it seems that even in “Transparent,” no one is challenging the fundamental unity of the nuclear family. Not only do all members of the family see each other on a daily basis and for most of the day, they also constantly stick their noses into each others’ sex lives, and no one protests or draws back from that constant togetherness – which is free of all of the less pleasant aspects of the relationships that many of us have with our nuclear families: siblings that aren’t on speaking terms with each other, family scapegoats or, much worse, violence or sexual abuse.
If the art and literature born from the rise of Modernism at the turn of the 20th century was based on the belief that every coming-of-age story must involve separation from the family of origin, an identity crisis, a period of loneliness, difficulty and the overcoming of obstacles and, simply put, experimenting with individualism, then it would appear that in the contemporary era of cynical capitalism, all that individualism became, for the most part, unprofitable. If your family provides you with protection, not to mention a livelihood, then why criticize it, question its judgment or desire separation from it? After all, it could only be bad for business – which is, of course, the family business.
So it is not surprising that families that function as clans often operate a joint business or, alternatively, depend on a single dominant figure who, even a mother and not a father, generally follows patriarchal, capitalist laws in which women are chattel to be traded – like the big mama of the Kardashian clan, Kris Jenner, who has a habit of pimping out her daughters to the highest bidder. In light of that, it is also not surprising that so many institutions and organizations use the metaphor of family in order to guarantee their employees’ loyalty and obedience, by presenting the figures on the highest rungs of the hierarchy as “parents” who look after their children while also demanding that they toe the company line by actively resisting all expressions of independence beyond the “family’s” ideology and blocking all possibility to criticize or question its conduct.
In broader political contexts, this mechanism can be genuinely dangerous, especially in cases – such as in Israel – where the familial metaphor (which works overtime in national contexts, such as the concept of “the family of the bereaved” that the parents of fallen soldiers are said to join, for example) becomes a cynical and manipulative tool in the hands of those who seek to stay in power at any price. In the last election, this instrument proved to be extraordinarily effective. There’s nothing for you outside, so stay with us. Where could you go, anyway? After all, everyone knows you can’t choose your family.
The writer is a literary scholar and an author.
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