Khloé Kardashian, Tristan Thompson, and the Commodification of Toxicity

If Khloé has a talent now, it’s simply riding the storm of constant public embarrassment.

Khloé Kardashian, Tristan Thompson, and the Commodification of Toxicity
Photo:Hollywood To You/Star Max/GC Images (Getty Images)

In 2011, the Kardashian women (Kim, Kourtney, Kris, and Khloé) were interviewed by Barbara Walters for her annual “Ten Most Fascinating People” TV special. This was not quite at the peak of their celebrity, but after four years starring on their E! reality show “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” this was a point at which it had become clear that the Kardashians were a cultural inevitability, soon to be as ubiquitous as smart phones. And while one could argue that these women were not individually fascinating, their mere existence in the zeitgeist was. What did they even do? What were they even famous for? Why? This line of questioning formed the overall tenor of the Walters interview, in which the legendary journalist told them matter-of-factly, “You don’t really act. You don’t sing. You don’t dance. You don’t have any—forgive me…”

“Talent,” one of the Kardashians (it’s hard to discern who) offered from off camera.

“Any talent!” Walters said.

In the clip, the Kardashians all nod solemnly in agreement. Then Khloé adds a kind of rebuttal: “But we’re still entertaining people.”

Ten years later, and the Kardashians are still “entertaining” America. But it is of course a very specific kind of entertainment. For all the people who watched their reality show or follow them on social media because they genuinely like them and think they’re cool, there is also a large contingent of people who derive pleasure from laughing at them, not out of amusement but out of pure schadenfreude. The Kardashian mode of entertainment hinges on spectacle, absurdity, dysfunction, comparison, and just plain hate. And lately, no one has provided as much fodder for this particular kind of entertainment than Khloé Kardashian.

Consider the latest development in the saga of Khloé and Tristan Thompson. Thompson, an NBA player and father of Khloé’s three-year-old daughter True, released an Instagram-story-press-release on January 3 in which he confirmed what everyone familiar with the story already knew: After his adamant denial, a paternity test had confirmed that he was indeed the father of fitness model Maralee Nichols’s newborn son.

“Today, paternity test results reveal that I fathered a child with Maralee Nichols. I take full responsibility for my actions. Now that paternity has been established I look forward to amicably raising our son,” he (or more likely someone on his team) wrote. “I sincerely apologize to everyone I’ve hurt or disappointed throughout this ordeal both publicly and privately.”

Just months earlier, in celebration of Thompson’s 30th birthday, Khloé had made a post seemingly confirming the pair’s reconcilitation on Instagram with the caption, “The ones that are meant to be are the ones who go through everything that is designed to tear them apart and they came out even stronger than they were before. Thank you for showing me everything you said you would.” Yikes.

Here was another humiliation, for both Khloé and Tristan. The history of their on-again-off-again relationship has been fraught with cheating rumors, adding to the impression that Khloé is an insecure bird and Tristan is an insecure thot. Thompson may or may not have left his pregnant ex-girlfriend for Khloé in her third trimester. When Khloé was pregnant with True, footage of Thomson kissing a woman who was not her surfaced on the internet. Two years ago, the drama reached a fever point when Khloé and the Kardashians went off on family friend Jordyn Woods for allegedly trying to sleep with him at a party (Jordyn would later insist that it was a non consensual kiss that happened while she was drunk). “YOU are the reason my family broke up,” Khloé tweeted at the time—unironically, it seemed.

If you “don’t care” about any of this, I’m very happy for you (and thankful that you’re reading this essay anyway). But I’d like to delve into what “care” even means as it relates to the Kardashians and to celebrities in general. I don’t know that the Kardashian-Jenners are a family that necessarily operates with the goal that people should “care,” or even be “entertained”—only that people should know things about them, even if the thing is that they’re birds with birdlike behavior. Their job is to be so much in the atmosphere of pop culture that details about them seep into our consciousness by osmosis. The Kardashians are much like the British Royal Family in that their only job is to remain relevant, so as to distract the public from questioning why they’re even here. They are seemingly apolitical, even though everything about them is deeply political, including their refusal to acknowledge their anti-Blackness whilst capitalizing off Black culture and having mixed babies with Black men. And, of course, they all seem completely miserable.

In recent years, there’s been a growing trend of toxic relationships playing out on social media and in the public eye, like soap operas in real time. Summer Walker wrote a whole album about the fallout of her doomed relationship with London on da Track, and last year we got to watch Da Baby kick Dani Leigh, the mother of his newborn baby, out of his home on IG live and then turn around and promote his latest project. Toxicity, like everything else, has been commodified.

If Khloé Kardashian has a talent, now, it’s simply riding the storm of constant public embarrassment. Like a pie to the face, every time Khloé takes another L, it generates some sympathy, but mostly a kind of glee, similar to the act of hate-watching a show you don’t like just so you can talk shit about it. There are the memes, the snarky tweets, the Lipstick Alley threads and Bossip headlines (“Kondomless Klown King Tristan Thompson Kries Krocodile Tears To Khloé Over Infant Indiscretion, Apologizes For Rampant Raw Doggery”). All of this, of course, fuels the bottom line. Khloé can’t write an album, sure, but she can turn her drama into a storyline for reality TV.

In the world of Kardashians, how things look matters much more than how things feel. After the Jordyn Woods drama unfolded, an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” aired in which Khloé, visibly livid, sat at a dining table with her sisters and best friend Malika Haqq, strategizing on how to take down the then-22-year-old Woods for the alleged infidelity. With cameras rolling, Khloé screamed, “This shit is so fucking wack that these fucking bitches think they can go ahead and fuck our men! Mom, they’re going to try and fuck your man in a second!”

I won’t even begin to unpack the levels of a bunch of pushing-forty white women talking about bullying a young Black girl, or using the words “our men,” in this particular clip. I just wonder what it’s like to live through dysfunction, self-delusion and humiliation while also performing your trauma on TV and on social media for ad dollars. I wonder if that’s why Khloé has chosen to remain entangled with Tristan, a man who doesn’t seem to love her (or himself for that matter), for so long. I wonder if the exploitation of one’s own highly toxic relationship renders it as abstract in one’s own consciousness as it does in the consciousness of those who watch, and laugh, and judge. I wonder if the money and attention are worth it. I wonder if that makes it easier to endure.

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