I have been gently simmering about this for over a week, so I’m getting my thoughts out – be warned, this is a long blog post. It may not be the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever done (if anything, I hope it isn’t – that award should go to my PhD thesis – yep, still talking about it!) but I hope it gives people something to think about.
A few weeks ago the New York Daily News Twitter account shared this tweet:
People were not happy. I don’t follow New York Daily News on Twitter, but I was aware of this tweet because people that I do follow (colleagues, scientists, academics, people I think are brilliant (highlights include Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley), and lots of PhD students) were retweeting it or responding to it. The majority of these responses were from PhD students and scientists describing what they are doing with their lives in increasingly condescending and belittling ways. I’m paraphrasing, but a lot of the responses that I saw were along the lines of:
- “I’m in grad school working to try and find a cure for cancer.”
- “I’m getting my PhD at X institute, and my research aims to improve quality of life for people with X disease.”
- “I do research for X charity which is aiming to improve treatment for X disease, X many people die from it every year.”
Alongside this weird moral one-upmanship, a lot of the responses critiqued the post’s use of the term ‘self-made’.
If you don’t know who Kylie Jenner is, she isn’t someone who has grown up with nothing – she is the half-sister of media giant Kim Kardashian, and she’s featured on the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians for years. Kim Kardashian was first made ‘famous’ by the release of a sex tape in 2007. Since then, Kim Kardashian (now Kim Kardashian West – she married Kanye West in 2014) has launched various businesses, accrued 58.5million Twitter followers, published a book made entirely of selfies, been on the front cover of Vogue magazine, and lots more. It’s fair to say that Kylie Jenner has had a very privileged upbringing.
The responses that really frustrated me though, included jibes about her half-sister’s sex tape, the fact that Kylie posts revealing photographs on Instagram, and that she’s had cosmetic procedures like lip fillers.
What exactly has it got to do with us (as scientists) if she’s showing what is considered ‘too much’ on Instagram? Personally, I think it’s completely up to her, and if she feels comfortable with her body then why shouldn’t she flash a little side boob every now and again?! I don’t do that on my own social media profiles, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me what Kylie Jenner posts. In the same vein – so what if she’s had lip fillers? She was insecure about an aspect of her appearance (which likely came from years of being dragged by the media), she was an adult, and she made the decision to change that. The key bit here is that it’s her decision. Her decision has nothing to do with anyone else.
The reference to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is troubling because initially it was leaked, she never released it herself. She initially sued the company that had it to prevent its release – she later settled out of court, but this essentially started out as a case of revenge porn. That’s not something that anyone wants, ever. Who are we to question what Kim Kardashian (and the rest of her family) then did to capitalise on it? Plenty of people have had sex tapes released to the public; very, very few of them are now as a successful as Kim Kardashian and co. Their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.
In addition to this, Kylie has made the majority of her money from her own cosmetics line; Kylie Cosmetics. Many of those same people (overwhelmingly PhD students and early career researchers) that were tweeting their moral superiority in comparison to Kylie Jenner, also regularly take part in campaigns to support women in science, to prove that women in science are just as entitled to hold prominent roles in scientific disciplines as men are, and to break stereotypes about the ‘type’ of person that a scientist is.
This time last year there was a big Twitter campaign to try and get cosmetics company Benefit to change an advertising campaign that suggested that girls should ‘skip class, not concealer’. I wrote about my thoughts on that campaign here (spoiler alert: what a dumb marketing move, girls are perfectly capable of wearing makeup (or not) and going to class as well). In response to that campaign, people tweeted their makeup filled selfies (myself included: below) and discussed how their looks are not linked to their intelligence. So, why are those same people bashing Kylie Jenner for everything she does? I understand that the wording of the original tweet that started this post wasn’t great ‘What are you doing with your life?’ is not a useful or fair quip, but the responses demonstrate that people are not just against what the New York Daily News started, they’re calling Kylie out for simply doing what she wants to. They’re being unfair and condescending to Kylie’s intelligence just as the Benefit Cosmetics campaign was condescending to women and girls that chose to wear makeup.
This constant bashing of media stars like the Kardashians and Kylie and Kendall Jenner isn’t cool. They are a family of strong and powerful women, and they have created an entire empire based on one family member’s sexual encounter with a guy I’m betting you’ve only heard of in conjunction with Kim Kardashian. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of the Kardashians or Jenner and her sister – I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I don’t follow any of them on social media, and I care very little about what they do or say. In fact, sometimes the things that they do and say actively annoy me; I’ve previously written about how Kendall Jenner’s pushing of so-called detox teas is shite, the whole Kardashian crowd have been known to advertise vitamin gummy bears, and recently Kim Kardashian advertised the use of ‘appetite suppressant’ lollipops. None of those things are good, and the fact they regularly pedal poor science is damaging, but the backlash against the Kylie Jenner tweet wasn’t about that – scientists and PhD students were using it as a way to show their moral superiority. In the process, I argue that they lost any moral high ground they may have had.
So, instead of calling Kylie out for how she makes money, I think that there are things that scientists and researchers can and should learn from her and the rest of the Kardashian family; their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape 10 years ago, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.
Using the media to your advantage is something that, in general, I don’t think scientists are very good at. Talking as a scientist, I think we’re too close to our research, too precious about the way that details are reported, and I think we find it difficult to let go of the fact that the public do not need (and often don’t want) to know every minute detail about what we do – often, they want a story, some emotion, and an outline of what we do that they can understand and repeat to their mates. I don’t say that in a belittling way; when I go to science engagement events that’s exactly what I want – I don’t care about how many chemicals you used or how the powder you used had to be weighed in a special container, I want to know what that should mean to me, and how your work could impact on my life.
The Kardashians and Jenners show us how to turn any situation into an opportunity, they demonstrate how women should be confident and proud of their bodies, they teach us about feminity and gender by taking ownership of their sexuality, and perhaps most importantly they are marketing magicians. Science needs more of that.
To close on a lighter note. Some responses to the Kylie Jenner tweet were brilliant, this was a personal highlight: