In defense of Rob Kardashian, and turning your back on the family business.
Image from David Shankbone via Wikimedia
By Jessica Machado
I’ve always had to be defensive about my Kardashian watching. I’ve called Keeping Up With the Kardashians a portrait of the modern Valley Girl as paparazzi muse; a study of the collision of beauty, earning, and familial hierarchies; a marvel in its ability to spin a single sex tape into eight careers, nine seasons, dozens of ventures, hundreds of magazine spreads, and a $200-million-plus empire. And then, sometimes, I just enjoy mindlessly staring at attractive people in expensive clothes. But these days, I’m finding very little redeeming about America’s reality-TV dynasty. All I have left is Rob.
Often, Rob’s frustration with who he’s supposed to be, or who producers want him to be, is the only real document this show has to offer.
I know most, if they are sympathetic to a Kardashian, will choose Khloe, but I’m rooting for Rob. The outcast. The underachiever. The defeated baby brother in a family of overbearing, successful women. By now, seven years into celebrity, nearly all of the Kardashians have honed their characters to the point of parody: there’s momager Kris, the inappropriate, me-me-me wannabe sister and BFF; Kim, the hot, shallow mean girl; Kourtney, the dead-in-the-face-but-can-get-goofy sister; and Khloe, everyone’s gal-pal confidant, who’ll call them out on their bullshit. Even fellow supporting and submissive men Scott and Bruce own the personalities that producers have carved out for them: profligate man-child eager to be taught a lesson, hectored (now ex-)husband vexed by the gals’ antics. Rob, on the other hand, continues to struggle, cast as the one who is lost, the one who can’t get his shit together. And oftentimes, his frustration with who he’s supposed to be, or who producers want him to be, is the only real document this show has to offer. His battle against his powerlessness makes a compelling reality for television.
In season one, Rob was the quintessential rich younger-brother bro: handsome with upper-lip fuzz, diamond studs jutting from his closely shaved head, and all of twenty years old. But he quickly went from the guy who was like, “Cool, my family is now famous; I can score chicks!” to the guy who had to figure out how he was going to make money within the parameters of the new family enterprise: the transformation of fame into cash. When I was twenty, my proudest accomplishment was discovering where to score beer after midnight; the last thing I was concerned with was how I would brand myself, or how my family could profit from me. Rob wasn’t too ambitious about it either (or perhaps his mom and producers weren’t) and didn’t think big, like a line of soft drinks or shoes. He decided to design, like, socks? His sock-designing venture, however, was only a setup so his mom and older sisters could meddle. We watch Kris nag him about business meetings and his sisters sit him down about getting serious and moving forward with his plans to make his own way. Over the course of several seasons, these confrontations escalate. But unlike his sisters, who quickly adapted to the camera and ham it up, Rob is a wiggler. He does what any normal person would do when a film crew surrounds him at the breakfast table: he shifts uncomfortably; he runs his fingers through his hair. He shows his cracks, offering some of the most human moments on the show. In return, his sisters only come across as more practiced and phony, and it’s no wonder he looks pained to be sitting among them. But he takes it anyway. Because he’s the baby. Because he thinks he’s supposed to.
Rob’s is the only sadness on the show that isn’t channeled into a plotline; it just exists.
These days, of course, there is the issue of Rob’s weight. The Seventy-Five Pounds Rob Cannot Lose has been his primary storyline for several seasons. There are the trips to the doctor, missed appointments with Kim’s trainer, the shaming of his eating an entire burger, and the nonstop mentions by all family members of how much weight he is gaining (first forty, then fifty, now seventy-five pounds), and how embarrassed he is (or they are?) over those increments. And with this, Rob has reached his limit for being cornered on camera. By season eight, he shows up less and less for family events, aka camera time, so his mom, a smiling crow who always makes it about her (“Why aren’t I a good enough mother to help him?”) does something seemingly helpful for once and tries to talk about what’s at the heart of his problem, not just his heft. She ambushes him in Khloe’s home, where he’s been living, and says, “I am your mom, and I just can’t let you spend a lot of time in that room.” Rob fidgets with a water bottle, his eyes darting away from her hot-pink skirt suit. “That is a sign, to me, of somebody who is not extremely happy, and maybe a little bit depressed,” she continues. “I’m good,” he tells her. “I don’t need to see anybody.” Kris pulls out a tissue to dab her eyes. “I don’t want you to sit up there in your room and be, you know, dark,” she pleads. “I can’t just let you hide out in your room.” The screen fades to credits as Kris continues to wipe her tears. Next week we will learn of Kris’s bladder-control issues and why Khloe toilet-papered Kim’s house.
But I want to know more about Rob’s sadness. Though the other characters on the show experience losses and hardships of a sort, their responses are dramatic, appropriate for television: go through a breakup and party too much, be hurt by your parents’ divorce and run off to a Thai beach. Rob’s is the only sadness on the show that isn’t channeled into a plotline; it just exists. Once the cameramen captured Kris’s tears and packed up for the afternoon, did Rob need to go back to his room—or does a normal amount of privacy solve the problem? Did Kris press on to see what his darkness could actually be about? What could really be going on here, Kris?
Being the younger brother is a bum deal. I am the eldest in my family of three children and I have a younger brother who, in self-help speak, is not living up to his full potential. Off the top of my head, I can count seven girlfriends who are also the eldest in their families and who also have younger brothers who struggle to get it together. They live at home, have uncertain career paths, can barely hold a job. All of them seem very, very depressed. Does being in the shadow of an overachieving oldest child, a female one in an America where men have always taken for granted that they would dominate, make our little bros destined to see themselves as failures? For sadness? I don’t know. But we are still a society where men aren’t encouraged to discuss their depression, let alone do something about it. We can finger addiction—whether it’s food or alcohol or drugs—but not point to its correlation with anxiety or depression. We, the children of Boomers, are still a product of a generation that believed therapy was for weaklings and depression was a luxury for people who had too much time to dwell on their problems.
Kim, the Kardashian centerpiece, is the hardest on Rob. She looks smug and annoyed whenever Rob doesn’t show up for an event and equates her impatience with him to taking a sensible “tough love” approach. Midway through the past season, while the K-clan was on a vacation that Rob had bailed on, she said plainly, “We’ve all been here to offer him help, and he won’t take it, so I don’t have sympathy.” While I understand her frustration, I am not a stranger to depression and have never said anything so harsh about my brother. I am more of an empathizer, like Khloe (“Kim doesn’t have sympathy because she has never lived with somebody like that. She doesn’t understand it”), and will repeatedly tell my brother that all I want is for him to be happy. “You don’t have to feel this miserable. You can feel better,” I say. All of it easier said than done. My parents have a family business too (a much more modest one—a farm), and they try to help him by giving him work, but when he doesn’t show up because he’s depressed, because of other reasons, it sets up the whole disappointment dynamic again. I ask my brother, a voracious reader and talented musician, “Do you really want to do this, work on a farm?” He says, “It’s not bad. I need to do something.” This is true, but I’m not sure he’s being honest with himself. I can’t make him seek the tools to be honest with himself.
I’m not sure if Rob ever wanted to be famous. Or if he was ever given the chance to figure out what he would be if he weren’t. He certainly didn’t understand what fame at age twenty via his sister would entail. He couldn’t have: the brand and level of that fame made it one of the first of its kind.
He stays out of the camera frame. It’s the easiest way to seize any kind of control.
For instance, the other great emotional turmoil in the past few seasons—the demise of Khloe and Lamar’s marriage—is handled much differently than Rob’s struggles. Partly because of the difference in the siblings’ demeanor: Khloe still participates in the family vacations without Lamar, jokes with her kid sisters, and schemes to hijack the family camper to go alien hunting. She may turn awkward when she gets on the phone with her then-husband, but she shows up every day for filming, which is to say for work, because her way is to take control of the situation. And it is clear she has control—definitely more power over her story arc than Rob does. She doesn’t discuss what she doesn’t want to, especially when her relationship problems first come to light, and her family doesn’t ride her about getting on with her life until she decides she wants to reveal her secrets to America. Rob did not get this same deal. So he has learned to run. He stays out of the camera frame. It’s the easiest way to seize any kind of control.
I understand the desire to cling to control, especially when life can seem otherwise unwieldy. I divulge little to my family when I am down, but I still put on the smiles and let out the hearty laughs because that’s my role, or at least how I see my role—jovial, warm, entrusted. (A Khloe, not a Rob.) It’s funny how when we are around the people who are supposed to know us best, be the most accepting, we feel we have to put on a show—act the star or the schlub or the matriarch that we’ve always been told we were. In the throes of our families and their expectations, it’s hardest just to be. Even if the camera isn’t rolling.
So imagine if your dramas and trivializations were shaped and packaged into forty-two-minute episodes, because your mom and your sisters signed you up for all this seven years ago, when you were still in college. In an episode that ran in March, in a moment that Rob seemed to think would be private—he at a doctor’s office with his mom to get some of his tattoos removed to represent “a whole new beginning”—Kim shows up, dozens and dozens of paparazzi flashes in tow. She knocks on the door to the office. “It’s me,” Kim says. They crack the door open for her, and we hear Rob mumble, “I don’t want to film with my shirt off.” They shut the door to the camera crew, but the audio is still on. “What’s wrong, Rob?” Kris prods. “I’m sad,” he says, whimpering. “I don’t even want to sit down because of how fat I am.” It’s a heart-sinking moment, a naked instance of Rob’s shame—with himself, with what he believes people are judging every week when they watch the show or when they see a photo of him in In Touch.
Or is it? Just seconds before that, Kris says Rob has been drugged up for the tattoo removal. He’s vulnerable not just because he’s exposed his self-esteem, but because producers have milked his shitty feelings about himself in a moment when he’s not in his right state of mind.
Then there is also that scene in Khloe’s kitchen, when Kris is crying and talking to Rob about his darkness. The first time I watched it, I thought, “Here is about as direct as Kris has ever been in a way that matters.” But when I watched it again, I noticed the camera pan over to Rob and he’s snickering. He is thirty degrees away from a full-on eye roll. Sure, all of this could just easily be read as his denial of his “health” problems. But when he says to his mother, capable of giving a Telenovela actress a run for melodrama, “Stop. I know what you are doing,” I stopped for a moment and remembered: what she is doing is running an empire, and selling a really profitable show.
When I read that he flew home right before Kim’s wedding, an actual “yes!” escaped from my lips.
I’m not saying Rob’s unhappiness isn’t real or that it isn’t correlated with addiction or body issues—because it surely is—or that it’s even a surprise that it’s exploited by a family whose business is exploitation. But his sadness is something to be explored beyond a mere mention of the loss of his dad or the only other solid male figure in his life, Lamar, or what can easily be written into a script treatment as “weight issues” or “business failure.” As a matter of fact, the sock line is a real thing, in stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, and has been since 2012. But the way it’s talked about on the show, it’s as though it still hasn’t gotten off the ground, like it’s a running joke with a deed to an empty warehouse space. It should also be noted that he called it Arthur George (a combination of his and his father’s middle names), not Kardashian FeetKloths. His business bears not a single “K,” or a nod to his family’s name.
There is also something to be said about Rob getting more press for distancing himself from his family than for his size lately. When I read that he flew home right before Kim’s wedding, an actual “yes!” escaped from my lips. It saddens me that he feels such great shame about his body, but it made me happy that he said no to the people who only seem to make those insecurities worse. Sometimes I wish my brother would just tell my family and I to fuck off after he makes the effort to face our scrutiny only for us to fall into our old habits of teasing him for his weird pants or his unpaid cell bill, because a reaction would at least mean he has taken a bit of control and is asserting himself. Some might see Rob’s running from the cameras as cowardice, but to me, it was the boldest move anyone has ever made in that family—snubbing the sun and the moon in the Kardashian galaxy at Kim’s crowning moment. He didn’t just suffer through the photo op because his family expected him to, like he usually does. He walked away from what has made him question his value: an entire empire based on keeping up with appearances.
I hope he continues to step out of the spotlight, out from under his family’s thumb, and into a skin that makes him comfortable. I hope he gets healthy. I hope he gets happy. I hope that this is all not a long lead-up for him to plug his own brand of diet pills in the coming season. Stay strong, Rob. Stay the realest.
Jessica Machado is an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, Bitch, xoJane, The Hairpin, The Toast, The Frisky, The Awl, and The Rumpus, among others. She is also featured in the recent essay collection Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship With Shopping, out now from Seal Press. Follow her on Twitter.