Columns, Opinion

DRULIAS: Nobility in the 21st century

A few nights ago, I was reading at a friend’s house. The book, “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton, detailed the shallow and materialistic lives of the social elite during the Gilded Age. While I was reading, my friends turned on the latest episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and as I sat there half watching and half reading, the lines between the book and reality television began to blur. I started to get the characters between the two mediums mixed up. It was then that I realized a somewhat disturbing aspect of why the show appeals to viewers.

Before going any further, I want to dispel any misconception that you may have: the “nobility” as a social class still exists. There are still actual noble families in some countries — the most obvious example being the royal family of the United Kingdom — but that isn’t what I’m talking about. I am referring to the Vanderbilt kind of nobility: people so rich and famous they might as well be royalty. The robber barons, the fat cats, the individuals so powerful they are actually considered above the vast majority of people. That kind of nobility — and the rampant inequality that accompanies it — has existed since the dawn of society, and it still exists today.

It’s easy to think we are much more progressive and sophisticated than people living in other times. We’re not. However, with growing awareness for the income gap and for the concentration of wealth among the top one percent — especially from the concern of political advocates such as Bernie Sanders — many people have started labeling the early 21st century as the “Second Gilded Age,” a term that isn’t entirely inaccurate.

The Gilded Age was defined by an elite society who enjoyed a materialistic lifestyle and a concentration of the wealth at the expense of the working class and poor. As always, there was an obsession with the lives of the upper class by the working class; they were the celebrities of the time. The interest in their lives stemmed from an escape from the horrors of abject poverty or the boring mediocrity of being in the middle class.

So why does this matter? People without money and power have always fantasized about being princes or princesses, dukes or duchesses. That sentiment is at the root of classic rags-to-riches fairy tales from “Cinderella” and “Aladdin” to “Great Expectations” and “The Prince and the Pauper.” But what makes the modern version of these fairy tales so insidious is the illusion of participation by the middle class.

Shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” allow people who are not rich and famous to have a taste of the lifestyle that goes along with being the social elite. When you turn on the show, it isn’t out of sheer interest in the lives of the Jenners and the Kardashians — part of the appeal lies in the illusion of hanging out with them. The show provides an imaginary world in which the audience can slip into the place of the cameraman — be it at the dinner table, in the hot tub or out shopping with the celebrities.

It is somewhat depressing how the same people who supposedly live luxuriously at the expense of the working class are also the ones they idolize. Not only can you dress like Kim Kardashian by buying clothing from the Kardashian Kollection, but you can also buy the Kardashian Beauty makeup collection, all while watching their reality television show, for the ultimate experience of what their lives are like. And you better believe the Kardashians are making money hand-over-fist from this.

I’m not attacking the Kardashians — they’re obviously brilliant women with a talent for marketing. Who wouldn’t respect them for becoming some of the richest women in America? The problem instead lies in the self-degradation of the working class by buying into the idea that somehow celebrities are anything more than human and that they’re better than everyone else.

Treat them with respect, but do not put them on a pedestal — they’re not royalty, and you don’t need to live off of the details of their lives as if their level is divine. Instead, be inspired by them, do what you love and strive for the level of success that they have achieved without needing validation from society in order to feel happy.

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