Perry, Kardashian, and Paltrow have all been proponents of a certain kind of women’s empowerment. Kardashian has used her pioneering reality TV show to spearhead successful business ventures and reinvent herself as a criminal justice reformer. Perry’s songs hinted at her LGBTQ allydom, and her 2013 single “Roar” was literally Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem. She wore a “Resist” armband after Donald Trump’s election.
But these supposedly egalitarian values have always nestled uneasily with reality.
After facing multiple backlashes over cultural appropriation, Perry rebranded as a purveyor of “conscious” pop in songs like “Chained to the Rhythm.” She sang about being trapped in “white picket fences” and putting rose-colored glasses on, critiquing societal norms and highlighting the ways people get lost in their own insular worlds.
She punctuated her Instagram post with the hashtag “#doyoubutjustuseyourvoteok,” the kind of old-school political civics lesson Madonna deployed in the ‘90s “Rock the Vote” campaign, as if voting is possible for everyone in an era of massive voter disenfranchisement.
Further, she affirmed right-wing talking points about so-called out-of-control crime playing out in Los Angeles’s landscape. “I am voting for a myriad of reasons (see the news) but in particular because Los Angeles is a hot mess atm,” she wrote in the Instagram post showing that she voted for Caruso.
Like Perry, Kardashian has created an entire empire out of a slippery kind of feminism founded upon the idea of selling her image on her terms and building her own business.
At the same time, social media commenters, fashion designers, and even fellow celebrities have accused Kardashian of appropriating Black and brown style. She’s also faced consistent allegations from former employees that her and her family don’t pay interns and underpay social media workers, and even a labor lawsuit for failing to give household workers breaks. (Kardashian did not respond to allegations from former employees about working conditions at KKW Beauty or the Kardashian family’s apps. Her spokesperson responded to the lawsuit with a statement: “These workers were hired and paid through a third-party vendor … Kim is not party to the agreement made between the vendor and their workers, therefore she is not responsible for how the vendor manages their business.”)
She’s never addressed any of these labor issues thoughtfully on social media. But on a conservative podcast last December, she talked about facing criticism. “I’ve never really been into cancel culture,” she said. “I really do believe … in … freedom of speech.” Kardashian also defended her ex-husband Kanye West by referencing free speech: “I thought, ‘Why should [Kanye] take [his MAGA hat] off if that’s what he believes in?” Kardashian said. “Why can’t he wear that on TV? Half of the country voted for [Trump] so clearly other people like him also.” As if everyone has equal access to corporate media platforms.
At the same time, Kardashian has been folding a new element into her political persona: a purported investment in criminal justice reform and fighting the criminalization of people of color. It’s personal, she’s claimed, because she’s raising “mixed kids.”
Yet like many elites, she appears to see the crisis of mass incarceration and her philanthropic work as somehow separate from the “scary crime” in her own city. In her Caruso endorsement video, Kardashian rehashed the right-wing crime wave talking points Perry did, proclaiming: “I think that he can help with crime in our city, which is such a big issue and super scary.”
Kardashian and Perry’s endorsements are notable in part because they appear out of step with the ways millennials are often presented in the media — as an increasingly politicized generation, especially over labor issues.
Paltrow is a little different, as a Gen X Hollywood kid who has long seemed above selling relatability. She’s always been Oscar-winning Hollywood royalty who at best represented a free-to-be-you-and-me ethos that scans as liberal, like the therapy speak of her infamous “conscious uncoupling” divorce statement; her lifestyle brand Goop’s gift guide routinely includes five- and six-figure luxury items.
She’s transitioned out of acting — a career that required masses of people to buy into her image. Even so, Goop has often sold a second wave–flavored celebration of women communing with their bodies. For instance, Goop featured a fake “luxury disposable diaper” to call attention to the so-called diaper tax, or the way diapers are taxed as luxury goods. (This made her a favorite right-wing symbol of tax hypocrisy after Goop made a list of “delinquent taxpayers.”)
People have accused Goop of relying on selling orientalism to white women. And like Kardashian, Paltrow’s labor politics boil down to: Privileged people have it harder. Even then, her Caruso statement — “’We need Rick desperately to get our streets cleaned up and functioning” — legitimized right-wing narratives about rising crime and deterioration. (There is also a Goop store at a resort owned by Caruso.)