Commentary: Go ahead, take Kim Kardashian seriously as a criminal justice activist. It's OK.
Reality magician Kim Kardashian West has a trick up her sleeve. The woman who has the entire world, whether it cares to admit it or not, on the edge of her tweets is going to snap her perfectly manicured fingers and make unfair prison sentences disappear. Seriously, just watch her work.
If you're skeptical then perhaps you're not paying attention. The phrase "star power" was practically invented for the 37-year-old mogul who shot to fame with the rest of her all-American family on the E! juggernaut "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." With the help of her momager™, Kris, Kardashian West spun a tangential connection with O.J. Simpson (and Paris Hilton) and a sex tape with a B-list boyfriend into gold. Like real gold. The woman is worth $350 million.
She's got 205 million followers across her social media platforms, all of which she uses to sell stuff to the masses. The good life. Good contouring. Smell goods. And now good policy. Because like Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Kardashian West is bottling her influence, shaking the can and exploding onto the political scene.
First came 63-year-old great-grandma Alice Marie Johnson, whose story (sentenced to life in prison on drug possession and money laundering charges) Kardashian West learned about on, of course, Twitter. After connecting with White House hall monitors Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, Kardashian West got a pass to the Oval Office and persuaded President Donald Trump to free Johnson.
"It started with Ms. Alice, but looking at her and seeing the faces and learning the stories of the men and women I've met inside prisons I knew I couldn't stop at just one. It's time for REAL systemic change," she tweeted on Sept. 5, after her second White House meeting. Her next crusade will be the case of Chris Young, 30, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for drug offenses under the federal three-strikes law. This isn't a one-off for Kardashian West, and that ticks people off.
"Please explain to the choir what you know about jails or the system. ... Thanks but no thanks, we not buying it," wrote one Twitter user in response to Kardashian West. The takedown was liked nearly 800 times.
According to Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of the book "Showbiz Politics," celebrity activism is always a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition. "That has been a historical criticism that is not new to Kim Kardashian," Brownell explains. We love it and hate it. We call it out and crave it.
But here's the thing: Celebrities actually do produce results. The best outcomes are when they get involved in "issue-based" politics, says Brownell, commandeering the lights and cameras (and Twitter followers) that typically trail in their glittery wake. There are no shortage of examples: Taylor on AIDS, Harry Belafonte on civil rights, Angelina Jolie on refugees. By redirecting their fans' emotional attachment toward an issue, celebrities have "changed the conversation," Brownell notes.
It's not about the policy details (ask Kanye); leave that stuff to politicians. It's about building on psychological capital. It's an instance where style over substance is actually a good thing.
It could also be a sign of the times, explains Mark Harvey, author of "Celebrity Influence." "On balance people find celebrities to be more credible than politicians," he says. "We can make fun of Kim Kardashian, but, look, she's not Trump and she's not Nancy Pelosi and she's able to get something done."
Stars can sell us performance and politics. And while hating on their power is a popular pastime, paying attention is probably more worthwhile. I mean, a celebrity is in the White House.
This article was written by Helena Andrews-Dyer, a reporter for The Washington Post.