Kim Kardashian: Hollywood Feminism Shira Chess

1 1
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
Shira Chess
Abstract: Kim Kardashian has received much attention for her media empire, including her game, published by Glu Mobile. The game’s premise plays a role in what
Shira Chess characterizes as “Feminine Play Style,” an emerging mode of video
games that functions through assumptions about an idealized vision of the woman
player and her relationship with leisure time.
Feminism is a messy topic for video games. Video games were long seen as a kind
of “boys’ club” wherein men and boys defined the industry. From the late 1980s
through the 1990s, video games were primarily made by men for masculine audiences. In turn, early feminist critiques of video games have long focused on the
problematic representations of female bodies, such as Lara Croft from the Tomb
Raider series (1996–present) and other characters primarily made for a presumed
male gaze.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, audiences began to shift slightly.
Research demonstrated that girls who played video games were more likely to be
interested in science, technology, engineering, and medical careers, fostering an
increased interest in player politics.1
Video game companies began to market to
girls, some as a feminist response to the industry and others commodifying a demographic. Eventually, by the mid-2000s, game marketing and design also began
to target adult females. These games were often shorthanded as the “casual games
market.” Casual games (such as Diner Dash [Gamelab, 2004]), hidden object
games, and cell phone puzzle games) are cheap or free, easy to learn, and minimalist in narrative. They also easily fit into busy schedules by being playable for
either shorter or longer periods, depending on the needs of the player.
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94 Shira Chess
Technological changes made video games rapidly available to more diverse
audiences. Around 2006, Nintendo was highly invested in marketing to women
audiences via its portable Nintendo DS system and Wii gaming console. Equally
important, the rise and popularity of smartphones made gaming more accessible and ubiquitous to a variety of people—many of them adult women. In this
way, video games as a feminist topic have rapidly shifted from only conversations
about “hard-core” games that are not necessarily intended for women to an equal
amount of research on the steady influx of games that are intentionally made for
feminine audiences. These games have a necessarily messy relationship to feminism: they are often essentializing yet liberating, condescending yet intoxicating.
It is within this context that we can consider the wonderful, terrible, fascinating, glorious, and troubling world of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (Glu Mobile,
2014). Certainly, both scholars and media commentators have remarked on the
game’s namesake, who, in a variety of ways, has maintained a stronghold on popular culture for the last decade. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (KK:H) appeared in a
cascading wake of Kardashian-centric media and products. The Kardashian family
has brought to market multiple television shows, makeup lines, perfumes, books,
music, and clothing. Yet, in many ways, KK:H is unique. Created by Glu Mobile (as
a re-skin of an older title, Stardom: The A-List [Blammo Games, 2011]), the game
gives agency to the player, allowing her to sample, taste, and dabble in the unfathomable world of the rich and famous.
The sheer popularity of KK:H tells us the game is worth examination. The game
brought in more than US$200 million in its first year, and the stock of Glu Mobile
rapidly rose 42 percent in value.2
As a game, KK:H was both commercially popular and widely discussed. But is the game feminist?
Asking if a video game is feminist can be a bit like asking if a television set
is capitalist. The television set may be made by individuals that align (or do not
align) themselves with capitalist ideals, it may be inhabited by programming that
promotes (or does not promote) capitalism, and it may be read in a variety of polysemic ways that allow the viewer to reinforce (or not reinforce) their own beliefs
vis-à-vis capitalism. The television set, however, is not itself for or against capitalism; it is a technology that can be imbued with a variety of beliefs. In other words,
a variety of market conditions, institutional structures, and individual beliefs all
simultaneously influence the outcome of a game. Thus, analyzing a video game in
terms of its relationship to feminism is about reading underlying textual and industry cues to understand the game’s different possible messages (both intentional and
unintentional). At the same time, unpacking a game’s relationship to feminism—
particularly a game that is so readily marketed toward women audiences—is worth
pursuing. By asking the question about the game’s relationship to feminism, we can
How to Play Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann, and Matthew Thomas Payne, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-03-26 09:56:47. Copyright © 2019. New York University Press. All rights reserved.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood 95
better understand the nuanced market conditions, social structures, and ideologies
from which the game emerged.
Much of the trickiness of considering KK:H as feminist is in its relationship to
“intersectionality.” Intersectionality is a concept in feminist theory that acknowledges that gender oppression occurs neither in a vacuum nor equally across
other modes of oppression. Intersectional feminism works to acknowledge that
in addition to gender, other factors such as race, ethnicity, social class, disability, sexuality, and age create overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination. Intersectional feminism is meant to rethink the inherent whiteness of earlier
feminist theories and find ways to talk about the range of experiences and modes
of oppression that are experienced on global and local levels. Intersectionality, as
it was originally proposed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the early 1990s,
was a way to push back against the assumptions that all women’s experiences are
equal and follow similar trajectories.3
From an intersectionalist feminist perspective, KK:H is a mass of contradictions. On one hand, the game provides a great deal of agency in terms of player
selections. On the other hand, those choices are limited to experiences of privilege. KK:H allows us to consider how a game object can simultaneously aspire to
some feminist goals while simultaneously ignoring experiences of diversity and
When players first enter the game world of KK:H they have nothing but their
plucky ambition. Before the narrative begins, players are permitted to decide on
sex (limited to male or female and unchangeable once the game begins), a name,
as well as a limited number of options of outward appearance, all later changeable.
To start, the player is placed in a small clothing boutique in Los Angeles. Only
minutes into the game, the player is approached by Kim Kardashian who is having
a “fashion emergency” and desperately needs help. In helping Kim select a dress
for an event, the player is subsequently invited by Kim to join her for a photo
shoot—the first of many. This “in” allows the player to navigate the ins-and-outs of
Hollywood, getting an agent and a publicist, meeting famous people (from other
members of the Kardashian family to famous designers and stylists), and working
one’s way up from the “E-List” to the “A-List.”
In addition to gigs for cash, the player is also given opportunities to date, as well
as engage in personal and relationship “drama” in the game. Sexuality in KK:H is
relatively fluid—while the player is asked early on to declare a sexual preference,
the game world is ambivalent to these choices, and both men and women will flirt.
Dating, however, creates drama, and a relationship that is not well nurtured ends
in dramatic breakups or angry phone calls. Other in-game “drama” comes from
non-player characters that wish to interfere in the player’s climb toward stardom.
How to Play Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann, and Matthew Thomas Payne, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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96 Shira Chess
The gameplay is simultaneously simple and complex. The player moves up in
ranking number (sets of numbers assigned to E-List through A-List). Experience
points are gained via fictional followers on a fake Twitter feed. Followers determine the player’s popularity, which, in turn, determines his or her position within
the world of the game. Followers are gained through a variety of things: successful
“gigs” (fashion shows, photo shoots, appearances), relationship work (nurturing a
successful relationship from courtship through marriage through eventually adopting a child), and throwing parties. Additionally, followers can be gained through
purchasing in-game items such as clothing, accessories, furniture, and pets. Mobility, however, is not only upward; the player can lose followers as well. Neglecting a
relationship and being dumped, as well as doing poorly on a gig, can cause followers
to drop. Players can also lose followers for not playing the game for a while. In other
words, the more you play, the less likely you are to lose fictional fans.
Getting and keeping fans takes money. While gigs pay minimally (even for
an A-lister), other things cost money: the player must pay to take paramours on
dates, purchase homes for hosting parties, and purchase clothing or other in-game
accessories to be declared a fashion icon. Despite the vast wealth of the empire
that the game world is replicating, money is hard to come by. Other than completing gigs, there are really only two ways to acquire in-game cash: through hitting
hidden “hot spots” (a few can be found in each game location) or through purchasing it with real-world money. Hidden hot spots supplying experience points,
cash, and energy are typically understated, snuck under birds, inside of shrubs,
under beer mugs, or at fire hydrants.
Despite the wealth of the game’s namesake, the game replicates poverty far
more than affluence. The constant struggle to get money to ultimately gain fans
puts players in a situation where they are wandering around the streets, grabbing up every dollar bill they can find, and relishing the few hundred they gain
from a modeling gig.4
Players are in a constant struggle to find enough money to
survive in the fast-paced Kardashian world. To “Keep up with the Kardashians”
(so to speak) players must either play all the time or use their own money, thus
ultimately contributing to the Kardashians’ vast real-world media empire.
The relationship with consumerism and consumption puts KK:H in an awkward
position vis-à-vis feminism, in general, and intersectional feminism, in particular.
The game—both in terms of inner narrative and outward mechanics—constantly
suggests the import of consumerism. To be successful, players must constantly
spend in-game money, which ultimately translates to extra-game money. This is
because it is almost impossible to win without supplanting in-game winnings with
real-world money.
The game employs two congruent forms of currency: cash and K-stars. Cash,
represented by dollar bills, is rarely the equivalent of actual monetary values.
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Kim Kardashian: Hollywood 97
For example, a T-shirt might cost several thousand dollars, but a flight to Dubai
might only cost $90. Money and prices seem to be distorted as though reflected
through a fun-house mirror, making them lose meaning and scope. Cash in the
game is both simultaneously necessary and useless in how it maps back to realworld experiences. At the same time, K-stars are a harder-won kind of currency,
not representative of any actual cash value but monetizing the charm of celebrity and the Kardashian family itself. K-stars are used for certain “special” items
(nicer articles of clothing, pets, personal jets, etc.) or else used to “charm” individuals into doing your bidding. The two competing forms of currency help to
establish that in the real world, there is money and then there is the money of
wealthy people. The latter gives access to things that might be otherwise unattainable. The currency systems of KK:H are simultaneously unrealistic and spookily
There is an underlying conceit to KK:H that this kind of game—ultimately
a shopping and beauty game—is what women and girls want out of their play.
One does not have to look far online or in app stores to find shopping and beauty
games marketed heavily to feminine demographics. This, of course, is unsurprising. There is a long history of marketing beauty, fashion, and consumerism to
women and girl audiences, suggesting that members of this audience always want
to “improve” their appearance and that the proper mode of this improvement is
necessarily through acts of consumption. These presumptive links between women
and consumption become normalized in such a way that we don’t often think
twice about the quandaries of expecting women to purchase their attractiveness
and buy into a culture. KK:H, like other fashion and beauty games, does just this.
Similarly, as researcher Alison Harvey points out, it reifies an inherent devaluation
of feminine labor practices both in the game space and outside of it.5
From an intersectional perspective, the focus on consumption is equally troubling. The points of intersection between gender and class are often difficult to
articulate. Social class is a topic that, while affecting both men and women on a
global level, is often invisible or dismissed. In the United States the Horatio Algers “rags-to-riches” myth has become emblematic of the larger depiction of the
“American Dream.” Like a Cinderella story, there is an implicit suggestion that
those who do not achieve wealth or success attached to the American Dream are
lazy, immoral, or stupid. This, of course, is not only untrue but it is a dangerous
point of view: blaming lower-income people for their lack of success only sets
them up for systemic and institutional oppression.
KK:H is based on the core premises of this Horatio Alger story.6
We play the
role of the “main character” traversing the ladder of fame, fortune, and success.
Although players might experience bumps and falls, they will thrive so long as
they continue to play. In other words, the primary narrative of the game is one
How to Play Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann, and Matthew Thomas Payne, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-03-26 09:56:47. Copyright © 2019. New York University Press. All rights reserved.
98 Shira Chess
that values meritocracy, but that meritocracy occurs with an ease that suggests
the experiences of already privileged lifestyles.
KK:H allows players to experiment with intersectionality in ways other than
class privilege. As already noted, sexuality is fluid; the game lightly supports homosexuality and bisexuality. However, as open as sexualities are in KK:H, they do
not necessarily imply a similar fluidity to gender assignment. Players are bound
to the sex they select at the beginning of the game. Although hairstyles might
give some sense of gender nuance, players’ inability to change body type (curvy
for women, flat and straight for men) implies that one can experiment with sexual preference; however, there are some things that should remain unchanged.7
Bodies are simultaneously fixed and fluid in KK:H. Certain features are infinitely mutable; players can change their hair, faces (noses, eyes, lips, facial structures), skin color, hair color, eye color, makeup, and clothing infinitely. These
changes do not affect gameplay. This setup reflects a larger trend in video game
design, often referred to in the video game industry as “invest/express.” In invest/
express games, players are given a minimal palette and the ability to earn currency to express personal taste into their gaming space. In a game like FarmVille
(Zynga, 2009), this results in a personalized farm, styled to players’ whims but
having no effect on the outcome of play. Similarly, in KK:H, the gameplay and
design attributes seem to occur in tandem—the player spends long periods working gigs and throwing parties to gain enough in-game cash to get cool things. In
other words, consumerism—and the concurrent desire for class mobility—is at
the heart of the invest/express style of KK:H.
Yet, the limitations on bodies in the game are equally telling. The one thing
that the player cannot modify is body type. As noted, the player is only given
two body type options: feminine curves or masculine flatness (see figure 11.1).
Non-player characters (in particular, celebrity characters or those that are part
of the Kardashian family) are permitted other shapes. For example, Kim’s body
Figure 11.1
The author’s avatar in the game Kim
Kardashian: Hollywood,
a game with a complex relationship to
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Created from uci on 2020-03-26 09:56:47. Copyright © 2019. New York University Press. All rights reserved.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood 99
is more voluptuous than any other character, whereas Kendall Kardashian’s body
is waifish and small. Height cannot be changed, either. The rhetoric seems to be
that you can look like whatever you want so long as you have the correct body.
The inherent contradictions of bodily selection, yet denial of many important
forms of selection supports the messiness in KK:H’s relationship to intersectional
feminism. The feminist implications of selection seem far more poignant in KK:H
as opposed to older-style, single-avatar games such as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.
Yet, even with this fluidity—and even in a game that is clearly, deliberately intended
for a feminine audience—we are still stuck with perfect bodies, ones with curves
yet no cellulite and ones that cannot challenge cultural constructions of beauty.
To a similar extent, we can reassign our skin colors in KK:H, limited to five
choices. The game is ambivalent to this, responding neither to your skin color
nor to your other bodily features. Yet, given the inherent sexism, racism, ageism,
ableism, and classism of Hollywood, it seems almost like an awkward omission
that the upwardly mobile starlet is untouched by these things. The game seems
to suggest that we live in a world that is blind to all the things that are so deeply
rooted in modern entertainment culture.
KK:H is simultaneously both feminist and not feminist. The game’s constraints,
bodies, and the emphasis on consumptive practice illustrate a tenuous relationship
with the lived experiences of players. However, aspects of the game, and the decision to design it for feminine audiences, suggest a push against more traditional
(read: masculine) modes of gaming. Like other games developed for feminine audiences, the results are both essentializing and liberating. In this way, KK:H, as a
feminist text, bears all of the possibilities and all of the problems inherent in massproduced media.
1 Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1998).
2 Caitlin McCabe, “Hit Kardashian Video Game Lifts Glu Mobile From E-List,” Bloomberg
Tech, July 10, 2014,
3 Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics,
and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241–1299.
4 Players can also get cash from daily “bonuses,” although the results of these contests are
inconsistent and only occasionally is cash awarded.
5 Alison Harvey, “The Fame Game: Working Your Way Up the Celebrity Ladder in Kim
Kardashian: Hollywood,” Games & Culture, published ahead of print February 21, 2018,
6 Shira Chess and Jessica Maddox, “Kim Kardashian is My New BFF: Video Games and the
Looking Glass Celebrity,” Popular Communication 16 (2018): 196–210.
How to Play Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann, and Matthew Thomas Payne, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-03-26 09:56:47. Copyright © 2019. New York University Press. All rights reserved.
100 Shira Chess
7 This seems notable because soon after the game’s release, Kardashian family member
Bruce Jenner, after a sexual reassignment, went public as Caitlyn Jenner. Given the family awareness of transgender identity, it is noteworthy that characters must always remain
Further Reading
Chess, Shira. Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Harvey, Alison. Gender, Age, and Digital Games in the Domestic Context. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
How to Play Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann, and Matthew Thomas Payne, New York University Press, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,
Created from uci on 2020-03-26 09:56:47. Copyright © 2019. New York University Press. All rights reserved.

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