When I was in college, I was accepted into a fellowship to work in a nonprofit in Washington, DC. Fellows were each given a per diem stipend (all upfront in order to simplify the exchange of money) to live on while we worked for the summer. I remember cashing that $2,000 check like it was yesterday. I laid the money out on my kitchen counter. It was more money than I had ever seen in my life (still true). But it was also finite. And so I began to figure out how I needed to spend it.
More on that later.
I recently had a conversation with some girlfriends of mine in which one of them asked if she could make a confession.
"Duh," the others of us replied.
"I started watching Keeping up with the Kardashians again. I can't stop. It sucked me back in!"
Man, haven't we all been there?
But this particular conversation was different. Her admission spurred us on to talk about something a little deeper: the attention we have to give, and where we direct it.
I started thinking about our current political climate.
Remember back in June of last year when Donald Trump's candidacy was widely viewed as more of a hilarious joke than a serious prospect?
Not that he wasn't actually running - he was, of course - but most people, political pundits included, viewed his hat in the ring as a clown wig rather than, oh, I don't know...a more presidential and serious hat. (A bowler? A powdered wig? You get the point.)
At the time, he was the 12th candidate to announce his candidacy in the Republican party. Most folks seemed really curious about the prospect of getting to watch this guy run for President because his presence in the election cycle would almost guarantee that it became more entertaining. I'd count myself in that group.
We as a nation were glued to coverage about this man - whether it was because we hated it or because we loved it, we couldn't stop watching. For some people, everything out of his mouth was a breath of fresh air (can't believe this is true? See: The Fact That He Actually Became Republican Candidate For President); for others of us, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. We couldn't look away.
Remember when Kim Kardashian was just a woman who made a sex tape that one time?
Not that she isn't a good person at heart - she probably is, of course - but that was how she rose to stardom. The first season of Keeping up with the Kardashians aired in 2007 and it has since earned its title as the "longest running reality show on television" with its twelfth season airing this year.
Sure, there was some fascination with that family before 2007 (for more on that, watch or read any of the dozens of shows or articles that have been created this year about OJ Simpson), but today, it's different. When Robert Kardashian passed away in 2003, he left his family a "rumored 100 million dollar estate in trust." They certainly didn't start out below the poverty line, but Kim has leveraged her fame - from a sex tape - to a net worth of 51 million by some accounts and 149 million by others.
Either way, the bottom line is that the Kardashians (particularly Kim) have monetized themselves into an empire. Originally "famous for being famous," they now have fragrances, clothing lines, makeup, coffee table books full of hundreds of selfies, and iPhone apps. Sure, they're still famous for being famous originally, but now they have products. And those products are as popular as the last slice of pizza backstage at a pageant (that is to say, very). Kim Kardashian is easily one of the most recognizable women in the world.
Because of us.
For networks and publications, featuring the Kardashians is a goldmine. Celebrity bloggers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez said in a podcast recently in response to Kendall Jenner's Vogue cover: "I wish the Kardashian family were not as successful at their jobs as they are, but they are. We are a small, privately owned media company and we can tell you that a Kardashian post will get eyeballs."
Here comes a confession of my own: I tend to read more about celebrities that I can't stand than I do about celebrities that I love. Why? Morbid curiosity. Fueling the fire of my total and irrational disdain for people I've never met. And also, and maybe most importantly, falling right into the trap these media outlets set for me: it doesn't matter if I love the Kardashians or love to hate them - what matters is that I am clicking.
And because I am clicking, or following them on Instagram, or Twitter, or hate-watching their show, I am essentially handing that family cash while also sending a strong message to mainstream media outlets: "I want to keep up with the Kardashians. I care about this. In my free time, I want to learn more about this family." Even if that couldn't be further from the truth.
So I made some changes.
I unfollowed the Kardashians on all forms of social media. While I originally followed them to see what kind of crazy hijinks those sisters got themselves into, I unfollowed them because it finally occurred to me that I'm another number in a sea of Kardashian-reinforcement. Another follower stoking the fires of things I don't actually believe in. A spectator. Kim Kardashian went from the star of a gritty sex tape to covering the most prestigious and exclusive fashion magazine on Earth because of people like me.
I can already hear the pushback, and listen, I get it. I watch The Bachelor and Real Housewives of New York City like I'm paid (anyone? anyone??) to do so. My conscience is far from clean. But this was my first step.
Because I realized: attention, just like time or money, is finite. You only have so much that you can give in a day.
I get that this sounds a little preach-y, but understand that I am the worst culprit of this kind of "attention-spending." There's a reason the pronoun in the title of this post is "us," not "you." We may have really different taste. You may love Donald Trump. You may adore the Kardashians. You may hate both me and the Real Housewives. As my husband says, "All those Housewives do is scream at each other." I get it. I hear ya.
This isn't about passing a value judgment on Trump or Kim K - it is about how many of us are baffled at how they rose to superstardom, especially if we don't care for them so much. But we shouldn't be confused. We did it.
Whatever your tastes, the point still stands: with every click, every DVR, with every "follow" or "like," we are casting our vote and literally paying our attention. We are saying, "We want more of this."
SO. You lay all your attention on the kitchen counter. You see that there is only so much.
How do you spend it?