With TikTok’s Kardashian Kolloquium, Class Is In Session
Kardashian Kolloquium spoofs academia, the Kardashians, and the world for not taking them seriously.
MJ Corey keeps up with the Kardashians. But not in the way most people do, which entails mindlessly scrolling through photos of the family on Instagram feeds or stockpiling Skims. Corey created Kardashian Kolloquium, an Instagram, TikTok and more recently, YouTube account, where she helps demystify the Kardashians through an academic lens, using concepts from media theory to empower people to consume them, and media as a whole, more critically.
Corey and her sister, Marie, started Kardashian Kolloquium in 2018 as a meme account to spoof academic journals, where they mostly made memes. It’s since shifted to a kind of educational community, almost like a college course, where people unpack the motivations behind the Kardashians’ social media and public moves, theorize their next moves and where Corey examines it all through the work of media theorists like Jean Baudrillard and John Berger. Corey makes videos like a 7-part series unpacking Kim’s SNL performance, or more educationally-bent videos like, “The Kardashians and Hyperreality: An Explanation,” or “How STABLE is the Kardashian Concept of Reality?” as well as “Resources for Learning About the Historical Underpinnings of Kim Kardashian’s Appropriation.”
“I like to think it’s spoofing academia, spoofing the Kardashians, spoofing all of us for not taking them seriously,” Corey says of Kardashian Kolloquium. “I’d rather let people in on the information and the journey and the way of thinking about stuff that says, ‘I’m showing you guys as I’m learning too,’ and this information is fun and this knowledge is fun.”
Because whether society wants to admit it or not, the Kardashians are in so many ways the apex of everything that is pop culture right now. “They capture racial, gender, sexuality, these American anxieties,” Corey told NYLON over the phone.
Corey now has more than 128,000 followers across Instagram, TikTok and, more recently, YouTube, and has started to explore her work through other mediums, including a video essay on how the Kardashians are like the city of Las Vegas, where she talks to people on the street and academics. In mid-November she and her sister are premiering a talk show on YouTube called Between Two Salads, where they’ll interview big names in social media as well as people on the street. “It’s really just processing the weirdness of the moment we're in with these internet icons,” Corey says.
NYLON talked to Corey about everything Kardashian, from the dismissal she gets from people who think she’s giving the family too much attention, to whether or not she’d ever get a PhD, to TikTokers’ favorite theories.
Can you tell me a little bit about you and how you started Kardashian Kolloquium?
I’m a psychotherapist by day. I got into the Kardashians in 2018. I was late. I was aware of them from their media presence. I was intrigued by the Kim and Kanye thing; I liked it. I was a Kanye fan at the time and when he got with Kim, I thought that’s kind of funny and makes sense in a strange way, but it never compelled me to watch the show because I had a bias about reality television, like it was junk food for the brain, like I don’t want to waste my time. I never had the shaming thing or the threatened feeling by the Kardashians; I just wasn’t interested in the medium of reality TV.
Then a roommate and old friend put it on one night saying, “I feel like watching luxury,” and she turned on the show. I just watched it to be with her and I was really blown away by the Rob and Kim Kardashian fight about how she was being a diva at the Bora Bora resorts, and their fight had felt more real than I expected, but it still had this feeling of genuine sibling love, hate, angst in this framework of a medium that did feel very staged. The Kardashians clearly were good at manipulating that medium and constructing it and owning it. So I was like, wow is this real? Is this staged?
I was really into that space and the uncanny feeling it gave me. It just intrigued me as an Aquarius, I think. I felt like I had that same junk food bias or whatever, but I do believe that the Kardashians have put out a certain kind of meticulous structure of television and reality television, so I do think they are a good prism to study the medium because they do it very well. Anyway, it really intrigued me. I told my sister about it; I told her what I liked about it and she was a film studies major and she said, “Oh, you gotta read Jean Baudrillard then.”
What were you setting out to do when you made Kardashian Kolloquium?
When it started, it was a collaboration with my sister. For the moment in time, we thought it would be better to be satirical and make memes. This was in 2018. Memes still are everything, but it felt like that was the way to make an account that was commenting on culture especially.
We thought it would be funny to comment on academic journal titles that are super wordy, and have an academic vibe of questioning those inquiries. They were funny and they were good, but they were hard and they were attempting to capture real things happening, like real phenomena on the show.
When my sister and I parted ways, I just had a different style. I realized that I was into the learning journey of it and I was learning as I went, because I was enjoying the show more and making the content. I was reading the theory, reading Jean Baudrillard to [Guy] Debord to John Berger, all these different names, these different people that were doing a lot of media theory in the 60s, that’s not totally accurate to all of them, but that’s when interesting media theory started because people were kind of like, “What is this?” when television started to become the central medium. That era-ish of theory was really gripping in the context of the Kardashians. So I’m reading this stuff and it became more documenting my learning journey and moving away from the meme. It was more like, “There’s a still from the show and here’s what I’m learning about post modernity and how it applies.” People seemed to respond to that and what’s interesting is it’s kind of paralleled the show and what makes it watchable is this like “high” and “low” Kim Kardashian does. She married “high” and “low,” so to speak, and I realize I’m kind of paralleling that process by trying to bring in the serious critical media theory while sprinkling in the fun stuff.
What is so striking about the account is the tone and how it’s so academic. You said you wanted to spoof these academic journal titles, but to a certain extent, is this also just who you are and how you take things in and how you talk? Have you thought about going back to school to learn about this stuff in a formalized way?
It’s helpful to hear that actually. It’s been really interesting to see how people respond to it. To your point, I like to think it’s spoofing academia, spoofing the Kardashians, spoofing all of us for not taking them seriously. I feel like I’m trying to spoof all of that while for myself, this is true for me and my sister, which is why we are so fortunately finding our collaborative rhythm now. It was really something we developed together in our family. We can’t watch any media without pausing it. Our partners hate it. My sister’s boyfriend and my partner hate watching movies with us because an hour and a half movie will turn into three hours because we pause every five minutes being like, “This, that, they really pulled off this sensibility but then this contradiction,” like we’re so annoying.
I really hope it’s not pretentious because that’s another thing I want to set myself apart from. There was a time on Instagram when there was a certain kind of intellectual meme world that became insular and kind of cynical and is sort of like, “I’m smarter than all of you,” and I didn’t want to be that. I think that’s part of moving away from memes as well. I’ll do them now and then for my own sake; if there’s a picture and the connection is too tempting, but I’d rather let people in on the information and the journey and the way of thinking about stuff that says, “I’m showing you guys as I’m learning too,” and this information is fun and this knowledge is fun.
I do know I take to academia and I have a few masters degrees in my field in psychology as well as in nonfiction writing, so I do love school. I love reading; I love research; I love writing, but I'm afraid of sometimes being so immersed in the academic world and the elitism that I would lose my status as a bridge. It’s been fun to do self-study. That said, Dr. Meredith Jones who put together a composium and is a leader in this world of intellectualizing the Kardashians. She wrote an academic book on plastic surgery and I think she’s putting together a book about the Kardashians. She encouraged me to get my PhD, so someone saying that to me meant a lot.
“Guiding people to deconstruct a little bit more can be empowering.”
I like what you said as being a bridge and I think that is what people resonate with. I don’t think though that you would necessarily lose that status were you to formalize it. I think people might think you have a PhD anyway.
It’s interesting for sure and I already know what my thesis would be. It’s basically been written at this point.
What would it be?
It would just be Kardashians through a media lens. Kardashians as a prism. I don’t think these concepts would be so digestible to me if I didn’t have the Kardashians as a centralized prism. They make it so much easier.
Can you talk a little bit about that? Why the Kardashians specifically? Are they the apex of everything that is pop culture right now?
I think so. I like that. They’re very fractal. They wouldn’t be so powerful if they weren’t such a fractal for everything. They almost absorb it all and then sell it back out to us. I’m gonna do deeper dives through the medium of writing, like a book hopefully, about how they became so powerful. They were lucky with their privilege and the moment in time they hit the scene, so there is that privilege and that luck they start out with. From there, it's sort of the backs of what they are.
They were aligning themselves with Black culture in a society that consumes Black culture and treats it as exploited capital all the time. They are half-Armenian and ethnically ambiguous in a post-911 landscape. There’s a reason, for example, Mia Khalifa was so viral. There’s a virality to Middle Eastern or sauna identity that people can’t figure out how to crack and have a sexualized fascination with. There’s the fact that they are woman-dominated, that was crazy to people, I think. And the size of their family. There’s so many of them; there was bound to be a platform for everyone, and by everyone I mean the consumer. There’s identification. They also hit the scene as there was a new media explosion. They have been present as every app and platform was developed and that was really powerful, too. They capture racial, gender, sexuality, these American anxieties they just are that. They’re just that hub of energy.
Why is it important to be so discerning of media and how does observing the Kardashians help us do this?
That’s one of the most important things to me. Learning this stuff has definitely opened my eyes to all these underlying systems that dominate and regulate us. I am concerned about the algorithms and how they are addicting us and flattening us. I try to not bring my personal biases or ideologies to the work. I try to do the academic thing of looking at it critically and managing my own emotions, but I do have those feelings. There is a lot to say about class consciousness and how the Kardashians can elicit it if we look at them through a certain framework. How we can understand the systems that we live in and how we move through them as we learn to deconstruct the mediums we consume, and consume them more actively than passively, which reality TV does.
I now have a changed view of reality TV. I think it’s very reflexive and important to look at. I do think it tends to induce a passive consumption; we’re just chilling, watching people in live out drama. It’s a human instinct to want to be in drama. We’re watching people do it, so it's doing it vicariously and is a reminder to be a little more active in how we watch at least. Guiding people to deconstruct a little bit more can be empowering. It is like a “power to the people” thing. And that’s why in the video essay I did, there was one commenter on YouTube that was like, “Your excuse for why you want to compare them to cities wasn’t good enough.” I disagree; I think there was a reason. It was an excuse to learn more sh*t. I learned a lot about Los Angeles and its history and all these cities and their histories by using the Kardashians as a throughway and they can be that because they cover so much ground.
Can you talk a little more about that project and how it ties into everything?
It’s totally the case of the person who has one platform, but totally wants to talk about their other side thing. They make it so easy. There’s so much to pull. If I wanted to look at them only through a sexuality lens, I could get into the history of Playboy and pornography. They make it so easy. The video essay was a wonderful reunion for my sister and me as collaborators because she was the film studies major who exposed me to postmodern theory and now she’s a video producer in media. She edited, produced, and directed it and I wrote it and helped produce it and as soon as I read Learning From Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.
I realized, “Oh my god, the Kardashians are Las Vegas and that was an architectural theory book, but even looking at them through an architectural theory lens was so applicable, because their bodies are architectural projects.” Vegas is so capitalistic and performative and aesthetic and its history is relatively fast. It's a relatively new development in the larger scheme of American history, let alone world history, yet it grew fast and it is so global and it was like, “Oh my God the Kardashians are Vegas, let’s learn more!” but it didn’t seem like enough to do a post. It was like this is a journey, like we have to go to Vegas and talk to academics and everyday people who are consumers of the Kardashians and media.
Do you think you’re going to do more video essays?
It occurred to me while stoned in the shower: Karashians and how they’re like Disney. That’s gotta be what’s next. My sister is burned out from that experience, we had a lot of technical stuff. It was basically Mercury Retrograde during post productions, so it might be awhile before we do a video essay, but we do have a web series coming out called Between Two Salads. It’s been fun. We had a set we built out. We have a studio. We’ve done all the interviews. It’s some really exciting guests.
We're gonna play on the fourth wall breaking as the Kardashians do, so it’s me interviewing people, and my sister is the cohost from behind the camera, so there’s also a camera on her, so she’ll jump in and it feeds off each other but I'm interviewing, but we’re co-hosting. The conversations have been cool. It really became a talk show about the social media era. It’s really just processing the weirdness of the moment we're in with these internet icons.
Are there any theories in particular that you feel like have really resonated with people or maybe they’ve been surprised by? I love the understated California blonde, like Elle Woods or Cher Horowitz, and how that trope paved the way for a Paris Hilton and eventually a Kim Kardashian. Anything else that comes to mind that people resonated with?
I was watching Legally Blonde and I was like, “Oh my god, yeah there is a sequence there!” And the nostalgia moment we’re having on Instagram and social media is really helping to recontextualize those things. My favorite way of looking at them is through the Baudrillard hyperreal lens. It must be an Aquarius thing. We’re living day-to-day in it more than we realize. There’s something about it that I just always want to crack. Some people take to it once it clicks, but it hasn’t been as viral or exciting to people until it clicks. I do think people are alway into the Kimye theories.
I made a roundup of their most hyperreal moments and that went kind of viral when typically people respond faster on TikTok to a conspiratorial theory, like maybe Kylie’s baby may have been intended to be Khloe’s baby. I try to sprinkle those things in to give the people what they want, but I’m more into the critical stuff. The hyperreality did land more than I expected. Kanye allows that to happen because Kanye is intentionally in that space and the Kardashians live it and curate it well, but Kanye confronts it and names it a lot. When Donda stuff was happening, it was an opportunity for those conversations and now I feel so attuned to their cycles I’m able to predict stuff. I don’t want to be too self-aggrandizing because I’m going to be wrong, but I’ve gotten some dopamine kicks from predicating stuff right.
“It’s really just processing the weirdness of the moment we're in with these internet icons.”
What kinds of things have you predicted?
With the first Donda event, when she was wearing her red suit and he was in his red outfit, I was like, “This is going to be them treating the world as a stage and continuing this entanglement with each other as a performance.” They can’t just divorce and not be connected anymore. By the third Donda event, they were getting married and that was not a complete surprise to me. It was more dramatic than I expected. I thought they were going to perform more entanglement. I think the entanglement might cease now that she’s done SNL. I think that was her little chapter of post-Kanye life and now she’s established herself as independent. I was sort of off with SNL. I thought there’d be an onstage announcement potentially, but I do think there’s going to be one off the heels of SNL. One thing I predicted in the Vegas essay was that she’s going to continue to align SKIMS more and more, the public image ladder of highbrow or high fashion, and it started with the Olympics and Kate Moss and has just kept going and now she’s collaborated with Fendi and it’s another step on this long-term mission she has to make it this American fashion conglomerate.
You’ve posted about how this kind of subject matter often invites dismissal. What do you say to people who don’t think the Kardashians are worthy of critical pursuit?
I have done a weird countertransference of: you don’t get it, that sucks for you. I do feel as my platform grows a little bit, there’s some responsibility that comes with that, just to be nicer and not so critical. I think the same way I’m analyzing internet culture, and how we receive the Kardashians, and how we’re living on the algorithm, it was always important to me to model how you can slow down and analyze more than the snap judgements we make online. And you can take risks and say stuff that might not be received well by everyone. I’m really amazed by my community. I love the comments and discourse. Someone once made a post saying they felt safe in my community and I love it because I don't think there's this overly fostered safe space vibe; people just feel safe and intellectually curious. I’m proud of the way I’ve set that tone and I’m grateful for the community, but I do want to be a little more empathetic towards people who don't get it. I’ll find a way to call them in a little bit. As a therapist, it’s important to be curious about our emotions. Let's be curious about the anger.
What kind of criticism do you get?
I get a lot of shallow criticism that means so little to me, like “This sucks; they’re a waste of time; don’t give them more attention,” and I’m like, that ship has sailed. Me analyzing them and trying to help people feel more empowered in how they consume them is not a problem. They’re already here; I’m not contributing to that. So there's just, just snap reactions. There’s people that think they’re really harmful, kind of wanting to get mad at Kim, so getting mad at me, like I’m a proxy for Kim in a way because I’m centering them. And they are harmful, so let it be known I agree, there’s a lot of harm they’ve done.
There’s a whole spectrum to acknowledge what they’ve accomplished and the ways they are harmful. I don’t feel admiration for them and I don’t feel hatred for them either. I just see them as a phenomenon. For men, it’s either sexualized comments about Kim to dispose of her or to minimize her, and bringing those to me, or utter dismissal. Some people want me to answer for the Kardashian’s harms, people who think they’re dumb so they think analyzing them is dumb, and I really just do see it so clearly as them missing the bigger picture and the opportunity.
How has observing the Kardashians like this changed your life or changed the way you see the world?
My partner totally doesn’t think I’m radical enough, so she’ll laugh at me saying this, but I think it's radicalized me a bit. It’s made me think more critically about how all our systems function. I was always, like most of us, passively cynical about stuff and knew there’s probably way more machinations behind the scenes that control and manipulate us. I think most people understand they should be somewhat mistrustful of the media, but it’s definitely made me much much more mistrustful. I just try to manage my emotions around that. I think emotions are so important to be curious about, but they can’t control us. Otherwise we won’t get anything done. I feel much more critical about all the systems that we go through and I’m also very concerned about the direction social media and the algorithms are going. I don’t know if that means more regulation, I don’t have those answers, but I do think that it’s darker than we might even want to know about social media. There’s ways we can make it a positive tool; that’s what I'm trying to do with my account, but I think that it demands more awareness.
Where do you see this project going?
The web series for sure. If people like that, maybe continuing with it or elevating it somewhere. It’s going to be fun. It’s gonna be like a variety show. We’ll do the interviews and then segments like “woman on the street.” Maybe a Disney and Kardashians video essay. But my goal is to write a book. I started as a writer. I always wanted to be a writer. I’m learning, and I’ll do it because I do set my mind on whatever I set my mind to, but I don’t love being in front of the camera. My real passion is writing, so a real book that breaks this stuff down in a much deeper way than I could ever do online.
What do you think about the Travis & Kourtney engagement?
First of all, I enjoyed keeping up with the Kravis situation, probably as a Blink fan and as someone whose Kardashian identification tends to land most on Kourtney, but my enjoyment of the content they've put out is also likely because their courtship seemed to reflect this worship of nostalgia that we see so often on social media now, and I found that fascinating. We watched the beginnings of that relationship unfold mostly through tabloid photos, which was a total throwback experience. Plus, the Kardashians thrive on transformation stories, and this seems to be another era of growth and change for Kourtney that particularly excites audiences.
Still, anytime I find myself engaging with one of their storylines at face value, I try to check myself and reset. The goal is always to examine why and how they do what they do — not what they do. I thought the proposal was momentous for what we know of Kourtney's image and history. I also suspect they were engaged on their own terms long before this. The proposal looked primed for a KUWTK-style production. The big red rose display, a beach at sunset, a lingering camera crew. It makes me think Kourtney and Travis may be taking a larger role in the upcoming series, which would also be an interesting plot twist for Kourtney. When I did a video on this theory for TikTok, it went viral. I don't always love doing such speculative takes, but there's a lot of investment in this couple and I also have to give the people what they want now and then!