The cover of Forbes August issues features a full-lipped Kylie Jenner sporting a Mona Lisa smile beside a description of her as a “self-made” billionaire. The internet wasn’t having it. The online dictionary even threw some shade, quibbling with the word choice.
That @Dictionarycom take (I know, weird days) makes a very simple, irrefutable point about the claim that Jenner is self-made: It is completely false. But even if she’d clawed her way up from obscurity without her famous family and limitless resources, calling her self-made would still be problematic. The fact is that no-one — and especially no one privileged to be born into an American community — is really self-made. The idea of purely independent success in business might have made sense before we knew much about genetics, the importance of early childhood education, or the flow of capital, but it doesn’t really make much sense anymore. Success is rarely derived without help and never derived outside of circumstance.
Self-made means having succeeded in life unaided.
— Dictionary.com (@Dictionarycom) July 11, 2018
That said, it makes sense that the idea of the self-made billionaire sets the American imagination ablaze. It taps into individualist-streak in the bedrock of our culture. Independence is a big deal in America and we’ll take it in all of its forms. The idea that captains of industry are themselves independent was integral to the current president’s campaign. That narrative never really sticks, but here we are. The myth overshadows the reality, which has everything to do with nature, nurture, and good fortune.
As people lob bombs at Kylie, who seems like a largely inoffensive if potentially annoying figure, it’s important to remember that they are buying into the “self-made” premise by arguing that the term does not apply. It’s also important to remember that the premise has been flawed for a while. The pilgrims required help. Why do you think we celebrate Thanksgiving? They got it, wiped out some tribes, and started tilting towards manifest destiny because they could. Why were the colonists in such a strong position? They got help. They just didn’t like to acknowledge it.
For her part, Kylie came from a remarkable family. Her empire would not exist if not for a cable network training a camera on the weirdness of her adolescent home. And that camera would have never found her home if not for the fact that Robert Kardashian had found wealth and fame as a lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson. But even Robert Kardashian had help from his parents, one of whom, Tom, built a Los Angeles garbage collecting business. But even Tom couldn’t claim to be self-made. If his parents hadn’t immigrated from what is now modern-day Turkey, he would never have been able to build his American business. Also, they taught him to be a certain way. Tom didn’t invent Armenian culture just as Kylie didn’t invent the Armenian-American-Californian-Celebrity culture that informed her decisions and opportunities.
And let’s not forget that part of Kylie’s claim to fame is her beauty, perfectly lit on the Forbes cover. While she has been known to use lip-filler and has surely benefitted from retouching, her looks are largely a product of genetics, thanks in part to her parent Caitlyn Jenner, who was once a sculpted, gold medalist in the decathlon. We know from science that her efforts produced epigenetic effects that helped shape her daughter.
Does all of this mean that Kylie Jenner should not be lauded for her business acumen, intelligence, taste, personality, and incredible drive? Not at all. Those are incredible traits for any person to possess and require a huge amount of determination. It’s admirable that Jenner has been able to manage her money, time, and fame in order to amass her fortune. But let’s not be dumb about the praise. The more we buy into the idea that it’s possible to be alone, the more we set impossible standards for ourselves, and the more we wind up being, well, alone, which is no way to be at all.
It’s also important to remember that culture has value and communities have value and opportunities created collectively and seized by individuals have value. Kylie got rich in a strong market she didn’t create after a down market she didn’t weather (well, she did, but she was very young.) Individual success isn’t really a thing.
Should Kylie Jenner be considered a self-made billionaire? Nope. But neither should any other billionaire, millionaire, or middle-class entrepreneur. The haters win. But the haters still aren’t right about Kylie. It’s not a Jenner thing, it’s just a reality. We succeed together and we fail together. Mostly, we just muddle through, go home, have some wine, and watch The Kardashians together.