Kim Kardashian West is studying to be a lawyer.
The reality TV star who once tried to break the internet with a photograph of her bottom has enrolled for the first stages of the California bar exam, and is currently ploughing through the basic principles of tort, contract and criminal law under the supervision of two mentoring attorneys.
This is not a belated April fool, but the gist of a Vogue magazine shoot during which she earnestly explained her decision to start reading up on the law after being invited to the White House to advise President Trump on criminal justice reform. (For the avoidance of doubt, that’s not an April fool either; she was there lobbying for the release of a 63-year-old woman who had spent two decades in an Alabama prison on a charge of nonviolent drug trafficking.) Sitting in a room full of judges and lawyers, she told Vogue, she felt, “Oh, shit. I need to know more.” Or to put it another way, a woman who practically invented being famous for being famous is suddenly signalling to teenagers everywhere that celebrity alone doesn’t give you credibility; that knowledge, substance and expertise matter. We seem, in other words, to have entered the era of Dumbing Up With the Kardashians.
Those intellectual snobs who responded by sniping that she should “stay in her lane”, as if a woman could only have a hot body or a brain, never both, are wide of the mark. There is always something moving about the idea of anyone who never made it to university going back to school in later life. And even if this one does turn out to be doing it for attention, or just to create a new plot twist in the Kardashians’ endlessly lucrative public story, then in a sense that makes it more significant, not less. Kardashian West did not get where she is today without having a manicured fingernail on the popular pulse, and if she thinks a woman trying to do something purposeful with a once vacuous-looking life is where the zeitgeist is right now, then she’s probably right.
This Sunday brings a nearly sold-out gig by Michelle Obama at the O2 Arena in London, as part of her worldwide book tour. Her memoir, Becoming, has struck a chord for lots of reasons, not least as a story of a happy marriage. But at its core is a message of black female empowerment. Obama has recast working hard, doing well at school and becoming a seriously substantial person not only as an individual means of getting on but also as a means of social change. These days she stands for wanting to be much more than just some powerful man’s wife, even if that’s originally how she came to public attention.
The other story gripping the imaginations of millions of younger people on both sides of the Atlantic, meanwhile, is that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has gone in the space of not much more than a year from cocktail waitress to congresswoman, talking economic theory from the cover of Time magazine. Ocasio-Cortez is beautiful, cool and relatable; it’s fair to say that if she were a frumpy fiftysomething newcomer to politics, she wouldn’t be getting the same media coverage. But for her broader fan base, the fact she’s highly political adds to her attraction, rather than diminishes it. She too conveys a sense of public purpose and of urgency about the state ofthe world that Generation Z seems instinctively to respond to, in much the same way as it has to the pink pussy marches or climate change strikes.
If the new seriousness feels faintly familiar, that’s because something similar happened a decade ago, in the aftermath of the credit crunch. The feeling of a world order falling apart for barely comprehensible reasons made people feel they urgently needed to know more; to pay attention to the news, understand what a credit swap was, grasp where the next threat was coming from. Now teenagers who have grown up through the ensuing years of political turbulence are unsurprisingly galvanisedtoo. If not always party political, they seem drawn to single issues and comfortable with the fast-changing politics of race, gender and sexuality. And all of that provides clear context to what Kardashian West is doing.
Her father was a criminal lawyer who defended OJ Simpson in one of the most racially charged trials in living memory. The prisoner in whose case she intervened, Alice Marie Johnson, is a black woman convicted of a crime that commonly draws in poor and marginalised women, and was held up as an example of African Americans being treated more harshly by the criminal justice system. Van Jones, the prison reform campaigner who accompanied Kardashian West to the White House, also describes his new ally as “the mother of three black kids”. That has very specific resonances in a USA where black and mixed-race families (if not necessarily those with Kim and her husband Kanye West’s billions behind them) routinely fear for their children’s interactions with the police. While Kanye West has been controversially supportive of Trump, his wife seems to be taking things in a rather more interesting direction.
And maybe all this is just a cynical pose with one eye on the viewing figures, not to mention on the movie deal Johnson has signed. But as the reality TV dream starts to sour amid reports of participants struggling with their mental health, and a backlash begins to gather against social media influencers peddling glossily empty lifestyles, the expectations of celebrity may be evolving. It’s no longer enough to sit around looking pretty. The real secret of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, perhaps, is knowing when to keep up with the viewer.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist