Almost four years ago, Brett Easton Ellis wrote “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire,” an article suggesting that Mr. Sheen’s very public breakdown signified the end of a cultural era:
…this privileged child of the media’s sprawling entertainment Empire has now become its most gifted prankster. And now Sheen has embraced the post-Empire, making his bid to explain to all of us what celebrity means in that world. Whether you like it or not is beside the point. It’s where we are, babe. We’re learning something. Rock’n roll. Deal with it.
In the article Brett Easton Ellis never explicitly defines post-Empire, or where we are, babe, but he does list several people who “get it,” among whom unsurprisingly include the Kardashians. This past year, Vice asked Ellis to better explicate these cultural terms. In the midst of some incoherence, Ellis aptly captures the essence of post-Empire: “In the face of technology and social media, the mask of pride has been slowly eradicated.”
The other night at dinner, my dad asks me if I ever worry about my social media presence especially in light of my professional uncertainty. “I saw the word ‘bitch’ on your Instagram,” he says.
“I’m not concerned,” I say. And I’m not. Of course my apathy stems partly from a place of privilege, from which I’ve calculated the risk that my social media presence hinders my professional development to be so slight that it’s not worth any serious consideration. But my apathy also stems from a shift in the way we view identity. In 2014, I can be irreverent and superficial online, and quiet and professional in the office. These two identities can coexist comfortably without significantly altering either’s ability to exist independently.
When I was applying to Teach For America in 2009, my friend took a video of me dancing drunk with a feather boa in his apartment. He posted it on YouTube with the tags “Anna Dorn” and “Teach for America.” Until fairly recently, if you searched those terms together, the video would pop up immediately. I did not get accepted into Teach For America, but for the record, I don’t think I would have gotten in either way.
I’m not sure exactly when the post-Empire started brewing – probably when Real Housewives of Orange County hit Bravo in 2006 – but 2009 seems to be around the time that its prevailing ethos began to touch regular people like myself.
2009 marks the year that Kanye ambushes Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards and the Jersey Shore premieres on MTV. This year also welcomes Watch What Happens Live, a show in which Bravo Exec Andy Cohen interviews actual actors about people who do nothing aside from play their borderline personality disordered selves on his network. Instagram premieres in 2009, the same year Joaquin Phoenix chews gum on Letterman for his very post-Empire documentary. But as this year’s pop anthem is “Empire State of Mind,” we are in a transition period.
In 2011, Charlie Sheen goes crazy (or does he?) and Brett Easton Ellis marks the “End of Empire.”
In 2012, we begin our full embrace of post-Empire. Lena Dunham flaunts her aggressively un-Hollywood figure in sex scenes often described as cringe-worthy on HBO. 18 time Oscar nominated actress Meryl Streep appears on Watch What Happens Live sporting a bandage on her hand to nurse an injury sustained while slicing an avocado. In 2013, Susan Sarandon tells Andy Cohen that she is stoned at every award show she attends aside from the Oscars. Also in 2013, Amanda Bynes begins a slew of tweets calling celebrities from Jay Z to Rihanna to Miley Cyrus “ugly” and revealing that she wants Drake to “Murder [her] vagina.”
Bynes’s breakdown makes Charlie Sheen’s Good Morning America performance and Joaquin Phoenix’s Lettermanpresentation both look Empire as fuck. We never watch an interview of Amanda Bynes on network television; we hear from her only via her unhinged twitter feed. Aside from her frequent remarks about celebrities who claim not to know her, she uses her twitter to communicate directly with the media, demanding that magazines only feature certain photographs of her. We don’t hear her speak, but we see her tangled Disney wigs bob to jerky bodily movements on YouTube videos captured on bystanders’ iPhones, making us wonder whether we are watching performance art. The summer of 2013 ends with Bynes in an involuntary psych hold after setting a neighbor’s driveway on fire. She is released from her parents’ conservatorship in October of this year, just a month before Kardashian’s Paper cover. And two days before “Break the Internet,” Ms. Bynes tweets the following embodiment of the post-Empire’s blurring of social media performance and genuine existence: “If only you could block ppl in person.”
Three days before “Break the Internet,” the 2005 flop The Comeback reemerges on HBO. The A.V. Club writes of the post-Empire show’s premiere:
After nine years, the entertainment industry has caught up to Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s The Comeback. There is no denying that the series was ahead of its time when it debuted on HBO in 2005, prophesying the shifting climate of television comedy by combining humiliation-based reality TV with commentary on the dying breed of multi-cam sitcoms.
In the episode, Valerie hires a team of amateur cameramen to film a pilot in hopes of convincing Andy Cohen to put her on Bravo. Desperate for attention Valerie brings to mind not only also red-haired, former sit-com actress Kathy Griffin (My Life on The D List also premiered in 2005), but also numerous Bravo stars. We learn that Valerie had a brief stint on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which she quit when she realized she didn’t have sufficient control over how she would be portrayed. After years of no acting work aside from student films (which she calls “indies”), it’s clear that Valerie realizes she made a mistake. Her pathetic attempts to win back Andy Cohen evoke Jill Zarin, who hasn’t been shy regarding her depression over being fired from The Real Housewives of New York and her envy of her now more famous former bestie Bethenny Frankel. The amateur nature of Valerie’s endeavor brings to mind Alex McCord’s slapdash web-series The Real Deal, which she began filming on her Macbook shortly after being fired from The Real Housewives of New York.
A 2010 profile in W Magazine opened by saying that while “Kim Kardashian can’t sing, act, or dance,  she’s found the role of a lifetime in the fine art of playing herself.” Post-Empire is all about the art of playing oneself. Brett Easton Ellis tells Vice that post-Empire is about “showing the reality,” but I disagree. Like post-modernism, post-Empire not concerned with either reality or authenticity – the Internet has allowed us to float between carefully crafted identities with ease, obscuring the notion of one singular truth. Biding farewell to Empire’s goal of originality, the post-Empire mashes together random pieces from the past. Rap music embraces it with frequent sampling and fashion embraces it with movements like Soft Grunge, which is based on recycling and reappropriating 1990s Internet culture. Instagram embraces it with a recent onslaught of comedy accounts – FuckJerry, TheFatJewish, Officialseanpenn – that creatively meld past and present images from an array of digital sources.
In the ultimate post-Empire move, “Break the Internet” invited the masses to reappropriate Kim’s glazed ass without abandon. And the Internet of course accepted the challenge, spawning memes turning Kim Kardashian into everything from a centaur to glazed donuts to an illuminati symbol to Bart Simpson’s lips. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art joined the fun, Instagramming a neolythic sculpture of a female figure, focused on the statue’s backside: “Here at the Met, we have artworks that can #BreakTheInternet too!”
Chelsea Handler Instagrammed her own ass next to Kim’s: “Can you believe more than 2 ass can fit on the same screen. Guess which one’s real? Your move, Instagram.” Handler addresses not only the Paper article, but also Instagram’s legal team, which recently took down a picture of Handler topless on a horse a la Putin. As law is deeply routed in tradition (things are this way because they’ve been this way), it is unsurprising that Instagram’s legal team hasn’t fully grasped the post-Empire status of its own employer.
The Paper spread angered many, who dismissed the photos as “cheap,” “trashy,” and “over the top.” Well calling a Kardashian is over the top is kind of like calling Lil Wayne stoned. In this cover, Kim Kardashian has taken her media persona to its logical extreme. She doesn’t just look cheap, she literally looks as though she is made of plastic. And people are talking. And her wide grin seems to indicate that she is in on the joke. And that is what post-Empire is all about.