Following the announcement of Kylie Jenner’s inclusion on Forbes’ 2018 list of the 60 Richest Self-Made Women, and Forbes’ choice to put her on the magazine cover, a storm of online backlash began to brew. A fan-created funding campaign to make Jenner the youngest female billionaire emerged, people donated, and with its creation further criticism of Jenner’s position on the list.
In a recent interview with Refinery29, Kim Kardashian defended Forbes’ choice to include her sister on the list, saying, “She is 'self-made' — we are all 'self-made.' What, because we came from a family that has had success? To me, that doesn’t really make sense...I know so many people like that [who] haven’t turned out to be as successful as Kylie. If anything, I've seen the complete opposite."
As Kardashian points out, not all children of the rich and/or famous go on to create their own successful companies. “We might have the opportunity, but I’ve seen it go the complete opposite way. Nobody works harder than my sisters and my mom," said Kardashian.
While, as Jenner notes in her interview with Forbes, the original investment for her cosmetics company came from the hundreds of thousands of dollars earned from her modeling gigs, she initially got her foot in the door not only because of her family’s fortune, but because of their fame.
Still, her decision to market her products primarily on social media after amassing millions of followers instead of relying primarily on traditional advertising was incredibly innovative and has majorly impacted the advertising industry. Brands now hire Instagram influencers to endorse their products on their platforms in addition to or in lieu of creating traditional advertisements. But it is possible to commend Jenner’s business savvy—as Kardashian says "[taking] an insecurity of hers and [figuring] out how to make a really successful business off of it"—without applying an incorrect label.
As Dictionary.com tweeted in response to Forbe’s proclamation, “Self-made means having succeeded in life unaided.” By Kardashian’s own admission, she and her sisters come from success which has aided them in attaining their own goals.
It cheapens the phrase to devote it both to the person America watched receive a $125,000 Mercedes-Benz as a gift (which she crashed and had replaced with a Range Rover less than a year later) and to Oprah Winfrey, the sixth wealthiest woman on the list, who was born to an unmarried teenage housemaid, raised in poverty, and paid for college entirely by academic scholarship.
While I understand Kardashian’s inclination to defend her sister, and while I agree that Jenner has developed an extremely impressive business, someone can acknowledge their own talent and hustle while simultaneously recognizing that they were born into a situation that increased the likelihood of their success. Writer Roxane Gay responded to a fan’s now deleted tweet that praised Gay for being an ‘actual self-made success’ with, “No I’m not. I have successful parents who made sure I went to great schools and always provided me with a safety net so I could pursue my ambitions. Gay works hard, but she knows she has had a leg-up, and she refuses to let anyone believe differently.
In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Caraway reflects on advice offered to him by his father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”
The message that Nick’s father gives him is not that his wealthy upbringing makes him an inherently bad person or unworthy (it doesn’t), but being born into financial stability means a person does not have to take the same risks that a person without a giant safety net has.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.