Social Media

Is Social Media Over Flex Culture? Kylie Jenner's TikTok Controversy, Unpacked

It’s time to be real, pun intended.

There’s a vibe shift happening on social media right now, and it’s time to be real about it. In the decade since social media became part of mainstream life, as we’ve watched beloved platforms rise and fall (RIP Vine), it’s increasingly clear that apps like Instagram and TikTok not only reflect social culture, but evolve along with it. While celebrities and influencers have used these platforms to brand their image, the rest of us have grappled with a digital environment of warped personal expression for years, in which performed wealth, Facetuning, and idealization seem to override authentic connection. Case in point: Kylie Jenner’s “getting dressed with me” TikTok raised controversy over a casual display of wealth, in which she posed in front of her million-dollar closet, lined with shelves exhibiting designer shoes and Hermès Birkin bags worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. TikTok users responded with uproar, arguing that her flashy content is out of touch and no longer palatable. The immediate rejection of Kylie’s ostentatious post, coupled with a push towards realness online, may make you wonder, “Is social media finally over flex culture?”

Kylie Jenner’s Getting Dressed With Me TikTok Controversy, Explained

Jenner is far from the only celeb who’s guilty of posting oblivious content, but she’s a strong example based on her posts in recent months: In a Sept. 17 TikTok , Jenner stood in front of a glass case of countless luxury accessories in a closet that resembles a department store, and asked viewers for help deciding on a bag to wear.

While many people saw the video as innocent and fun, with some commenters calling the reality star “iconic” and asking for a closet tour video, others were offended by her display of wealth. TikTok user @inamarimaki responded saying, “I’m so shook at how poor I am.” @itslinklauren joked, “I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and my voice did not echo that much,” before noting how out of touch the content was amidst a struggling economy and the aftermath of the pandemic.

This is far from the only time Jenner has been criticized for flaunting her unobtainable wealth. The closet video comes after the star was criticized for regularly using her private jet to travel places that could be reached by car — despite the heavy impact of flights on climate change — when Twitter account @celebrityjets reported her three-minute California flight on July 12. Just three days later, on July 15, she passively responded to criticism by doubling down with a braggadocious post on IG. She limited her comments section on the post, but after the usual “goals!” responses, you can scroll to find other users expressing disappointment: “*Global warming has entered the chat*”; “Peope are having to choose between filling their gas tank or buying groceries. You might want to read the room”; “You rich people can make the real difference yet decide not to”; “It’s giving Marie Antionette lol”; “Kylie girl… this is not a flex.” Similarly, Kylie’s only response to the closet-gate backlash was another not-so-humble IG shot of herself in front of the same shelves a few days later.


But at the same time, fans are noticing a push to come off as relatable. If you scroll further down Jenner’s TikTok page, you’ll find a video from this summer of her promoting lip products from her car, which opens with her dropping the phone while it was recording. Viewers called it out as her trying to appear “quirky” and “relatable” à la Emma Chamberlain’s beloved vlog style. @stellaraeherself summed it up in a stitch to Jenner’s video defending the post, “If you’ve built your brand on being unrelatable, but that’s not working anymore and you’re changing up your vibe... it comes across as inauthentic.” @lifecrisisinducedglowup touched on the irony that the reality star was sitting in a luxury car, essentially campaigning to her fan base to make herself richer.

Ultimately, celeb-influencers like Jenner are caught between trying to present a friend-like persona in order to build a parasocial relationship with followers/customers, while still enjoying and flaunting unattainable wealth — Jenner’s California home, for example, cost around 1,200 times the average U.S. student loan debt.

These TikTokers argue that this dichotomy comes off as fake, insensitive, and alienating, but that’s been the point of flex culture, after all. “Flexing” online means to flash status symbols such as designer clothes or luxury vacays, in order to create an aspirational image for others to gawk at. References include Rae Stremmerd’s 2014 song “No Flex Zone,” which describes a place in which you can live authentically without worrying about competing with others by brandishing your riches.


A Shift Away From Flex Culture

In a TikTok stich response to Jenner’s video, trend analyst @dtstrends said the backlash was an example of the vibe shift from this visual materialism, commenting that Kylie’s closet video “gives out of touch, it gives ‘eat the rich.’” She cited a new wave of influencers who discuss topics that matter to working people. As an example, she used Julia Fox, who, as campy as she is, definitely keeps it real. On TikTok, Fox levels with her audience to air out her opinions on topics like abuse, parenting, radical women empowerment, healthy dating, capitalism, and celebrity, and isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall to admit she called the paparazzi for a photo shoot (when she was wearing clothing made by a student designer). Sure, she’s a fabulous star, but the key is that she leads with her true personality instead of her stuff, challenging people to shift their perspective about her — as if humanizing the assumed “dress-up doll” persona from when she was dating Kanye West.

Media trend predictor @cocomocoe also praised Fox for her authenticity in a TikTok video, saying, “I think what makes [Fox] so likeable is that she doesn’t care about being liked.” She argued that Fox is an underdog to root for, as opposed to so many famous “nepotism babies,” and that quality makes her a natural antithesis of Kardashian-style celebs.

“Every time I see a Julia Fox video come up on my feed, I’m reminded of how deserving she is of the platform she has. Because what she says makes you think, number one, and it’s coming from a place of love and compassion,” TikTok user @electralouise said in a video, adding that she appreciates how Fox has brought more visibility to the struggles of single motherhood and validated the experiences of a larger community.

Another way that Fox sets herself apart from her peers is how she’s able to earnestly laugh at herself and acknowledge criticism online, like when she reposted an edit of her as a centaur after people clowned her super low-waist pants (captioned “Sleigh”), responded to disdain for her signature smudge eye makeup, or even when she captioned a daring outfit on IG, “**Disclaimer: ur not supposed to like it.**

Most importantly, Fox’s self-given role is not about selling a lifestyle or product. Many young Gen Z women online jokingly praise her as a modern philosopher, like in this Tiktok from @midwestbimbo, for her educated takes and honest wisdom. Plus, she’d also probably make a great friend IRL.


The Rise Of BeReal

One factor that has led to a shift away from flex culture is how Gen Z uses social media differently than millennials. Gen Z’s posting is less about outright validation, and more about personality expression. For example, Instagram photo dumps are in right now, referring to a multiple-slide post of random, but still curated, images. They’re meant to show off more obscure snapshots of daily life, like blurry candids, zoomed-in food pics, and even out-of-place memes, in an attempt to make Instagram casual again (a shift from posed, filtered, and Facetuned posts). This style is a running joke on TikTok, as seen in this video by perplexed millennial @portab.ella.

The apps themselves are getting more real, too — pun intended. BeReal, the newest Gen Z social media app you’ve probably added to your rotation, is designed to share an unedited moment in time using a dual camera and catching users off guard with a daily alert. Since the beginning of 2022, the app’s downloads have increased 315%, according to Apptopia, and its popularity points to a desire for candid posting online and a sense of community, as people routinely share with each other at the same time. Whether you’re lying in bed or out on the town, BeReal flexes your reality, not a calculated, validation-hungry fantasy. People love it so much that pretty much every other major social app is adopting a similar sharing feature.

blackCAT/E+/Getty Images

As people lift the veil — or filter — off their online identity, it’s harder to take rich people seriously when they sell a glossy product one day in a big-budget photo shoot, then try to relate with fans from their 10-car driveway the next day. The overall sentiment online is that people don’t want to log on to be sold to. Plus, in the aftermath of a pandemic and with rumors of a recession around the corner, people are just tired of seeing things they can't have. The past few years have taught us that real-life accessibility is more important than ever, and it can be achieved through compassionate and productive connection over the internet — as long as users point their attention in that direction.

If flexing is really out, it’s not to say you’re wrong to celebrate your first home or dream purse on your page. Instead, it’s a shift away from the idea you need to create a “better” version of yourself online, such as through flashing your lifestyle with the intention of appearing above your followers in social or economic status. Like Fox, your page is an opportunity to instead flex your humor, learned wisdom, and big ideas that make you unique, which will inspire your friends in turn.

Thanks to a fresh perspective from Gen Z, it appears that social media is moving away from highly curated, polished feeds that function to compete with peers, and into a space that encourages original expression, creativity, authentic personal image, and a place to discuss issues that actually matter IRL to you and your followers. If we’re going to dedicate so much of our lives and identities to digital media, we might as well extend our realities there too.