In Defense of Kim Kardashian
Kim Kardashian, "Media W***"
(Note: the derogatory 'W' words has been censored throughout this piece for two reasons. First, I know the word is a trigger for some, and I don't see any artistic or other reason to use it that over rules it's negative impact. Second, I don't want to profit off of the labeling of Kardashian or others with this word.)
Recently, Kim Kardashian was photographed for yet another magazine cover story, stirring yet another controversy in a long line of provocative cover spreads from Vogue to Glamour to the National Enquirer. This time, her stint in Paper magazine (which has some very provocative nude and semi-nude photos on display, in case you have been living under a rock and haven't seen the pictures yet) has brought the usual crowd of critics out of the wood works. The moral right reacted predictably to the risque cover story, as did the feminist left, with both groups up in arms because of Kim's bare behind.
Let me be clear: in the piece that follows I will not attempt to defend Kim Kardashian in general, or exonerate her from an honest critique of the unsavory elements of her shoot for Paper. To be frank, Kim stands for a lot that I abhor, and I would not consider myself a fan of her or a supporter of any of her many business ventures. However, I WOULD consider myself to be a progressive.
I recently read some comments about Kim, and about her Paper cover in general, which disgusted me and made me question how, as a progressive, I should be thinking and talking about Kim Kardashian. Smack dab in the middle of my Facebook wall, a friend of mine who I generally respect and who I know has the best intentions and is socially conscious in most regards, posted their thoughts on Kim via Paper, which went something like this: "That media w**** needs to disappear already." Like I said; disgusting, and got me thinking.
Does that fact that Kardashian has made a fortune from exploiting her image in the media make her a "w****?"
Leave Kim Kardashian Alone!
If it hasn't become obvious yet, I am no Kardashian fan. But "media w****?" To me, that phrase is repugnant. I will discuss why in length soon, but here are the general issues I take with this designation: the word "w****" is applied in a highly gendered and misognystic fashion, the treatment of Kim as such risks dehumanizing her and denies her her personal agency, and this criticism of Kim and others like it muffles and detracts from a more refined and productive critique of Kim and her ilk as media figures and cultural institutions. The way we talk about Kardashian and other media figures needs to be refined and strategic, and the way we think of Kim and similar characters must must not devolve into misogynistic or patriarchal tirades, but instead should be based around the various solid progressive critiques that can be rightfully applied.
The Problematic "W****" Distinction and Kim Kardashian
Before I discuss the "w****" moniker thoroughly, I should note that me seeing Kim referred to with this slur one day on a Facebook feed is not an isolated incident: a quick Google search for "Kim Kardashian" and "w****" brings up a gaggle of articles, comments, and opinions, many of which you would be foolish to peruse while at work. Writing about her wedding, one blogger calls Kardashian an "ape loving w****," introducing racial undertones that I'll have to address in another piece. Successful youtube vloggers and other internet commentators routinely discuss both her and her husband as "media w****s" Overall, Kim may be referred to in this manner more than any other star of her caliber, and definitely more than any woman should be.
In order to get at the exact reasons why "w****" is such a terrible designation for Kim, I should do my due diligence and describe to anyone unfamiliar with popular culture one of the most famous and nefarious house hold names in show business. This celebrity is bigger than any tabloid cover or news story; their name is on absolutely everything, their persona is marketed far and wide due to their unique looks and media personality, they have been on the covers of magazines and twitter feeds for so long that many people have forgotten entirely what they were originally famous for, and their media persona has become so ubiquitous that we as consumers pay for and obsess over who they are and the image they have created more than what they do. This larger than life multi-millionare power house can cause controversy and headlines with their name alone, and seems to adore the spotlight and attention, thriving on the marketability of their image and doing their best to make as much money as they can while they remain relevant and can bring in lucrative sponsorship deals. I'm talking of course about the Doggfather himself, Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Would anyone EVER call Snoop Dogg a "Media W****?"
All jokes aside, how many of the points above could you attribute to Kim as well as Snoop? But would you EVER expect to see Snoop Dogg called a "media w****?" Of course not; commentators that will as quickly criticize Kim for slapping her name on anything will call Snoop a "media mogul" or commend him for diversifying and profiting from his likeliness so keenly. It is clear then that we aren't thinking of Kim as a "w****" strictly because of her business ventures or propensity to lend her name to a wide variety of products. Kim is criticized, and labeled "w****" because of sex and gender, making the distinction a very ugly and unsavory commonplace slur.
So Why is Kim Kardashian a "W****" Exactly?
If not because of her wide reaching business efforts and ability to profiteer off of her image, why do people call Kim a "w****?"
The first potential reason for this labeling refers to her past, and her likelihood to be in tabloid fixtures because of the man she is dating or married to at any given moment. Perverts and people who have been on the internet for more than fifteen minutes may recall Kim's infamous NSFW "leaked" video that found it's way on to the web nearly a decade ago, and those who refer to her as a "whore" are certainly referencing this video either consciously or sub-consciously. Of course, this evokes a double gender standard yet again; R. Kelly had a much more criminal and disturbing video find it's way on the web himself, and you don't see Kelly getting called "pedophile" or "sexual offender" in common parlance or internet headlines. Collin Ferril, "Screech" from Saved By The Bell, Fred Durst, even Kim's male video partner Ray J: none of these male celebrities would be called a "w****" as quickly as Kim has been for their past sex-tape appearances.
Linked to her past infamy and current status as a sex symbol, it is likely as well that Kim is labeled "w****" based on a perception of her power being derived entirely from her hyper sexualized image. Kim's famously steamy instagram poses, nude and partially nude magazine covers, and infamous "curves" and appearance lead critics to label Kim a "w****" without thinking twice about the real meaning of the slur. But what does the epithet really signify when we apply it so openly to Kim?
"W****" is a Misogynistic, Patriarchal, Gender Based Slur
By calling Kim a "w****" we deny her her personal agency; we attribute her success to her body rather than the decisions she has made to market her image successfully. We dehumanize Kim by evoking the myriad of issues related to the "w*****" moniker, defining her entirely by her position as a sex symbol and treating her as a sexual object. In reality, Kim has made a variety of very important business decisions throughout her life that have boosted her fortune extensively; she has turned the media's fascination with her curves and life in to a veritable empire. But we deny her all of this when we label her a "media w****."
We Are Calling Kim A W**** Even When We Aren't
So what about the tsunami of commentary surrounding Kim's Paper cover, and her persona in general, that don't go so far as to label Kim a "w****?" Sadly, many of the critiques that have surfaced treat Kim in much the same way that calling her a w**** does.
For starters, the "you are a mother!" line of thinking, exemplified famously by a tweet posted by Glee's Naya Rivera. So what if Kim is a mom? Does that make it wrong for her to still exist as a sexual being, including getting her bottom photographed if she chooses to do so? Of course not; plenty of "sex symbols" throughout history and in our current media-centric culture are moms. The reason why this critique comes up illustrates the way we treat Kim in general; we are uncomfortable of thinking of Kim as a mother because we are not accustomed to thinking of Kim as anything BUT a sexual object. Many who saw Kim's bottom had the word "w****" in the back of her head when they voiced this line of critique. Kim can't show her butt any more because she can't be a mom and a "w****" at the same time (another problematic and unrealistic distinction if you follow that word back to it's misogynistic roots and think about it, but I digress), and that is the only way some people have consciously or unconsciously thought of her.
EVERYONE is photo shopped, but we talk about Kim differently
Next the "it's fake!" line of attack against Kim, which varies from accusing her of having gluteal implants to having her images in Paper and other places undergo a heavy photo shop treatment. The question of whether or not Kim's bottom is plastic is odd and misogynistic in it's own way, and I won't pursue it. However, the questions surrounding whether or not Kim was photo shopped for Paper are interesting and important, especially in the ways in which they are presented and have been asked.
It is pretty obvious that Kim's Paper cover underwent a photo shop makeover, but that isn't rare or unique; almost everyone in show business who appears on the cover of magazines is digitally altered when they do. But we have talked about Kim differently than others where photo shop is concerned. When Jennifer Lawrence was photo shopped for a recent cover of Flare the internet went crazy: "why would anyone do that," the general line of questioning went, "Jennifer is so beautiful, how dare a magazine alter her in unrealistic ways?!" But when Kim is photo shopped? Aggression, anger, and controversy dominate forums and talks again, but this time they have been directed at Kim rather than at magazine companies or society at large. This reaction links back to Kim's designation in the popular psyche as a sex symbol and little else; Kim's photo shopped posterior is some how more offensive than Lawrence's altered bodice and cheek bones, because we see Kim as a sexual object exclusively, making her alteration a personal deception.
Is it really likely that Kim was directly responsible for any photo shopping, or at least more so than any other celebrity? Post production on photography is the domain of Paper and every other magazine, not the celebrity getting photographed. But the discussion surrounding the Paper cover has taken one of two routes: attacking Kim directly, or doting on the "it must be fake" issue, rather than diving deeper about what an image being fake means for our society.
What Should We Think And Say About Kim Kardashian?
Overall, the way we talk about Kim and many other celebrities is detrimental and not in line with the progressive nature that many of these critiques attempt to espouse. Yes, Kardashian is photo shopped. But does that mean we should attack her for being "fake," or obsessively dwell on the fact? No. Kim and her image are more a product of society than a cause of social ills themselves. Instead of demonizing Kardashian, progressive critiques should do the dirty work of diving deeper, and discussing what it means that Kim and others are so extensively altered.
There are a lot of other things people have cried foul over concerning Kim's Paper cover story, from the racialized imagery that is the shoots admitted inspiration to the obsessive and insane debate and controversy over a picture that has "broken the internet" for all of the most superfluous reasons. But when we focus on the wrong things, on whether Kim is a mom or whether her butt is real, we lose the chance to dive in to the deeper feminist, racial, and general progressive questions that a shoot like this can provoke. As progressives, we need to be focused and strategic in our critique of Kim and others. We need to avoid blaming the products and victims of an image obsessed society, and take a deeper look at why we create magazine covers with bare, photo shopped Kardashians and why they are so popular while simultaneously breeding so much controversy.
We need to stop calling Kim a w**** and start talking about the deeper issues.