Kim Kardashian: A Feminist Icon?

The megastar hurls sexism and racism back into people’s faces, one argument goes.

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
Kim Kardashian arrives at the LACMA Art + Film Gala at LACMA on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Los Angeles.
Kim Kardashian arrives at the LACMA Art + Film Gala at LACMA on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Los Angeles. Credit: AP
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

The Internet broke. Maybe you heard about it, and if not, you certainly saw the pictures: Kim Kardashian naked and glistening. Yes, the nude pictures of the American celebrity, which were published in Paper Magazine under the headline “Break the Internet,” broke viewing records. They also launched a very interesting debate.

Kardashian is a deceptive character, and the illusion is part of the story. She’s considered the symbol of American trash; a woman who became famous because of a sex tape, then became a reality TV star, then kept the gossip sites in business with her new adventures. Highbrows will dismiss her as a lowlife star.

A somewhat less banal cultural analysis reveals a more complex picture; after all, even before the current affair, a debate raged on whether Kardashian was a feminist icon.

The arguments against are clear. She uses her body for fame and riches. Her cosmetics businesses are based on people’s lack of self-esteem, which the culture reinforces for women. She has been photographed naked for Playboy and others, collaborating with the sexist culture.

But some women think otherwise. They say Kardashian has taken power into her own hands, chosen her goals and bent the rules to her benefit. As a result, millions adore her — on Twitter she has more than 25 million followers — and she earns tens of millions.

She’s the Marilyn Monroe of our times, some go so far as to say; some have even compared her to Helen of Troy. But she’s not a victim of her surroundings as Monroe was; she’s the one holding the wheel.

As some observers ask, what’s not feminist about a woman who decides what she wants, works to achieve it and succeeds? Moreover, it’s classic patriarchy to say that a woman who openly expresses her sexuality is a cheap whore.

The picture in Paper Magazine — the cover photo with the exposed derriere was just a preview of the full frontal inside — added oil to the already blazing Kardashian fire. Some noted that these pictures, which followed the nude photos of Keira Knightley and the heated discussion over Renee Zellweger’s face, prove that nothing has changed: Women still are judged by their looks.

Knightley was photographed with her breasts exposed sans Photoshop, which leads to the comparison between her and Kardashian: the patriarchal separation between good girls and bad girls.

Knightley is the good girl. True, she was photographed naked, but this was to protest the Photoshop culture and the beauty myth. Kardashian, of course, is the bad girl: the slut photographed as stereotypically sexy as possible. But gentlemen, stop dividing and ruling us, thank you.

And talk about stereotypes. Kardashian had two cover photos taken for Paper; one with her bum exposed. She’s a true member of the “Era of the Big Booty,” as Vogue magazine declared in September. (And if Vogue declared it, who are we to argue?) Singer-songwriter Nicki Minaj has already glorified this genre with her twerking, stoking the debate over the ethnic and gender significance.

It’s actually the second cover photo of Kardashian, the one where she’s clad, that has stirred the most controversy. She’s seen balancing a Champagne glass on her rear end, an homage to the 1976 "Champagne Incident" photo by French photographer Jean-Paul Goude.

It’s claimed that in this picture, Kardashian collaborates with racist stereotypes whose roots stem from the days of slavery. It reminds us of images of Saartjie Baartman, a woman from a tribe in South Africa.

Baartman was exploited by whites and their racist pseudoscientific claims. She was put on display with another woman from her tribe in circuses around Europe. She was humiliated, sexually abused and tortured. Her story was the basis for Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2010 film “Black Venus.”

All this supports a discussion on who’s considered white in the United States, who’s considered black and what’s the social and cultural significance. So Kardashian is viewed as a black sex symbol — and she’s white.

She’s pictured as the ultimate bimbo — while twisting the world around her finger and making millions. There’s no doubt she’s a woman who doesn’t give a damn; she just counts the money.

Of course, it’s possible to see her as vulgar and superficial and think her actions harm other women. But you’re allowed to ask: If Kardashian hadn’t been photographed in such flagrant nudity, would women be objectified any less?

Could it be that this expression of the sexist culture includes a good chance to address it? Maybe by bringing it to the level of the absurd — under feminine control — there’s greater potential for liberation?

After all, what have we had so far? Aware women and feminists embalm themselves in suits in order to advance in the male world. These people leave their sisters, who have fewer chances for education and social mobility, in the clutches of a worsening sexist culture.

Kardashian shows off her sexuality. She makes a laughingstock of those who claim that, now that she’s a mother, it’s improper to be photographed naked. Yes, there have been such claims. She hurls sexism and racism back into people’s faces.

This of course is only one way to look at the issue. Only Kardashian knows the truth, if it exists at all.

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