As you surely know, last week Kim Kardashian posed — naked — on the pages of Paper Magazine. The stated goal? #BreakTheInternet.
Most cultural critics rolled their eyes and cried stunt. But the Kardashians aren’t just trashy. They’re dangerous — actively exploiting and reinforcing racial and gender biases.
Kim Kardashian’s picture is an almost exact replica of a 1976 portrait, also shot by photographer Jean-Paul Goude. The original version features Carolina Beaumont, who is black. The portrait was published in Goude’s book called, ahem, Jungle Fever.
Both images hark back to even more offensive representations of black women, particularly of Saartjie Baartman — the “Hottentot Venus” — a black woman with a large rear end who was violently exploited as a sexual object in a traveling “freak show” during the slave trade era.
For centuries since (and likely before) black women and their bodies have been smeared by stereotypes of hyper-sexuality simultaneously displayed and denigrated, their individuality and self-determination suppressed by the whims of the white male gaze. Goude, a white man, embodies this exploitative obsession. “Blacks are the premise of my work,” he said in 1979. “I have jungle fever.”
As Yomi Adegoke wrote in the Guardian in September, non-black women have a history of appropriating black women’s bodies and culture. Black women’s big bottoms were “the butt of fashion industry jokes for years,” Adegoke writes, until Jennifer Lopez, Iggy Azalea and even Miley Cyrus started boasting their own rear attributes, “Why does a black butt only look good in white skin?” Adegoke wrote.
It’s unclear whether Kardashian knew about her photo’s ugly context. If she did, her defense might be that she’s subverting the image — she’s not being exploited by society; she’s exploiting us. If society gives you racial and sexual exploitation, make lemonade, right? Isn’t Kardashian just an empowered modern woman taking control of her own body and career?
On Twitter, Kardashian even mocked her detractors:
And they say I didn’t have a talent. . .try balancing a champagne glass on your —- LOL #BreakTheInternet#PaperMagazine
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 12, 2014
But I think Kardashian does have a talent — exploiting the fetishization of women of color to line her own pocket. She’s like a buck-naked Trojan horse for a devious message: that the rest of us shouldn’t get our panties in a bunch about sexism and racism because, hey, Kim Kardashian is a woman of color, and she’s laughing about it. All the way to the bank.
It’s as impossible to untangle for Kardashian as it is for her entire family. Just a week ago, Kim’s sister Khloe Kardashian posted a picture on Instagram of herself, Kim and sister Kourtney Kardashian with the caption: “The only KKK to ever let black men in.”
It’s like saying, “Hey, people of color, don’t be so freaked out about the Ku Klux Klan threatening ‘lethal force’ against protesters in Ferguson because, ya know, the KKK is a joke. The Kardashians said so!” Why can’t everyone just have a sense of humor about racism and sexism like the Kardashians?
When the subject of racial bias does come up, the Kardashians often claim ignorance.
“To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought,” Kim Kardashian wrote on her blog last May soon after giving birth.
“We don’t want to reduce ignorance to prejudice,” Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of Perception Institute, said of the Kardashians. “But at the same time, we need to be able to call out flagrant examples of bias and hope that someone at this level of public privilege will work to get this right — not just for themselves, but for all the people who follow them.”
But whether Kim Kardashian has thought about it or not, racial bias certainly created the cultural climate that allowed the family to rise to fame.
The very title of Keeping Up With the Kardashians suggests that while these women of color are successfully using their, uh, assets, everyone else is behind. Certainly race and gender discrimination can’t be part of the answer because the Kardashian women are so successful?
The implication is that something is wrong with the rest of us that we can’t keep up. But it would certainly help if the Kardashians weren’t so recklessly feeding the biases and stereotypes we know make it harder for women and people of color, and especially women of color, to succeed.
Sally Kohn is an essayist and a CNN political commentator.
Special To The Washington Post