While it’s difficult to deny the reality star’s ability to generate web traffic, it’s also hard to ignore the problematic racial imagery her online gambit conjures up.
Nude or nearly nude photos and footage of Kardashian have been ubiquitous for nearly a decade. Her first foray into public consciousness was a sex tape with fellow reality star Ray J. From there, she went on to pose for a spread in Playboy and, more recently, made a topless cameo in a music video starring her new husband, rapper Kanye West.
Through all that, her body has become something of a calling card, which is her prerogative. However, the furor surrounding her latest photo shoot is also a reminder of how women as a whole — and women of color, in particular — are consistently objectified.
In her PAPER pictorial, besides showing off her rear end, Kardashian is also seen recreating an iconic 1976 photo of model Carolina Beaumont by photographer Jean-Paul Goude. The image shows the black model pouring champagne backwards into a glass perched on her backside. The intent of the Kardashian photo is clearly satirical, but who is the subject of the joke really?
“[Kardashian] understands her relationship to media, and the medium in which she’s most widely distributed. There’s some deeply embedded Saartjie Baartman, Hottentot Venus sh-t happening, of course, but I’ve never seen a body part more widely discussed, reviled, celebrated, and known as Kim’s a–,” argued Danielle Henderson of Cosmopolitan magazine in an online debate about the cover.
For those unfamiliar, Saartjie Baartman, widely known as “Hottentot Venus,” was exhibited as a freak show in Europe in the 19th century for the perceived extraordinary size of her butt. Once an object for dissection to scientists and amusement to white Europeans, Baartman now is symbolic of the exploitation of women of color.
Kardashian is a fourth-generation Armenian-American but, for a variety of reasons, she is commonly identified with black popular culture. She’s been both ridiculed and celebrated for her history of dating black celebrities. She is currently the parent of a biracial child conceived with West. Even the gossip site TMZ has openly asked the question: Is Kim Kardashian officially black? This has left many people in the African-American community feeling uneasy, and this latest pictorial, as well as her sister’s recent “joke” about the KKK, have not helped.
“In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black — it looks like Mrs. West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin’ idea,” wrote Blue Telusma in an op-ed for theGrio.
Racial politics aside, are these photos just a demonstration of her ability to turn heads and a celebration of her freedom to do so — or is it an indictment of our culture’s obsession with fetishizing black and brown female beauty?