She’s the most watched woman on the planet. But how did a woman with no discernible reason for celebrity end up as a cultural icon of womanhood in the 21st century? Editorial intern Sophie Falcon attempted to find out.
What does she do aside from “being a Kardashian?” Why is Kim even famous? These are questions posed on a daily basis, for which I have no direct answer. A joint creation of both great PR strategy and society’s need for mindless gossip, Kim Kardashian West is so often the epitome of what society tells us not to do, and yet seemingly the poster girl for how to succeed.
Whether you love or loathe the 21st century sensation, you’ve likely consumed a part of her empire at some point. Be it through watching her reality show, engaging with her social media presence, wearing her perfumes, reading her magazine interviews, seeing her commercials or downloading the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood cellphone game (or anything else “Kim-related” from the internet…) – she’s become an inescapable part of Western pop culture. Yet, increasingly, she’s starting to spill into higher tiers as well…
Last Wednesday, Vulture published a conversation between senior art critic Jerry Saltz and editor David Wallace-Wells. A probing look at the phenomenon of her celebrity, the article – entitled, “How and Why We Started Taking Kim Kardashian Seriously (and What She Teaches Us About the State of Criticism)” – was a rare intellectual dive into shifting attitudes towards the former reality TV/sex-tape star. Three years ago, such an article would’ve been unimaginable.
Here’s 10 reasons I feel the world’s attitudes have changed to all things Kim Kardashian West.
“She is a feminist artist who belongs alongside the Brontës, Jane Austen and Virgina Woolf”
According to rapturous reviews (see here and here) of her first photography book, Selfish, Kim K is now up there with some of the greatest feminist expressionists ever known. When hacked nude images were released as part of the so-called Fappening, other victims urged people not to look at the images at all (Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, blasted the act as a “sex crime”). Kim, however, chose to publish the pictures herself in a deliberate “fuck you” to the hackers, and laughed in the face of the nasty misogynist undercurrent that precipitated their release, all the way to the bank.
We’ve all become “struck dumb” by her public persona
The 21st century has seen concepts of national consensus, gender identities, racial identities and historical memory all become more fluid. Alongside husband Kanye West, Kim is a steady force in our age of uncertainty. They’re what Jerry Saltz describes as the “new uncanny”, when he says “figures like Kardashian and West try so hard to showcase and communicate how sincere they are, [but] instead they reveal how out-of-touch they are — from each other, from themselves, from us.” In doing so, they keep us as spectators, unbalanced. Their use of grandiosity, kitsch, irony, theater, and ideas of spectacle all shape the way we view notions of opportunism and illusion, and we can’t take our eyes off them.
She’s ahead of her time
Long before “selfie” was a registered term, Kim was aware of the concept. The odd angles, the visible arm holding the camera, the urge to “create reality” by forcibly documenting it, the irretrievability of passing moments. Kim knew exactly what she was doing back then and she did it well. The same stands today. She is the master of her own form; a form that was unconventional for that time.
“She is a first adapter and partial inventor of a genre”
As an extension to my previous point, the “selfie” has now become a naturalized form of both art and personal expression. It was, briefly, everything; but now it’s just another “thing.” The form, however, is going through further alterations, brought on by new tools, technologies, accessories, and approaches, making it so ubiquitous that it has become an entire genre of sorts. I guess we could call Kim its ambassador.
She empowers female sexualization
Just a few months after Kim was ridiculed online for claiming that her ass was a work of art, a series of think-pieces came from the Met Costume Institute gala celebrating sheer fabrics and declaring the body a worthy work of art. Nowadays we’ve come to celebrate women’s own sexualization of the female form. The “bad body image” that has plagued women since the advent of critical media has a lot to do with men talking about women’s bodies, rather than allowing those who inhabit them to do so themselves. Kim knows (and loves) her own body, and empowers other women to command their own.
She’s part of a change in the media landscape
Whether or not you believe TV is in a better place now than it was 15 years ago (following the advent of reality TV) is a matter of personal opinion, but there’s little doubt it’s changed as a medium. It went from being something a lot of serious people were uncomfortable getting excited about, to something as openly discussed as any other facet of modern culture. Saltz remarks, “we are so much more open to quality now, and to pleasures of the [reality TV] form like seriality, character familiarity, and immersive narrative. And, because we’re more open to it, we see quality more.” Kim has been on Keeping Up with the Kardashians for 10 seasons, and she even once claimed “We have more episodes than I Love Lucy.” Like it or not, reality television is a legitimate genre now. Not only that, but it’s emerging dominant in a time when sitcoms and drama are on the decline. To sustain a top spot within such a popular arena for this long is pretty remarkable.
In an age of social media, Kim is autonomous
We are now a generation of people with Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat accounts, but Kim operates these on a whole other level. She has more than 24.7 million Twitter followers and 20 million Instagram followers. She understands the use of this technology and how it can bolster her personal brand. She has created a depth to the ways this media platform can be used, and has been instrumental in encouraging its growth over the past years.
She’s changing the face of the “critic”
With social media spreading the critical virus, we’ve all become critics in some form or other, unafraid to voice our opinions out loud. “In the art world, two or three generations of critics were all but lost to academia or having the subjectivity and original opinion scared out of them, making them refrain from writing clearly, with voice, judgment, something personal,” notes Saltz. But that’s changing. These days there’s no absolute, objective standard to art, music or culture – everything is a matter of taste, and a whole new generation of younger critics is emerging. While Kim has had nothing to do with this explicitly, it has nonetheless allowed an appreciation of her to blossom free from the withering gaze of accepted cultural wisdom.
She’s helping us turn a corner away from the “takedown” culture
According to Jerry Saltz, “the acceptance of Kim not as a freak show, huckster, or something sold, but instead as something self-created, self-aware, and sincere, with its own essences and vulnerabilities” is a result of a new way the media treat personalities. We may be turning a corner away from what has come to be known as a “takedown culture,” where the media’s interest in celebrities seemed intrinsically linked to a desire to destroy them (see Britney Spears circa 2007). With more and more people making up their own minds when it comes to celebrity culture, Kardashian West has enjoyed relative sympathy in the public eye.
“We all have our own Selfish” – that’s what makes her so relatable
It must be acknowledged that Selfish, as a text based solely on the idea of contemporary muse, is a chorus of Kim. However, that’s not to say the rest of us can’t relate to it. Written in her own personal language of shallowness, self-awareness and sexuality, it’s a true work of art in that respect. Saltz describes it as “another struggle of a young girl inventing herself in and out of the spotlight amidst Southern California insanity, hedonism, and wealth,” and through the book Kim does something in public that so many women do in private: look at herself. It is a liberation – of sorts – of our time.
You can read the conversation between Jerry Saltz and David Wallace-Wells in full here.