Leave Kim Kardashian Alone

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we need to lay off Kim Kardashian. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let me make a guess: you think Kim Kardashian is a bad role model for girls because she does what the patriarchy tells girls to do. Her activities reinforce dominant tropes about how to be a woman, and she actively supports dieting and sizeism by hawking her QuickTrim pseudo-science of weight loss pills.

Well, I agree with you, and I think those criticisms are valid. I’m not saying you have to like Kim Kardashian. But though that may be our objection to Kim’s activities, that is not the main message of the current backlash against her. That backlash is sexist, and as people who care about social justice, we must debunk it whenever we can – whether we like Kim or not.

The major criticisms we hear about Kim are thus: she’s vapid and shallow, a “slut”, “famous for doing nothing”, and makes a mockery of marriage – either because her marriage was too short, or because her marriage was a sham concocted to make money. Let’s go through these one by one.

Vapid? Kim’s life does seem to revolve around fashion, makeup, conventional beauty, and finding love in a heteronormative manner. Are these activities vapid? No. There’s no sense in which fashion and makeup are any less important than, say, videogames or surfboards. Would you call someone who dedicated her life to making surfboards, using surfboards, and being a surfboard enthusiast vapid? Shallow? You wouldn’t, and that’s because we associate surfboards with social codes around masculinity and fashion and makeup with social codes around femininity. Our patriarchal culture considers masculine-coded interests as somehow less shallow and vapid than feminine-coded interests. They aren’t. And as for heteronormative love? There’s nothing especially wrong with that on a personal level (though the macro tropes surrounding it are harmful). In fact, the people making this criticism usually want that too, they just think it’s vapid when women are explicit about it.

It’s also important to note that punishing women for complying with cultural demands for performative femininity is a key component of women’s oppression. Our culture insists that women conform to a certain conventional beauty standards, and concern themselves with “girl things” like fashion and hair and makeup, in order to be acceptable as women. Yet when women like Kim do this, they are derided – called stupid, shallow, and vapid. As feminists, we must never stand by while women are called derogatory names for engaging in socially coded feminine activities. Even if we don’t like those women.

Well, is Kim Kardashian a “slut”? Answer: It’s none of your business! And this particular complaint against Kim is obviously the worst form of slutshaming and misogyny. I have no idea what Kim’s sex life is like but I don’t need to know anything about it to defend her from this charge. Frankly, anyone who thinks the word “slut” in its dominant cultural use is a coherent, sensible concept – let alone a legitimate insult with which to slur a woman – is flat out wrong. I don’t see anyone calling the men Kim sleeps with sluts, I don’t see anyone haranguing the man Kim made the sex tape with and asking him how he expects us to respect him. As feminists, our reply to those who slutshame Kim must be unequivocal: you will respect Kim no matter how “slutty” she is according to your feverish imaginings.

Okay, now what about “famous for doing nothing”? Kim is famous for making a sex tape and then doing lots of modelling and reality television. I admit, this does not seem like a huge contribution to humanity when you compare it to the life’s work of Rosalind Franklin or Morgan Tsvangirai or Elizabeth Blackburn or Alvin Roth or Aung San Suu Kyi or Norman Borlaug or Christina Romer. But is that the right comparison? No. Because I bet you had to google at least one of those people, all of whom have contributed “more” to humanity than virtually any Hollywood celebrity ever will. (I admit I’m invoking a hierarchy, and I acknowledge the issues inherent in that, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that these people contribute to human society more than TV stars do.)

Fame is arbitrary. The vast majority of fame in our culture is bestowed on one group: entertainers. I do not wish to belittle the entertainment industry; it provides people with a lot of enjoyment, relaxation, excitement and fun, as well as the occasional transformative experience. But there’s no real philosophical reason why these people should be famous while doctors and teachers are not. Some people claim that it’s totally legitimate to make actors and singers famous, it’s just reality TV stars that are “doing nothing”. But really, they are entertaining people just as much as actors who memorise scripts. Is Kim Kardashian’s fame that much less deserved than the fame of Jessica Alba or Reese Witherspoon or Vin Diesel or Robert Pattinson? Maybe she is “doing less”, but last time I looked, your product is what matters in the entertainment industry – not how hard you had to work. Face it, very few famous people “deserve” their fame in any concrete sense.

It’s also worth remembering that Kim Kardashian didn’t get famous on her own: fame requires the attention of the masses. Now, clearly, Kim is pretty dedicated to getting our attention. And we give it to her – if we cut her off, there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. We are the lynchpin of who gets famous. So if anyone is responsible for the sorry state of affairs in which the Kardashians are more well known than the Curies, it is us, not Kim Kardashian. Most celebrities are famous for their skills at entertainment: if you think Kim is famous for nothing, then you must admit that most celebrities are famous for next-to-nothing. Criticise the whole culture of fame, not one girl who is working the system.

Now we come to Kim’s apparent crimes against marriage. I have seen a lot of gay-rights activists decrying Kim’s quick-as-a-flash marriage and divorce as if it is personally injurious to them. I think the core of the complaint is that she is “misusing” an institution that is denied to us queers. First of all, let’s be honest about the situation: Kim’s marriage has no effect on us. She has not altered our chances at making gay marriage a reality. Sure, it can be galling to see how straight people are allowed to marry and divorce someone they barely know with ease while we are denied the right to marry a committed partner of 20 years. But it wouldn’t help our cause if marriage got more restrictive, so that only straight people in supercommited relationships could get married and they were never allowed to divorce. In fact that’s a giant step back. The fact that queers don’t have equal rights is not Kim Kardashian’s fault and she doesn’t deserve our hatred.

From a feminist perspective, there’s something interesting about accusing anyone of making a “mockery” of marriage. Really? What’s left to mock? I’m not implying that love and commitment are not important – they are important, but they are not the exclusive domain of married people, and they are directly counter to the historical legacy of marriage. Marriage started off as a morally bankrupt, sexist institution used by men – and families run by men – to signal possession of women. In most parts of the world it was in essence a financial contract, intended to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of families, and it had nothing to do with love. It’s pretty hilarious to say Kim is making a mockery of marriage by using it for financial gain when that was the explicit purpose of marriage for most of human history. The only difference? It was usually for the financial gain of men, since women were chattel. Now we get the faint whiff of a rumour that a woman used the institution of marriage for her own financial gain – and her husband did not even become her chattel! – and suddenly it’s off with her head? We can’t let this go unquestioned. Not on our watch.

If we want to criticise Kim Kardashian, we have plenty of legitimate concerns (and Quicktrim should be our leading issue in my opinion). But the vast majority of the complaints made against Kim are straight up sexist bullshit, and the rest use her as a scapegoat for institutional inequality. Kim Kardashian is hardly a feminist hero. But women don’t have to be feminist heroes before they deserve to be defended from sexism, slutshaming and hatred. All women should be defended against sexist attacks, not just the women we like. That’s kind of how feminism is supposed to work. Leave Kim Kardashian alone.


23 Comments on Leave Kim Kardashian Alone

  1. blinvisible says:

    I suspect most people can handle people winning the fame version of the lottery. Actors have to work hard as well as being lucky and many don’t make it. Even most reality TV shows have an application screening process and so being what the show is looking for and luck are huge factors.

    None of these are the kase with Kim Kardashian though. She’s where she is because of class privilege and when viewed under a class lens, the complaint of ‘famous for doing nothing’ is quite valid.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      This is interesting – honestly, I’m not sure about how her class privilege interacts with her fame. I thought her sex tape was what kicked off her career? Though I admit, I haven’t followed it super closely. If so, that’s hardly related to her class.

      Though I guess it may well be that because of her famous step-father Bruce Jenner, she was deemed to be “relevant” somehow and so her sex tape was a “scandal” – is that what you mean?

    • topaz_grrl says:

      I’ll agree with you that a lot of her fame comes from class privilege, but she is far from the only actor/entertainer to benefit from that. Gywneth Paltrow attributes her big break to a role given to her by her “uncle Steven” (Steven Spielberg). Drew Barrymore’s whole family is in The Business. All of these instances are fame acquired through class privilege, but we don’t shame and deride Gywneth and Drew for it.

    • WD says:

      Why “complaint”? I would have thought it’d be more difficult to be famous for doing “nothing” (unquantifiable), than doing “something” (presumably, quantifiable).

      If that’s what she wants, props to her for getting there – even if she used her privileged upbringing.

      P.S. Great post!

  2. Tsipi says:

    Rachael, you are my discovery of the year! I mean it. You make me look at myself and my preconceptions as no one else has in many years (and I’m saying this as a self-proclaimed aware and educated feminist and queer activist).

    I thank you, sincerely.

  3. Vanessa says:

    absolutely LOVED this article. thank you!

  4. Well said! You put into words what had been troubling me for a while.

    Do you mind if I post this on my blog?

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Ha, that’s cool! I have a lot of differences of opinion with Shakesville, but it’s nice to see we can all come together on this one.

  5. Great article as usual. This kind of trap is all too easy to fall into. Consider how feminine stereotypes of gay men in popular media are often criticized by pro-gay groups.

    Sometimes I wonder if pro-gay groups are reacting to how the feminine is (wrongly) used to denote inferiority or used as a source of sexist comedy *OR* are they instead somehow promoting sexism by the (wrong) implication that the feminine is inferior?
    -Jeremy

  6. AMM says:

    \begin{snark}
    It seems to me that if anyone is being “vapid and shallow,” it’s the people (especially the paparazzi) who immerse themselves in her every move.
    \end{snark}

    If she’s not doing all that much, she’s also not doing much to make the world worse, either. Honestly, if the worst you can say about someone is that they’re “vapid and shallow,” they’re doing pretty well. I’d take her over, say, Ron Paul or Dick Cheney or the Westboro Baptist Church crowd any day.

  7. I fucking despise Kim Kardashian, but I agree with this.

  8. d says:

    I love this post! And on the she does nothing comment, I think Kim Kardashian actually does work pretty hard, time/energy investment-wise. Modeling, appearances, fashion line, etc. It may not be work that people approve of, but that’s not really the same issue at all. Which fits in with the “punishment for doing lady-type things” theory.

  9. Cordelia says:

    loved this article, very well done !!

  10. This is a really great article! So great in fact, that I made a drawing for it : http://ambivalentlyyours.tumblr.com/post/18858005352/socialjusticeleague-net

  11. Cory says:

    Agreed. Well said.

  12. Kymtje says:

    This is amazing, thank you.

    So hard to train ourselves out of the reactions we learn growing up – your arguments explain exactly why doing so is so important.

  13. liver says:

    Making surfboards and makeup are apples and oranges. The former is recreational and can provide a tangible benefit to fellow human beings (making a surfboard someone can buy and use), while makeup and beauty create no tangible products and the whole activity revolves around vanity of the person engaging in it and by extension, those who witness it (seeing beautiful people nearly always makes the viewer compare themselves to them, so it’s kind of like vicarious vanity). She contributes nothing wholesome or beneficial to society.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Surfboards and videogames are really not more beneficial to society than makeup products. Literally everything you just said about surfboards applies to makeup! Makeup is recreational. Makeup is something someone can buy and use. Makeup products are “tangible products”! It’s basically paint for your body and face, which is fun for some people! If vanity is your issue, we can talk about how some folks use makeup for vanity just like some folks ride their bike for vanity. Not everyone experiences makeup and bikes like that. And vanity is a loaded concept anyway, associated with the feminine and therefore difficult to discuss neutrally. If you want, we can have a serious discussion about how vanity as a concept is used against women from many angles.

      I did not claim Kim contributes anything wholesome or beneficial. I am not claiming there’s no problematic aspect to what Kim does, in fact I explicitly said the opposite. But I’m defending makeup. I’m claiming that people who hawk makeup products are not MORE useless to society than people who hawk surfboards or videogames or energy drinks or watercolour pencils or ipods or degustation menus. None of these products distinguishes itself from the others in terms of social benefit. The extremely weak attempts you are making to draw this particular distinction reveals internalised sexism. Which I already explained in the post in some detail.

      The point does not hinge on the specific examples I gave. We can sit here until the end of time debating how useful different products are, but the bigger picture is that we’re taught to dismiss female-coded interests and make justifications for why male-coded interests are super wholesome and beneficial. Which is exactly what you just tried to do.

  14. cricri83 says:

    Great article Rachel! I am big advocate for leaving Kim alone and it breaks my heart that we live in a society that is so judgmental and hypocrate!


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