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.