The perfect celebrity for the outrage age
LAST week a friend asked me, apropos of the new issue of Paper magazine – which put Kim Kardashian and her most famous assets on prominent display on the cover and inside – why Kardashian is famous. It’s a good question.
How is it that Kardashian, who was once an assistant standing a pace behind early reality star Paris Hilton, hasn’t only become more famous than her former employer, but a genuinely significant cultural icon, all without doing any of the serious artistic work that it normally takes to make someone such a prominent subject of discussion?
In hawking perfume, beauty products and clothes, Kardashian is not so different from the actresses profiled in the New York Times this weekend who have turned to lifestyle businesses to bolster their incomes because the quality of available parts has declined, along with the salaries that come with those roles.
But unlike other women with similar businesses and similar profiles, Kardashian isn’t an actress, a showrunner, or a director.
And while Kardashian makes enormous amounts of money from her family’s show, the in-game purchasing functions of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and all her licensing deals, none of this lifestyle branding feel like her real job either, as it might be for Martha Stewart.
What Kardashian is selling us isn’t episodes of television or sheath dresses or shiny hair, but opportunities for social positioning. By putting her life on display in a 24-hour, globally accessible gallery and by guaranteeing that we’ll have plenty to say about it, she has fashioned herself into the perfectly optimised celebrity for the outrage era.
“She is variously seen as a feminist-entrepreneur-pop-culture-icon or a latestage symptom of our society’s myriad ills: narcissism, opportunism, unbridled ambition, unchecked capitalism,” Amanda Fortini writes in the Paper profile of Kardashian. “Social media has created a new kind of fame, and Kardashian is its paragon. It is a fame whose hallmark is agreeable omnipresence, which resembles a kind of evenly spread absence, soothing, tranquil and unobjectionable.”
But if Kardashian is a pleasant blank, that smooth expanse makes for a wonderful projection surface. At a moment where everyone has opinions and technology lets everyone create their own content, she is a savvy businesswoman to keep handing her audience plenty of inspiration.
The response to the Paper photo shoot is a perfect example of the infinite possibilities that seem to spin out from any action Kardashian takes.
There is what Heather Cocks at Go Fug Yourself described as the “GIRL. YOU ARE SOMEONE’S MOTHER” school of reaction, and the equally heartfelt response that motherhood need not be the end of a woman’s erotic life and enjoyment of her own body.
Blue Telumsa at the Grio, an African-American news community, notes the similarities between the Paper shoot and images of Saartjie Baartman, “whose large buttocks brought her questionable fame and caused her to spend much of her life being poked and prodded as a sexual object in a freak show”.
After the couple went viral with the video for Bound 2, featuring Kardashian topless on a motorcycle, did we think West had lost his mind and judgement as an artist? Or did we see them as clever, selfaware operators who knew how to drive a conversation? Are we above chasing fame in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood? Or unpretentious enough to recognise the pleasures of mass culture? Criticising or praising Kardashian has become a way we can explain our approaches to sex, to parenting, to money, to our own families.
“Break The Internet” may have seemed like an overreaching claim for a profile of Kardashian. But there is a sly point to the way Paper phrased it – not as a description of what Kim Kardashian has done, but as a command to the rest of us. Kardashian gives us the fuel, and we go ahead and set the internet on fire, all on our own initiative. – The Washington Post
BOTTOMS UP: The impact of Kim Kardashian’s Paper shoot has been likened to Saartjie Baartman.