Getting to the Bottom of Kim Kardashian's Alien Appeal
Her "Paper" cover shoot shows that people still don't know what to do with their feelings about her.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Kim Kardashian has been shot by Jean-Paul Goude for the cover of Paper magazine, her famous behind oiled up, completely bare and jutted towards the camera. "Break the Internet Kim Kardashian," shouts the cover line.
It's interesting that it's Goude who has done this; the iconic French image-maker who—with his muse-then-lover, Grace Jones—brought a severe, alien new sexiness to pop culture in the late 70s and early 80s. Here was a tall, black, androgynous, sexually omnivorous, and muscular disco singer who challenged people's very ideas of what sexiness could be. Goude famously said at the time, "She's the only woman I can work with or talk to. I'm not interested in cupcakes anymore."
Goude capitalized on how absurd covers like Island Life presented a whole new way of being a woman: solid, strong, uncompromising. Gravity-defying. It was bare flesh, sure, but it was black, rock solid, and shiny, rapt with physical power. The Jones image was subversive because in 1985's world of Elnett-ed blondes like Samantha Fox, she really was an island and being attracted to her created inner tension. My dad said once that he admitted fancying her to his mate and they went, "Errr, she looks like a bloke," and he didn't know what to say. That was the conflict. You fancied her, but didn't know why, or whether you ought to.
Kardashian isn't androgynous. Lord, she's like a Henry Moore sculpture. That ass is a feat of engineering; you almost need a degree in physics to fully understand it. Goude being excited about recreating his famous " Champagne Incident" image with her, with that ass that is pretty much a brand of its own, is a big moment for popular culture, I think. Why? Because Kardashian might be one of the most subversive cultural figures we have now. She is nothing like Jones, who was amazing because she purposefully embodied difference and strove to be "other." Kardashian is entirely a product of other people's influences and ideas of what will make her look, and be, fantastic and different.
As Paper points out, she is a woman who is able to generate headlines just by leaving her house. She can't just nip to the shop for a pint of milk, because every move, every walk with her kid, every trip out in the car, is documented. She is married to an incredibly successful and wealthy artist. Together, and apart, they pretty much bankroll certain areas of the media.
But despite the woman's power, her omnipresence in our culture, some people have a problem with her trajectory, how she came to be in the position she is. She provokes an intense snobbery in many people I know, and you can see the root of it: She's a reality TV star and famously made a sex tape with her then lover, Ray J. She hasn't actually (apart from the hugely successful clothing line) done anything but be famous. For being famous.
"She's a slag who got rich for being on reality telly and for having sex on camera," oceans of pricks commented online when Kardashian was shot by Annie Leibowitz on the cover of Vogue with Kanye West. I'm paraphrasing, but friends said as much to me, too. And yes, she was filmed having sex once and was probably instrumental in putting it out there. Her mom, Kris Jenner, may have helped sell the tape, too, and it's all quite murky and unpalatable for some. And the marking of said tape has been indelible. She will never, ever be allowed to forget it.
But Kardashian is subversive because she creates conflict and tension. Like people may have felt with Jones, when she booted her way into public view with her wedge haircut and coral eye makeup, you want to love her, but find it hard to be fully OK with it. So many women I know say Kardashian is a "guilty pleasure," that they "shouldn't love her but I do." Kardashian is literally everywhere, her ass a pop cultural sun of sorts, but still finds herself playing the alien—as Jones once did—because people don't know what to do with their feelings about her.
Various slants on "vacuous cretin" have been a common denominator on Twitter today following the release of Paper's cover images, tempered with fervent appreciation of her oily cheeks. Female journalists have asked, "What is it, exactly, that we're meant to like or admire about Kim Kardashian?" and the truth is, I don't know what other people are supposed to admire in her. I don't know what kind of role model she's meant to be.
Personally, I see the multimillion-dollar business empire, the relentless schedules, the mother. Yes, the kid is forced to sit in fashion shows. Yes, she's had to blink away paparazzi flashes since the day she was born. Yes, Keeping Up with the Kardashians isn't "high culture" by any means, and she's a complete and utter brat to her parents on the show (even if it's eked out by the producers, she can be completely foul), but christ, what is high culture now? Does it even exist? In a world where our new celebrities are self-made vloggers who talk about literally anything on YouTube and generate millions of followers, how can we differentiate between what is "high" and what is "low"?
Kardashian's divisiveness is fascinating. Her being shot by Jean-Paul Goude in this way, as an absurd spectacle of utter female-ness, is fascinating. I've spoken to people who say, "I couldn't tell you a thing about her," who ask why on earth I'd be interested in reading an article about her, who have said to me this very morning, "Oh, give me a break."
I don't have these conversations about any other pop cultural figure and it makes me think that the Paper cover could become one of the most enduring, controversial images of our time. Having worked on women's magazines, I've also been part of the endless conversations about whether she wears padding or not, how no "white" (she's Armenian) woman could possibly have such proportions. Here, in all its slicked and ripe glory, she's presenting a big "fuck you" to all that.
You might despise Kardashian and what she represents ("everything and nothing", says one friend), but if the Kardashian-West Vogue cover was jumping the shark, then the Paper cover, shot by someone who was instrumental in some of the most iconic, subversive female imagery of our time, is riding said shark around a bay screaming "I Am the Resurrection" through a megaphone. Goude obviously sees subversion in Kardashian, something that scratches at the modern psyche, else he wouldn't have done it. Kardashian has an ass that came from outer space; pop culture is her Area 51—a place of infinite intrigue, confusion and debate.
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