When Kim Kardashian and Kanye West announced the upcoming birth of their child, I was surprised. It violated, I felt, some inner sense of justice. True, Kanye West has of late become as well known for his award show freakouts, Twitter rants, and pharaoh costumes as his music, but I remember his better days. His meticulous production work on Jay-Z’s Black Album. His wildly creative first few albums. His humility and sense of social responsibility (the words feel absurd now). Kim Kardashian seems like a different kind of celebrity. She’s famous for her fame, celebrated for her celebrity, notorious for her notoriety. We used to say we didn’t know why Britney Spears was famous, but what we actually meant was that we didn’t enjoy her music. Today, many of us legitimately do not understand why we know Kardashian’s name (and dog, and family, and sexual partners, and … ). The union of these two, one a genuine talent and one a ... whatever it is she is, felt wrong. Worlds collided, worlds I would rather keep separate. West has enough skill and drive that it is easy to imagine him thriving in any period in musical history, tweaking knobs next to Barry Gordy in ’63, holding down the drums on Gil Scott-Heron records 10 years later, or out-spinning Grandmaster Flash in the early days of hip-hop. Kardashian feels new.
But, she isn’t new. At least not entirely. Instead, Kim Kardashian and her ilk are the latest products of a star system deeply tied to Western patriarchy. In a society that treats women first and foremost as bodies, the rise of someone like Kardashian to prominence should surprise no one. If it weren’t her, it would be somebody else.
There have always been actresses and singers who were more valued for their bodies than for their abilities. Marilyn Monroe is a classic example. In the Billy Wilder film Some Like it Hot, Monroe is paired with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two of the comic geniuses of her time, and she more than holds her own. Her timing is impeccable, with each seemingly tossed off gesture perfectly calculated to tantalize and delight. Monroe understood the power of her sexuality, but eventually came to resent it. Even after she won a Golden Globe for Some Like it Hot and critical acclaim in films like The Misfits, Monroe was unable to be taken seriously as anything other than a sex kitten. Her marriage to Arthur Miller and her photo shoot in which she is shown reading an original copy of Joyce’s Ulysses were unable to counter the popular conception of her as a one-note actress. She died at age 36, and was eulogized as a very attractive woman with very minor talent.
If anything, American mass society has grown increasingly comfortable with defining a woman primarily in terms of her sexual appeal. Witness the Saturday Night Live sketch “Helen Mirren’s Titties,” in which one of the greatest actresses of film history is reduced to her breasts.
Witness the “We Saw Your Boobs” song of this year’s Academy Awards, in which a list of films, great films, in which actresses were shown nude was recited. Witness the constant attention paid to the hairstyles and fashion choices of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Not every form of patriarchy is as obvious or as mean-spirited. But its pervasiveness is near total. Whenever an actress is introduced at an award ceremony, the epithet “lovely” or “beautiful” is always applied, in the way “handsome” seldom is, at least to actors who are not Adrien Brody. I do not mean to say that women are seen only in terms of sexual desirability, but I do mean to say that they are seen always in terms of sexual desirability.
Of course, there is a class dimension to this view of women. On the obvious level, it feeds a multi-billion dollar industry of cosmetic products, hair salons, department stores, exercise programs, face-lifts, and surgeries. On a subtler plane, the glorification of the beautiful naturalizes the class hierarchies of capitalism. The identification of the rich with the beautiful makes the absurd sums of capital held by a tiny elite seem inevitable. Biological. We see gorgeous people strolling through chic boutiques or opulent mansions and we are made aware that our comparative poverty is the result of in innate difference between us and them, between the ugly and the beautiful. This of course obscures the actual dimensions of capitalist oppression. When we think of the rich we think of the Kardashians, not the Waltons. We wouldn’t even recognize the latter, owners of the largest private employer in the world. Our discontent is diverted to a false elite, that of Hollywood, and then nullified by the presumed inevitability of our lowly position.
And so we come to reality television. We come to the Kardashians, the Hiltons, The Hills. The MTV executives who started this whole revolution with The Real World may say that they intended to show the personal lives of real people, but as always personal became sexual. We are given the illusion of real candor but are in fact given only play-by-play commentary on the sex lives of the beautiful people. Is it any wonder that in contemporary society the word “intimacy” has come to be synonymous with “sex?”
Kim Kardashian, a reality television star known only for her sexual escapades is the natural extension of an ideology that views women first and foremost as bodies. For decades we have felt the need to justify the celebrity of our sex objects by casting them in films or having them record albums every few years. This is no longer necessary. As part of the same trend towards confessionalism and false candor that has made the memoir the characteristic literary form of our generation, we have now come to accept the private lives of celebrities not only as the most important fact about them but as the only fact about them.
In a popular culture such as this, we should not be surprised by Kardashian’s pregnancy, nor by her romance with West. Ours is a culture that has ceased hiding its priorities. We are now willing to admit in the light of day that the most important thing a woman can be is beautiful. The reality star has finally earned her position alongside actresses, musicians, and politicians as one of the permanent fixtures of American public life. It’s been a long time coming.