On Kim Kardashian-West, Feminism and Her Unique Brand of Celebrity
Writer Anne T. Donahue and Associate Beauty Editor Suzie Michael discuss Kim Kardashian-West’s robbery, brand of celebrity and important role as a feminist.
ATD: Suzie. You love Kim K-W. I love Kim K-W. Do you find you come up against a lot of people who do not love Kim K-W?
SM: My close friend group aside, I definitely come across way more people who “hate” Kim K than I do people who love her. I put hate in quotations because the intensity with which people dislike her, a person they have not met, really freaks me out.
ATD: It freaks me out too. It’s such a vicious hate? It comes from a scary place that I feel is rooted a lot in everything from jealousy to spitefulness to misogyny to a complete misunderstanding of how celebrity works.
I’ve found that the reaction to the Paris robbery is alarmingly split. On one hand, there are people who understand that a woman underwent an act of violence and are horrified about it. On the other, there are people who are taking actual delight in her suffering. I’ve seen the idea that she — and her wealth — “deserve” it. Which goes into a whole other realm. Like, hello: I don’t care what you’re doing or who you are, you do not deserved to be attacked or hurt or scared. But why do you think there’s this venomous response to her pain? You mentioned to me earlier today that to some people, she’s a “character” not a real person.
SM: This whole situation doesn’t feel real to many people (that’s why you probably heard the words ‘publicity stunt’ a lot), because she doesn’t feel real to a lot of people. I know a lot of people who literally view her as a thing, and even worse—one that we’re entitled to touch and gawk at and bully online, because a) her brand is built on the idea of accessibility (hello, reality TV) and b) her body is an important aspect of her brand.
ATD: I did hear that a lot! But also it reminded me a lot of whenever a woman comes forward about anything bad that happened to her, sadly. Only in most cases it’s not “publicity stunt,” it’s “Well are you sure that’s how it happened?” Just this was in the celebrity sense.
SM: Exactly. “Why was she travelling with $10 million worth of jewellery” is alarmingly similar to “Well, what were you wearing when it happened?” The “Why were there no bodyguards around her?” is parallel to “Why were you walking alone at night?”
ATD: Completely! It’s exactly the same line of questioning we’ve seen in almost every sexual assault and rape case in recent memory. No one asks, “So why did those men think they were entitled to Kim Kardashian’s space and belongings? Why did they decide to hurt a woman?”
SM: Many celebs are seen as celebrities first, human beings second. Not Kim. There is no second when it comes to her. Even when Kim-haters see photos of her holding her daughter’s hand, taking her to dance class, they see that through the lens of “This is the scene where the character named Kim takes her daughter to dance class.”
It’s hard to picture someone who has totally flipped the concept of what it means to be a celebrity on its head, someone as in control of their image and in your face as Kim, in a powerless position. When a person is attacked in their bedroom in the middle of the night, they are not in control. When a person is tied up and locked in a bathroom, they are not in control. When a person has a gun pointed at their head, they are not in control. Picturing Kim Kardashian-West in a situation where she has been stripped of all control makes people uncomfortable, and that’s why it’s important to recognize the selfishness in blaming her or saying she “deserved it.” Kim granting us access into her life does not mean we created her. It does not mean we own her or that she’s less entitled to empathy and kindness. It doesn’t give anyone the right to dehumanize her.
ATD: Oh, it’s very “Stars! They’re just like us!” in the worst fucking case scenario ever. And I think there’s something also to be said about how so many of the conversations around Kim already are about what she does and does not deserve. As if anyone has a right to decide that. Plus, there’s already a lot of “controversy” around her wealth and her empire, and it usually goes right back to “Well, she had a sex tape, so she’s famous for doing nothing, so she doesn’t deserve the attention we give her.” So right away, there’s this narrative created that Kim did not get famous the “right” way, so it makes her “bad.” So when she’s robbed in her hotel room, there’s this almost, justification for some people — like, “Well I hate her, and it looks like other people do too.”
The public response to Kim is 99.9% what it’s like for most women who live life publicly. (See: insults, hate, terrible comments, etc.) There’s just more vitriol thrown at her specifically because she’s very open about her embracement of her own sexuality. And that also scares a lot of people.
SM: Did you ever dislike Kim? Or not care about her? What was your turning point?
ATD: You know what? I really didn’t like her around the time she divorced Kris Humphries. And the reason I didn’t like her was because everybody seemed to feel the same way, and I was very comfortable with their reasoning (“She’s famous for nothing!”), which is embarrassing to admit. But also that had a lot to do with me. I remember that year I was still very married to the ideas of how women “should” or “should not” be, and I had to grow up and have my attitude checked.
So I remember shortly thereafter, my dislike morphed into neutrality, and then around the time her video game came out, I started playing it and fell in love with it and a lot of what her character would bring to the table. Then, by the time she Broke the Internet™ for Paper, I was fully Team Kim. I respect when somebody knows themselves enough to do what they want, and to feel comfortable while doing it.
What about you? And are there any moments you’re like “Kim, no!” about now? When I heard she was maybe going to vote for Trump I absolutely wanted to walk into the sea.
SM: I don’t remember ever actively disliking her, but I definitely didn’t give her any mental energy. I just didn’t really acknowledge her. The thing that changed that for me was actually thinking about her sex tape, and really forcing myself to reflect on how the “she’s only famous for making a sex tape” comments made me feel. I’m the same age that she was when that tape leaked, and the way that she handled (and continues to handle) that situation was really valuable to me in my early 20s. Post-Kim, the thought of having something like that leak, while still an awful invasion of privacy and trust, doesn’t seem like the end of the world. And that’s really powerful, IMO. I remember being in university and recognizing that it wasn’t going to destroy her, and that she wasn’t ashamed of her sexuality (and was actually using it to her advantage), and that was such a defining moment for me. When I hear other women shame her for it, it just sounds like selective feminism.
ATD: That’s massive, actually. Because when I was a teen, Paris Hilton’s sex tape came out. And while I really liked Paris, I remember thinking of her sex tape as a worst case scenario. I remember she took a lot of jokes in stride, but the idea of the tape was very taboo. Kim’s really erased that taboo — she’s very open about it having happened.
Now from a fashion/beauty standpoint, what do you think about her role as an icon? Specifically, would you say she’s an icon?
SM: I’m going to say no, only because I work in an industry that uses that term really loosely and it’s starting to lose meaning. However, I will say that she occupies a really significant space in the beauty-sphere in 2016, and I really, truly enjoy watching her evolve and writing about her fashion and beauty choices. Truly! She’s so fun.
Now, as a beauty editor I am basically contractually obligated to address the contouring thing. As you know, Kim Kardashian gets a ton of hate for wearing a lot of makeup and “starting the contouring trend.”
Not liking how someone wears their makeup is not a valid reason for not liking someone. “She looks like she’s wearing a mask. It’s so ugly.” That’s an interesting opinion I guess, but still not a REASON FOR NOT LIKING A HUMAN BEING. Listen to how insane it sounds if this way of thinking was applied to anyone else. “I don’t like Nicki Minaj because she wears so much eyeliner! I mean, have you seen how long her wings are?! Ew! Can’t stand her!” How about: “OMG Gwen Stefani? Hate her! Why doesn’t she just retire the red lipstick already? It’s so annoying and therefore I don’t like her.” Like, what?
ATD: Oh, absolutely. And it also teaches young women that their makeup is for other people, not for themselves. Which is such a sandtrap. I think it took me until I was about 27 or 28 to realize that how I choose to do my hair and makeup is my choice, and everybody could fuck off if they had an issue with it. Our language is so important — and such terrible language is thrown towards Kim.
SM: The worst and more careless language! Let’s break the Kim K makeup debate down one step further, shall we? I don’t personally love the way Kim Kardashian wears her makeup, either. It’s not my style. But does this seem like a sound argument? “I prefer stick or liquid highlighter over the powder that she uses, so I hate her.” Nope! What about: “I think her nude lipstick can sometimes be too light for her complexion, so I can’t stand her or what she represents.” LOL. Now the popular rebuttal here will be “It’s not about how she wears her makeup; it’s about how much makeup she wears.” It’s about makeup. Disliking someone because of the makeup on their face is, well, really, really stupid.
“She encourages girls to change their faces using makeup and contouring.” If you’ve ever said this, please show me the receipts. When has Kim Kardashian forced anyone to do their makeup a certain way? How would she even go about that, logistically? Just a friendly reminder: when a famous person says, “This is something I like to do,” they are not secretly saying “so you have to do it, too.”
And finally, now that we’ve sorted through the bullshit about the way she wears her makeup, let’s address the fact that her transparency about makeup and the way she uses it to sculpt her face is actually a positive thing. Kim has always been very open and honest about how long it takes her to get her makeup done (about 2-3 hours for hair and makeup), and that she has it professionally done most days. Wouldn’t you rather young girls grow up with the understanding that looking like their favourite celeb requires a lot of work and artistry, rather than be brainwashed, like I was growing up, by the unattainable-but-marketed-as-effortless beauty ideals of pre-Kardashian celebrities?
You don’t have to like how Kim Kardashian wears her makeup, but it’s irresponsible to accuse her of forcing others to look a certain way, and it’s just lazy to not acknowledge her game-changing transparency about the topic.
ATD: Agreed! Also, I think Kim is polarizing because her success is a reminder that what we think doesn’t matter. Like, okay — people say terrible things. But she just landed another magazine cover, her show is still hugely popular, she has a wonderful life full of people she loves. And that is very scary for anyone who has an issue with independent women or women at all, for that matter. I think her mere presence shakes up anybody who’s harbouring misogynistic values — and anyone who wants to feel important. Like, her success isn’t about any of us. It’s her success.
And I’m not saying that she is a perfect human being, because that would be weird in a different way. But she is a person. And the approach to her as a person has been concerning for a while, but it peaked especially in the wake of her being robbed. It was weird to have strangers @-reply me and call her names and then call me names for defending her right not to be victim-blamed. And I think it struck a chord because I see this every time we talk about a woman being assaulted or attacked or harassed. And I think (or hope) that most of these people wouldn’t be so vigilant about condemning a victim if it wasn’t one who they’re made fictional. Or maybe that’s just I tell myself because the reality is too grim.
SM: The robbery aside, I think people who “hate” (again, ugh, what?) Kim Kardashian are being really lazy and/or are in denial. It takes time to unpack her type of celebrity and her evolution that has spanned a decade; we both just admitted it took us years!
Finally, the “no talent” argument has always been strange to me because like, marketing is an actual degree you can go to school for, and a real talent you can create an entire, decades-long career out of. Do Kim-haters go around making fun of marketing majors and managers, too?
ATD: They might! But I mean, you can like who you like or dislike who you dislike, but it’s the hatred involved that concerns me. Hate takes a lot of energy. Also, the callousness I’ve seen towards her general well-being post-attack is hugely upsetting. It is one thing to say, “I don’t like her, she’s not really someone I’m interested in” and another to champion violence towards her or to shame her or to insult her body or face or family. That isn’t a normal response to another person.That’s an upsetting response, and I think it’d indicative of the problem a lot of people have with women in general.