Kim Kardashian gave a talk on 'The Objectification of Women in the Media' at the San Francisco Commonwealth club on Wednesday. Photo: Twitter
When Kim Kardashian West took to the stage at the prestigious San Francisco Commonwealth club on Wednesday to give a talk on 'The Objectification of Women in the Media', few expected a rigorous dissertation on the pornification of pop culture or even equal rights. This is no slight on KKW – she is a celebrity, and like most celebrities, should not be expected to know her way around the origins of The Second Sex. But what's interesting – some might even say fascinating – is why her Q&A was elevated to the level of an academic-flavoured TED talk.
For the record, KKW did address how she's been objectified by the media but added she didn't care she was "sometimes exploited" because, by taking her own selfies and being in control of photo shoots, she was essentially already objectifying herself. We've heard this before about the Kardashians. The New York Times put it in precise terms in May, "They are famous for the industry that they've created, the Kardashian/Jenner megacomplex, which has not just invaded the culture but metastasised into it."
KKW has transcended her original trope of tawdry reality TV star who used a sex tape as a springboard to evolve into a highly stylised one-woman industry of fashion, sex , product placement, marriage, motherhood and, perhaps least surprising of all, female empowerment. How exactly did this happen? Did Kim change? Or did we? The answer is … both.
Kim Kardashian: ""First they say I'm too skinny so I have to be faking it... Now they say I'm too big so I have to be faking it." Photo: Francois G. Durand
This transcendence occurred sometime after "Kimye" appeared together on the cover of Vogue in April last year. This was proof, however controverted, that the pair had shaken off their previous eye-rolling identities to be anointed "the world's most talked about couple". Then, there was Kim's 'naked' dress at the MET Gala. Since KKW started dating Kanye, the comparisons between her and Beyonce were odious. But in a single moment, it seemed like KKW was leading – and Beyonce was following -- in what was roughly the same dress. The icing on the décolletage was KKW's book of selfies, Selfish, which had the millennial feminist and art-maker of our time, Lena Dunham, praising it. New York Magazine's art critic Jerry Saltz has compared the turnaround to the kitsch irony of Andy Warhol.
I wouldn't go back that far. After all, we have Kylie Minogue. Remember when she was dismissed for inability to sing? Her 'dagginess'? Her irrelevancy? But then she glammed it up, was embraced by the young gay community, and quickly found mainstream success because of it. In this our postmodern world, irony often overlaps with disgust and admiration. And all of it, (not to mention a new stylist) plays a part in KKW's makeover as a powerful representation of the intersection of sex, commerce and art. But it's not the defining reason for the shift.
Two things have happened here. The first is that Kim Kardashian had a baby with – and then wed – one of the most innovative music artists of our time. Kanye West may be egotistical and crass, but his creative vision is second to none. Whenever a man with a certain status unites with a woman, the woman is almost always elevated. KKW took the well-trodden path to mainstream acceptance – she married above her (pop culture) station.
Parents again: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Photo: Getty Images
Think of Paris Hilton – the woman who, as a close friend, introduced Kim to the world of the paparazzi, putting her face on TV. But nobody thinks of Paris. Because she never married a man of status, never had a baby. Never 'toned it down'.
Don't believe me? Let's look at the most famous wild woman of them all – a woman now considered a secular saint because she married a more successful man (thereby forcing her to look diminutive in comparison) had a bunch of kids and wears black and white – Angelina Jolie.
But this narrative becomes even more interesting when we consider how important it is culturally that 'hot' women be made over into thoughtful intellectuals, or 'canny business women' or feminists.
Meanwhile, Magic Mike 2 is out in cinemas. The first Magic Mike contained stripping but it was also a brilliant, original look at how sexual currency functions for men. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it was a smart film. But the sequel seems to want to flatten this nuanced take into a Studs Afloat show. When men channel their sexuality they're demoted for it. When women do it … we strive to legitimise it. Why can't we just say that we like looking at a beautiful woman because she's beautiful? Surely we don't have to whip up a pseudo TED talk to justify this to ourselves, do we?
Perhaps we do. This is because women's sexuality is seen as inherently bad, and, no matter where Forbes places her on the rich list, cheap. A man's sexuality is seen as inherently powerful, so if he strips, he must automatically become a figure of ridicule.
But perhaps we've elevated KKW because we've changed too. When Kim entered the public sphere a decade ago, the word "Selfie" was not in existence. As former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges, who just last week wrote a piece called 'The Lonely American' put it, "A generation has fallen down the rabbit hole," before describing in brutal detail the culture we now inhabit.
"[We are] sucked alone into systems of information and entertainment that cater to America's prurient fascination with the tawdry, the cruel and the deadening cult of the self."
See, it's not just Kim – we've all come a long, long way.