This week, Kim Kardashian posted a nude selfie on her Instagram feed. And because it’s Kim, people can’t seem to stop talking about it. Chloë Grace Moretz and Bette Midler, two women with seemingly nothing in common except for their disapproval of Kim’s naked body, weighed in, along with Piers Morgan, which makes perfectly no sense. Now, MTV correspondents Teo Bugbee and Rachel Handler creep into the fray to ask what feminism even means in this post-Instagram world.
Teo: So there’s a part of me that’s frustrated this is even an issue, because just for once I’d like the world to be better than making a fuss over a woman’s naked body. But I get it; what we talk about when we talk about women’s bodies is rarely what we mean.
Here’s my take on Kim’s selfie: For decades, men dominated the beauty industry, and for centuries beyond lipstick sales, male artists from Francisco Goya to Helmut Newton made money off of images of women with little reward to the women who spent their lives working to maintain that image. Viewed historically — and setting aside for a minute the intersectional issues of class and color that factor into who profits from Instagram endorsements to focus solely on gender — Kim Kardashian and the Instagram beauty industry that flourishes around her are an underclass seizing the means of production, to borrow a phrase from my pal Karl Marx. If you want to dismiss Kim’s image industry, fine, but as activist and model Amber Rose put it in her rebuttal to singer and noted rope-dancer Pink’s condemnation of Kardashian, “What's the difference between a rope, a pole and a pic on Instagram? Classism.”
But as much as I think Amber Rose is right on the money about the hypocrisy of criticizing Kim for succeeding in a system in which all women to some extent operate, I wonder if this is a conclusion that results from a limited view on what defines our experience of the world.
Whether it’s Kim Kardashian’s selfies or Emma Watson’s recent comments on the wage gap, mainstream feminism has thrown its weight behind redefining women’s economic worth. But does this focus limit the reach of feminism to matters of capital and class? In our society, it’s rare for women’s value in dollars to match that of their male counterparts — but is money the only value there is?
Rachel: First of all, I think living in the long, spindly shadow of the flaccid dick of the patriarchy has caused a chunk of the female celebrity contingent to briefly lose their minds. It’s International Women’s Day Week™, and we’ve got Pink (who posed naked for PETA) and Chloë Moretz (who was naked but for a strategically draped velvet jacket on the cover of Nylon) and Bette Midler (Bette, girl, why? Hath thou so quickly forgotten “You Don’t Own Me”?) spending their precious few Officially Women-Centric Hours toiling away on Twitter, penning hypocritical screeds about nudity and arguing over who fake-friended who. Even Erin Andrews is being criticized by her fellow female celebs — I’m looking at you, Jenny McCarthy — for “capitalizing” on a nude video filmed against her will by a deranged stalker.
These kinds of “who’s the best feminist” contests are the new gladiatorial games. While we all endlessly and pointlessly debate whether nudity is empowering or slutty, feminist or misogynist, life-giving or life-ruining, ripping each other to shreds inside the crumbling Colosseum that is the Internet, the GOP is scheming to take away our reproductive rights and Donald Trump is drawing up plans to take over the world and turn women into sentient lawn chairs. Wake up, famous sheeple of Twitter! By taking each other to task over the moral ramifications of a goddamn Instagram photo, y’all are doing the work of the patriarchy for it. The evil overlords don’t even have to lift a filthy tenterhook at this point. They just get to sit back, admire the flourishing seeds of gender inequality that they’ve sown for centuries from the comfort of their box seats, then go home and masturbate to your nudes.
As Kim herself put it: “Who cares, do better, move on.” So, Teo, you’re right to look at this another way. Why do money and matters of quantifiable worth often end up underscoring these types of conversations? I think it’s partly because feminism as both a movement and an idea is a constantly fluctuating work in progress, but too often, many of us feminists (and I’m not excluding myself here) tend to forget that. It’s easier to reduce a complex, esoteric concept to a numerical value than it is to accept that it’s messy and confusing. Also, we’re all going to die one day, and to distract ourselves from the impermanence of our corporeal forms, we want to leave a legacy, i.e., come to a critical consensus on feminism and inscribe it in blood on the White House façade. This Kim controversy is the perfect object lesson in the dangers of trying to nail down, once and for all, what is and what is not “feminist.”
There’s nothing wrong with engaging in criticism and debate re: feminism (I mean, we’re doing that right now, and that’s what I’m advocating for — constant reevaluation), but this particular conversation feels played-out and nasty, dubiously motivated and targeted exclusively and consistently at shaming one woman. Let’s all chill the fuck out for a second and remember that the only thing we really need to agree upon is that feminism = equality. Beyond that, feminism is and should be personal and variable. To Kim, feminism means being proud of her admittedly bangin’ bod and pulling in crazy video-game bank. To Emma Watson, it means bringing guys into the conversation and interviewing Malala about education and, yes, engaging in discussions about the wage gap. To Pink, feminism means hanging from the ceiling dripping wet like a circus performer someone just rescued from the ocean and singing about “porno paparazzi girls.” To me, feminism means being able to take up both armrests when I’m sitting between two dudes on a plane and feel great about it.
I’m curious why you think this particular nude selfie — certainly not the first or the last by Kim — captured the attention of her peers so swiftly and profoundly? Is it because Kim’s gripping tight to the most cultural cachet she’s ever had? Does Bette Midler, for example, feel threatened by Kim, because of that classic refrain, “Kim Did A Sex Tape And I Didn’t And It’s Not Fair That We Are Both Famous”? Is everybody just super bored this week? What’s up?
Teo: Honestly, Kim’s appeal has always been her glassiness. Like a mirror, she reflects back the insecurities and the desires of all (shes) who gaze upon her. Bette Midler put up with a lot of bullshit in her time about her looks and her weight, but she wanted to be an entertainer and so she developed different skills. You think these crazy eyes came easy?
I do think people assume that beauty is easy and that there’s somehow no labor involved for people who make money off of being beautiful. I mean, this is a woman who wears corsets to work out. Beyond the work it takes to maintain her physique, Kim’s life is made up of fittings and contract meetings and red carpet appearances — and if those sound fun, imagine doing them surrounded by Giuliana Rancics and Ryan Seacrests all day every day with no end in sight.That’s labor. If you forced me to do the labor that Kim Kardashian undertakes every day, I’d move to the gulag.
So, yes, Kim Kardashian has found the patriarchy’s beauty loophole, and yes, it enables her to Keanu-bullet-time the impossible matrix that is achieving exceptional financial success while being female. And yes, she was quick to use her earnings (both in money and in followers) to settle debate with the women who came forward to criticize her. After all, in a capitalist system, how can any woman criticize Kim? She’s cashing $80 million checks. How much are you worth?
But if we can imagine equality as an intrinsic property and not as the result of accumulated earnings, what is the value of Kim’s selfie? Just among us girls, how can we use feminism to explore the world beyond our bank accounts? Kim Kardashian’s reward for her work is being able to pay her man’s bills and take a mirror selfie that looks fan-fucking-tastic — but do *you* need $80 million to live a life that’s rich? I’m happy you brought up how we look to the validation of numbers to run away from how messy it is to define what it is that makes a life worth living, Rachel. Celebrity feminists might be right to focus on how improving women’s lives means improving women’s money, but to quote one of pop culture’s great non-beauty icons: There’s more to life than a little money.
Rachel: Absolutely. But in the interest of argument, I am going to totally contradict everything I just said — which is one of the great benefits of feminism! I do think it’s important not to undervalue Kim’s financial success, or financial success for women in general. Money should not be the only measuring stick for true gender equality, but it’s absolutely a means to that end. Rachel Syme had a great essay in Matter late last year — she wrote about the significance of, as she puts it, “paying women the money they need to make the culture.” “I want women to be paid,” wrote Syme. “I want women to be paid as much as men are paid, to make things, to experiment, to get to fail and fail again, to get their ideas directly to the public.”
Syme includes Kim in her list of women who’ve broken down the patriarchal barriers to success, largely due to the control she’s been able to exercise over her own creative and financial output thanks to all that video-game money. So, in that sense, the value of Kim’s selfie, arguably, is that it came directly from her. As you put it, she “seized the means of production.” Kim’s the only one profiting off of that photo (OK, and maybe Kris and Kanye), and she’ll get to decide where to spend that money. (Kim, if you’re reading this: Funnel at least some of it toward other women. Here is my bank account number. Just kidding. I’m not kidding, though. No, I am. Kim, I love our talks.)
Historically, (white) men have always had the fistfuls of cash, so they’ve always had the power to decide whom to bestow it to. Usually, they rain it down on other (white) men, all of whom endlessly perpetuate the white-male-capitalist patriarchy while playing lots of golf. So we can’t completely ignore money as an indicator of equality. Not until women can get on equal financial footing can we truly fuck up the system and force men to become our mute, subservient beekeepers.
The only way we’re reasonably going to be able to do this, though, is if we stop wasting our time and limited breath (remember, we’re all dying) yelling at each other about our various interpretations of feminism, and join forces instead. Like, I know Bette Midler better have more useful things to do with her day than sit next to her social-media intern, crafting tweets about Kim swallowing cameras. I know Pink could recognize the innate hypocrisy of her comments, reach out to Amber Rose, and recruit her to star in a highly acrobatic music video for Pink’s fresh duet with Bette Midler called “You Don’t Own Me, Part 2: Blowing Up The Patriarchy.” Remember, ladies: Kim is not the enemy. Your own naked body or the naked body of your fellow woman is not the enemy. The enemy is an insidiously sexist culture that’s tricked you into forgetting to fight against it, and instead turned you against each other. Harness that fervent energy and go topple some golf courses.