I refer, of course, to the unexpected, slightly surreal images of Kim Kardashian West, cover star of Paper magazine’s Winter 2014 “Break the Internet” issue.
When I first saw that exaggerated backside, it appeared to be so post-human that I thought Kim looked like a female centaur. (Apparently, so did hundreds of other people, who instantly created that exact meme.) The image also suggested an anime character, My Little Pony, and the sad, 19th -century case of the Hottentot Venus. But more on that later.
The ass shot did get under everyone’s skin, launching thousands of Internet memes and parody covers, not to mention a veritable magazine of its own ass-based (and bad-ass) cracks and puns. That’s because there’s something unbelievably canny (sorry) about mixing so many incendiary issues — race, slavery, female sexuality, porn — and projecting them onto the public body of a woman who has 25 million Twitter followers, no shame, and an unyielding appetite for attention.
The pictures are smarter than mere naked flesh. Rather, they’re about art, sex, money, and power. And in this case, all the moons are in alignment.
Kim supposedly said that the portraits were the result of “oil and good lighting.” And if you believe that, you’ll also agree that Renee Zellweger’s new face is the upshot of eating healthfully and feeling happier in her life.
No, the construction czar behind this Kim/Paper project is the French designer Jean-Paul Goude. A sometime art director of Esquire, he was a master at manipulating imagery way before computers and Photoshop. And if he could make the opera singer Jessye Norman disappear into a wall of water, he can manage a quick film shoot with very game Mrs. Yeezus during Fashion Week in Paris.
TMZ says KKW did it for free. That makes sense: Most print publications are financially struggling-to-anemic these days. And Paper is a downtown art world/pop cultural zine with a paid circulation of 125,000 on a very good day.
Certainly, the pub’s editor and publisher, Kim Hastreiter, and editorial director Mickey Boardman were friendly with Goude from back in the day. And the need for speed and the lack of bucks is probably why Goude, a human idea factory, and the author of the autobiography “Jungle Fever,” merely recreated some of the controversial (and some say racist) shots he initiated in the 1970s and 1980s.
They’re all brilliant compositions. The photo of Kim balancing an erupting champagne glass on her ass, “Champagne Incident,” was based on an earlier one featuring a naked black model. Goude also became famous for his work with the black, towering, androgynous singer Grace Jones, who was all angles and hardbody. Meanwhile, Kim — the latter day, post-surgical embodiment of founder Hugh Hefner’s pneumatic dream, the 1950s Playboy centerfold — is white, short, and all orbs.
Kim is known for being famous. Does that say something about our present culture? For one thing, this is a very practical, cash-strapped, 21st century endeavor, a case of everybody using everybody. By working with Kardashian West, Goude gets to jumpstart his career again, and Paper becomes the magazine equivalent of a comet for a few days.
What’s in it for Kim, who is already Instagram’s third most popular figure and Queen of the Damned Selfies? (This is pretty sickening, but her mobile phone app amassed $43 million in income in the last three months.) Well, aside from promoting her “brand,” which she does 24/7 anyway, my theory is that the shoot feeds Kanye’s fanatical infatuation with all things French. He seems to see any Gallic association as adding prestige and an elevated taste level, superior to anything American. He famously went on a rant about not being accepted by certain designers, and he’s obsessed with collecting Hermes bags. Since they’ve been together, Kim and Kanye have been going to the Fashion Week shows in Paris, dragging poor little North along (even at night!) Typically, the one-year-old sports an obviously uncomfortable, inappropriate, handmade outfit matching whatever unflattering haute couture get-up Kim is girdled into. And no one in the family looks happy.
Kim has already been slut-shamed and Mom-shamed (and now she should be oil-shamed.) To the horror of feminists, humanists, and a huge swatch of the over-educated, under-earning population of thinking people, no one exploits and objectifies herself more. So the prospect of being charged with reopening the mortal wound of slavery probably does not faze her.
The ass shot does indeed suggest the story of Saartjie Baartman, a teenager with a hugely oversized derriere who in the early 1800s was kidnapped from Africa and sold to a traveling circus in England, where she was exhibited as a freak show attraction dubbed “The Hottentot Venus.” She was later taken to France by an animal trainer who used and abused her. Her tragic life was the subject of the play “Venus” by the MacArthur-genius-grant- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
Goude’s work has also been criticized as racist, for exploiting the black female body as a primitive caricature devoted to sexual service. By contrast, this shoot seemed to bring some rarely seen fun and lightness to Kim’s often bitchy-looking resting face. Throughout, she sports a cute topknot in her hair, pearl choker, and black satin gloves, more Audrey Hepburn than African goddess. The other bombshell photos unveiled a day later, Kim’s full-frontal nudes, show her open-mouthed and joyous. She’s standing on a box, like Mae West. And she certainly has a glorious body. (To paraphrase Seinfeld, they may not be totally real, but they are spectacular.) And from the front, she looks way better without clothing. It’s as if, like Jessica Rabbit, she’s saying, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn (or surgically enhanced and Photoshopped) that way.”
Also, TMZ says this is her last photographic hurrah before getting pregnant again. (Another infuriating quality of someone who needs to “share everything” with the Interwebs.)
Without a doubt, something about her is a human money magnet. And that’s why we hate her, but can’t look away.
“Known for being famous," and not a mere 15 minutes of it, either. Somehow, I think Warhol would have ignored this celluloid recreation of a reincarnated and transformed other woman, whose caricature-like form embodies mere exaggeration of all the sexual delights known to mankind. KK is not, however, real, not really real, and not even sexy. If an editor can re-absord what has already been doctored under a knife to such elaborate pretense, there is nothing left to ponder, and nothing for the eyes to take to the body’s imagination, or to the mind. Great piece, Barbara, and while I tend to turn the page on Kim, I stayed for this one.....and isn’t that the point?
Kim has become so toxic that President Obama has names a Kardashian Czar.
My favorite response to the KKW photo was on a friend's FB feed - "OMG - look what Renee Zellweger has done NOW!"
As the brain matter seeps from my head. . .
Is it a good thing that, despite her best efforts to become 'famous for being famous', I have virtually no idea who this woman is? I mean, I know the name, but have thus far avoided seeing any images of her, moving or not, frontal or 'backside-al'. I wonder how long this State of Innocence can possibly last. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece, Ms. L. And I look forward to reading more.
This is first-rate cultural criticism. The writing is Intelligent, witty, erudite and polished.
Kardashian and West have accrued tremendous cultural power. They understand bread and circuses. Unfortunately, so do our politicians.
My congratulations on an exquisite think piece.
What an interesting and terrifying glimpse into our living, human meme. Beautifully written and insightfully reasoned. Thanks, Babs.
"It is only a Paper moon/
Sailing over a cardboard sea . . ."
Graceful segues with multiple references going from point-to-point without missing a beat and punch lines to boot. Thank you, Ms. B! Please never stop writing.
KKM a "money magnet" and a media magnet. I think though her magnetic days may be numbered. Revealing so much of herself she will soon be deemed trivial.
Very true, JIm. I realize that this act had no context at all, except that she can't get enough attention. I'm sorry that I fed the beast.
It didn't break the Internet, but it did create a lot of commentary that fueled the fire.