Kim Kardashian: The Butt of an Old Racial Joke

kimmemes13f-1-webReprinted with permission from The Grio

Earlier this week, social media was flooded with images of Paper magazine’s winter 2014 cover featuring Kim Kardashian’s glistening posterior. The response was both explosive and polarizing. Some rolled their eyes and complained “I’m so tired of seeing her naked. She’s a mother! Put some clothes on” while others applauded her boldness and sex appeal.

Regardless of how you felt about the spread or the Kardashians in general, one thing was very clear: Paper magazine set out to break the internet, a fact they proudly declared from the jump. And they may have very well succeeded, but at what cost?

Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 10.30.09 AM

First off, those of you declaring that these pictures are “history-making” need to chill out. There is nothing new or even original about this spread. Renowned French photographer Jean-Paul Goude just dug into his archives, pulled out some of his old favorites and recreated them with reality TV’s reigning It Girl.

That’s it.

At best, these pictures are recycled art, and at worst, they are lazy sensationalism — but innovative they are not.

Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 10.33.17 AM

On the flip side—those of you saying that Kim Kardashian needs to put on some clothes simply because she is a mother also need to sip a big champagne glass of “Girl, Bye!” Because this antiquated idea that mothers are not allowed to celebrate their sexuality is ridiculous and naive. How exactly do you think women become mothers? Immaculate conception? I’ve never been a fan of policing other women’s bodies, and I’m not about to start now. Y’all can have that.

So while everyone else was arguing over Kim’s K’s right to show her butt, my focus was on something else entirely. When I looked at the spread all I saw was a not so subtle reincarnation of Saartjie Baartman—imagery that is steeped in centuries of racism, oppression and misogyny. For those who don’t know who she is, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman (before 1790 – 29 December 1815 (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—”Hottentot” as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and “Venus” in reference to the Roman goddess of love.

Saartjie was a woman whose large buttocks brought her questionable fame and caused her to spend much of her life being poked and prodded as a sexual object in a freak show.

baartman

Sound familiar?

But something tells me Kim probably has no clue about the cultural and historic significance of what she’s done. Instead, she probably just thought it would be cool to do an edgy photo shoot with a famous photographer. And many of you have fallen for that oversimplified stance as well.

I’m the first to admit that some of the work that Jean-Paul Goude has done over the past 30 years has become iconic, particularly his work with his (then-girlfriend) Grace Jones. But the one he chose to recreate for Paper magazine is problematic for several reasons.

The original shot is of a black woman standing in front of a blue wall while she pops champagne into a glass placed on her rear end. And it’s from a book entitled: Jungle Fever.

Let that soak in for a second. Jungle. Fever.

According to a People magazine article written about Goude and Jones in 1979:

Jean-Paul has been fascinated with women like Grace since his youth. The son of a French engineer and an American-born dancer, he grew up in a Paris suburb. From the moment he saw West Side Story and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, he found himself captivated by “ethnic minorities—black girls, PRs. I had jungle fever.” He now says, “Blacks are the premise of my work.”

This is a man who boldly told news reporters that his black girlfriend was a “schizo… outrageous bitch” and that at times he would get hysterical and explode in violence during their arguments.

Back in 1982 (before shows like Law & Order: SVU taught folks how to identify the subtleties of abuse), when this book came out, many were dazzled by his pictures of Grace Jones and, since she and Goude were lovers, assumed that when he took shots of her in a cage, on all fours bearing her teeth like a caged animal—it was OK.

Because lovers don’t ever disrespect each other right?

Right.

All of a sudden, my correlation between these images and Saartjie’s treatment as a sideshow animal don’t seem so far-fetched, do they? The parallels are so literal and un-nuanced you’d have to willfully ignore what’s right in front of your face. This idea that “black equals erotic” is fetishism in its purest form; it mocks “otherness” while pretending to celebrate it and defines human beings by their genitals instead of seeing them as whole people.

Yes—I recognize that Kim Kardashian has found a way to work the system and quite literally use what her mama gave her to build an empire—but in this instance, she’s being pimped by a paradigm much larger than anything she or her momager Kris Jenner could ever fathom. Kim herself has admitted that until she gave birth to a black child, she never even gave much thought to race or what it means to be a person of color in this world.

This came out of her own mouth. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to, folks.

In a cultural landscape that continues to appropriate all things black, it looks like Mrs. West has just Columbused several hundred years of black female exploitation and most likely has no friggin’ idea.

The joke is on her—and anyone else who thinks this is just a sexy picture on the cover of a magazine.

If only it were really that simple.

Author’s note: I encourage you all to look up the life and times of Saartjie Baartman and draw your own conclusions. This mess runs deep.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo of Saartjie Baartman via Wikimedia Commons

82956e463eb740f0ce6ed11e935f8d16_400x400

 

Blue Telusma is a freelance writer based out of Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Comments

  1. I think it is crass and tasteless for ANY person to be nude in a public place or forum. I don’t discriminate between men, women, mothers, childless, black, white, large, thin, or anywhere in between. I realize others may disagree; that is fine. I know that isn’t what this piece is addressing but I just wanted to put that out there. I agree that it’s dumb to say “but you’re a mom!” or to say thin women posing nude is artistic but curvy women posing nude is sexual. I just think it’s poor taste whoever you are. Put your clothes on.

  2. Ah ha – so the imagery is rehashed – I am in no way a K.K. fan – but thanks for the info…Grace Jones…hmm….Jungle Fever…got it. Great article.

  3. Saartje Baartman’s life is so tragic … why do we keep trotting out the some colonialist stereotypes again and again, anyway? What disturbs me is what happened to her after her death at 26 – literally put on display against her will for all to see for all those years.

  4. Rea Howarth says:

    I appreciate your piece so much. I cringed when I saw that stylized, glistening derriere on Paper’s cover. The problem of sexploitation is, if anything, worse than it was during the heyday of Playboy Magazine. Kardashian has turned herself into a joke. And what husband or child could possibly think it’s a good thing?
    Kardashian will have to live it down for years to come. More significantly, American women will be explaining why they should not be judged by her example in places like Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful essay

  6. Missing from this article is the fact it was white western men who sexually exploited Saartje Baartman because white men fetishised women of colour and non western women.

    Jean-Paul Goude is another white western male who is sexually obsessed with fetishising women of colour because they are so ‘exotic!’ During the 19th century in Europe innumerable wealthy white men fetishised non western women and the term ‘Orientalism’ was created. Orientalism is a euphemism for white mens’ contempt/sexual obsession for having a ‘trophy’ non-white woman!

    Kim Kardashian mistakenly believes she is empowering herself but in reality all she is doing is reinforcing white mens’ belief and right to sexually exploit and dehumanise women. That is the real issue not whether or not Kardashian is ‘empowered!’ The Masters’ Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters’ Houses and this quote continues to be as relevant today as when Audre Lorde first directed this at men and their male political system.

  7. In addition to the other issues brought up here– surely this is is not Ms. Kardashian’s actual, unretouched posterior? I do my best not to pay any attention to her, so I don’t know how her body is proportioned in real life, but this photo doesn’t look physically possible. For some reason it seems to me that there is a different artistic and political meaning when a woman’s naked body is shown and it’s dramatically photoshopped or otherwise altered, rather than being a portrayal of reality.

  8. Codi Johnson says:

    Most people claim they’re for everybody having free choice with their bodies. It’s cliche. Yes, KK gets lots of fame, money, etc., for this. But it continues to promote the porn culture, and that’s bad, no matter how you slice it.

  9. Thank you so much for this post!!

    It’s depressing that Kim claims not to have ever considered what it’s like to be a woman of color when she arguably got plastic surgery to make herself look less Armenian and more typically “European.” It points to the extent to which she’d internalized racist notions of beauty/femininity, I feel.

  10. THANK YOU! Your’s is the best commentary and analysis I’ve read/heard. You educated me and got me to think. Until I read your piece, I thought this drivel was stupid silliness not really worthy of any thought. Except…

    I remembered a chapter (5) from Gary Taubes, “Why we Get Fat”, about why fat deposits end up in various places on different people. African women have a genetic trait called Steatopygia – prominent fat deposits of the buttocks. It was odd to me that this was a “condition” to be named (don’t know if the same is done for double chins). I thought about this when I saw Ms. K’s (West) butt…

    Definitely cultural racism – and don’t mean to provide pun fodder, but it seems too big and apparent to be a micro-aggression.

  11. Donna decker says:

    Thank you, Blue, for this insightful article. We don’t always know what we are looking at, and your contextualizing is so important.

  12. Linda Sartori says:

    Large bottoms are sexual fetshes of men who can’t conceive of having sex with a woman while looking her in the face. It is sex without soul.
    The rear end is as far away from the face as one can get while still embracing, or in this case, “coupling”. That man is not embracing YOU; he is just being automatically sexed up by you offering him a quick rear access to your gift, your real self. When you find a man who wants your face, you have found a man. The others are just masturbators who use you. And YOU, you are so bereft of self-worth that you think this is Love? It is not.
    The fat ass fetish has got to stop. It is completely denigrating women and they don’t even know it.
    We need a third wave.

Speak Your Mind

*