It is critical for contemporary visual discourse to consider Kim Kardashian’s recent photos in the latest issue of W magazine—moreover, it would be culturally reckless not to.
The Armenian reality star who rose to stardom thanks to her Hollywood connections, a controversial sex tape with R&B vocalist Ray-J, and a recent relationship with NFL star Reggie Bush, receives considerable attention because of her sizable butt—making Kardashian a hot topic, and a hottie to the urban Black male gaze.
Since Kardshian’s meteoric rise to fame, the 29-year-old has seemingly assumed sole ownership of the coveted, and trendy, big ass. Kardashian is a leading subject in any conversation around White America’s new found fascination with big butts.
But women’s big butts, more specifically the eroticization of Black women’s butts in the public imagination, is nothing new.
To anyone remotely familiar with women’s sexual history, Kardashian’s W photo (see image above) no doubt evokes the Hottentot Venus. Kardashian’s positioning, her behind as the main attraction, and her from-the-neck-down platinum airbrushing—perhaps used to invoke a racially ambiguous signal—visually recollect the imaging and dressing of Sarah Baatman, a Khoisan young woman exhibited around 19th century European as a freak show.
Make no mistake, Kardashian is no Sarah Baartman. The heavy-hitter is the sole proprietor of her image–the recipient of mega-product endorsements, her own E! reality show, and a slew of deals with clothing brands and fragrances. Unlike Baartman, there are no strings or racist-sexist White men hurling her unwantingly from exhibit to exhibit, Kardashian seems to be her own circus driver. For some women—namely Montana Fishburne, the daughter of Hollywood actor Lawrence Fishburne, who has admitted to be inspired by Kardashian’s route to infamous status—this is empowering, but for others, Kardashian’s use of her looks, and the punctuation of her behind at her every opportunity to project the Kim Kardashian brand, is a commodification and the appropriation of the Black female body.
How are these images—W’s nude pictures of Kardashian with her behind as the driving optical gaze—supposed to operate in 21st century public imagination? In particular to the W magazine reader, a largely upper middle white women demographic?
The attraction of a young Baartman, who was often commanded by her French owners to gyrate her behind in exhibitions, was that she was somehow subhuman, otherworldly even. No doubt, an underlying sexual attraction and, as Dr. Particia Hill-Collins has argued, the exhibition of Baartman to gawking White man is considered to be among the earliest manifestations of pornography. Yet, for Kardashian, her enlarged behind, while perhaps otherworldly for a non-Black woman, is stripped of any subhuman, freak show caricature—on the very surface she is sexually desired and lauded as America’s ultimate beauty. Could the same be said if Beyoncé, Jada Pinkett Smith, or Tariji P. Henson, and other Black female stars likely to be courted by a mainstream lifestyle magazine, were photographed nude with a positioning focus on their behind?
On the other hand, we must be careful to presume that any non-Black woman with a large behind is somehow trying to be Black. Kim Kardashian has in some ways received her unofficial Black card, making an abrupt BFF shift from Paris Hilson and Lindsey Lohan, to her new circle which includes a set of already established Black female stars (R&B singer-dancer Ciara, and television host La La Vasquez), women who have earned celebrity status for their talents, not their bodies, albeit Ciara’s increasingly raunchy performances. However, it can also be argued that Kardashian has always maintained some social connection to Black culture, as her reality show has revealed her long-running fascination with Black men, and close friendships with Black females whom she and her sisters Khloe and Kourtney have grown up with.
Although Kardashian holds friendships with Black women who are stars in their own right, the reality star’s attention seems to upstage her social set—and most certainly her backside does. Still the question begs, is Kardashian somehow performing Black femaleness by toting her exaggerated behind? Does she somehow appropriate the deconstructed parts of Black females that the world fancies, juxtaposing her fair skin and long hair, creating some unmatched sexualized package the modern world has yet to see?
Ultimately, Kardashian’s influence on visual culture and American female bodies is a sight still unfolding. Will the Kardashian effect become a positive influence on the acceptance of larger bodies? Or will she continue to be a soundless representation of hyper-sexualized female bodies?