It’s astonishing how even in the 21st century, naked women are still a hotly debated topic. At the moment that debate has manifested itself in the form of Kim Kardashian, whose famous husband has been known to declare her as “the modern day Marilyn Monroe.” Many around the world might be disgusted by such a comparison; the truth is that this isn’t so inaccurate. Although today we celebrate Marilyn’s films, her smile, her curves, her laugh, and her overall place in American culture, such unanimous adoration was rarely the case while she was alive.
In the 1950’s Marilyn’s photo shoots, media personality, and television appearances were often criticized to be as ditzy, tasteless, and as low-class as any stunt pulled by Kim Kardashian in recent years. Marilyn’s overt sexuality, now seen as progressive in the context of the upcoming sexual revolution, was at the time considered lowbrow and even shameful by much of the 50’s American public. The entire “dumb blonde” archetype that people around the world today are familiar with was cultivated in the words, behaviors and body parts of Marilyn Monroe. And Marilyn’s now infamous and untimely death was in part caused by the depression she felt from all of the negative press that came her way.
History, it seems, has learned little since then. American pop culture remains far kinder to dead women than the ones who are still alive. Where Kim Kardashian’s equally controversial public image seeks to be as evocative as possible, and like Marilyn Monroe has also earned her a great deal of wealth and fame, there remains plenty of public disgust about her overtly sexual persona. Much of this is justifiably rooted in the fact that Kim’s image aggrandizes not just herself, but also surface interaction, intense vanity, superficial displays of wealth, body idealization, and generally behaving idiotically. That was certainly part of the argument people began to make about her most recent magazine cover for Paper. The cover has been heavily discussed online. Those who love it are mainly Kim fans. Those who hate it liken it to tasteless pandering to the recent media trend of misogynistic ass worship.
The other very relevant argument has been that the image, orchestrated by revered advertising photographer Jean-Paul Goude, hails back to some of his photos from the 70’s that have their roots in socially damaging racial caricatures. Many on the Internet have made the case that Kim Kardashian, an Armenian woman married to an African American, was not aware of this connection when she did the shoot, or just didn’t care.
French culture on the whole has always been more accepting of the inevitable irrationalities and psychological biases that stir within the erotic mind, but that alone is hardly a realistic explanation or justification for the above images. At a glance, Kim Kardashian and the imagery of herself that she circulates embodies nearly everything that educated society would declare as crude, tasteless, and sexually juvenile, from hookup culture to sexting. She is the Marilyn Monroe archetype of the present day. But critics must be careful about what they criticize and how. In the case of Kim Kardashian, Marilyn Monroe, Jennifer Lawrence, or any other pop culture figure who’s nudity has managed to upset us, it’s worth recognizing part of our love or our disdain comes not from them, but from the fact that sexuality is one of the most fundamental and powerful emotions that people have. That’s why it’s so often used in advertising. It’s also what makes it all too easy for people to begin dictating to others what kind of sexual behavior is okay, and what is not.
It’s really no one’s place to say whether one’s sex life should look like a romance novel or a rap video. Concerns that the carnal side of sex has been ballooned into an idealized unattainable hyper reality are certainly a valid worry for all of us in the Internet age. But that concern needs to be voiced with the complexity and thoughtfulness that it deserves and not fall prey to some anti-Kardashian crusade. Worrying about a sexually tasteless younger generation is as old as time. More importantly, the idea that overt sexuality is always at odds with psychological attraction and meaningful relationships is a dangerous narrative too—and one that many intelligent people risk propagating by huffing on about what they find tasteless about celebrity nude pictures, or just perceived millennial superficiality.
It is not to say that popular culture doesn’t have a hugely overrated sense of surface value and aggrandized notions about sex. The phrase “sex sells” has gotten so overused that it’s almost made sex into something unappealing. What happens in our culture, however, is that instead of addressing this concern, we find it more validating to take down an individual who represents the things that we do not like instead of getting to the heart of the matter. And this is where female body image takes a massive hit. When we charge up with negativity while discussing Kim Kardashian’s photos or many other public situations where a naked female body is involved, the message that gets sent to women is that their nudity is a problem. Female sexuality is a problem. If you are a young girl and your only image of what a woman should look like is Kim Kardsashian, that’s a problem. But that problem is worsened when the criticism is aimed at her appearance instead of at what specific values she is promoting. This was sickeningly the case when the press reacted to Kardashian’s utterly normal pregnancy:
The fact that any woman, famous or not, is at all expected to feel ugly or self conscious for the basic act of being pregnant is just sad, and shows how far society still has yet to go. This sort of body shaming, of course, exists outside the tabloids as well. Every moment that we instruct women about how to present themselves in public, even if it is well intentioned, we are essentially saying there is something wrong with their bodies. When a father tells his daughter not to go out in such a short dress, when a middle school bans yoga pants because it distracts male students, when public spaces don’t allow mothers to breastfeed, when a religion tells women that one of the most honorable things that they can do is hide their features in dark cloaks, or when the Motion Picture Association of America allows decapitations in the PG-13 category but reserves female nipples for R-rated films, we are validating the unspoken claim that the female body, and with it female sexuality, is somehow a negative force. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Misogyny from men is still a massive problem, as is rampant sexism across the globe. Women sexually objectifying themselves in pursuit of male approval is obviously a massive societal concern. But the pursuit of gender equality isn’t going to get anywhere if we continue to be offended by basic nudity, be it male or female. If there is one thing admirable about Kim Kardashian, it is at least that she remains unapologetic about her physical appearance. To her credit, she responded to jabs at her pregnancy by ostentatiously showing herself off at the peak of her pregnancy at an awards show, and not appearing for a moment ashamed by it.
Granted, Kim Kardashian is essentially someone who is famous for being famous. She is a rather lowbrow media phenomenon that does draw people away from important issues. There is no denying these truths. That being said, in a culture that still doesn’t feel comfortable around scantily clad women, it makes sense that her unapologetic persona is appealing to many.
Kim also doesn’t have a monopoly on viral celebrity nudity. The recent scandal where the phones of several female movies stars were hacked, followed by the leaking of their private nude photos, was a massively discussed topic that, like Kim Kardashian, was arguably overly covered in the media. Where Kardashian is looked down on for being sexually overt, these women were victims because their privacy had been breached, but also because their naked bodies were out there for the world to see (something that unsurprisingly drove much of the coverage). It was in stark contrast to when the sexting images of male Congressman Anthony Wiener were leaked a few years go. Despite also being the victim of a leak (granted he is a politician), the public had little sympathy for his photos. He was ridiculed all over TV and the Internet. It might have cost him a chance to be Mayor of New York. Should it have? Actress Jennifer Lawrence went as far as to say that hacking her phone and looking at her nude pictures was a sex crime. She isn’t necessarily wrong, but is it then not also a sex crime to leak images of Anthony Weiner’s ‘wiener’ that he hasn’t given the public permission to view?
There are wiener jokes and then there are Weiner jokes
Modern media is giving us some very mixed messages about nudity. It’s ok to laugh at the nudity of a middle-aged man who is a politician, but not a female movie star. Nudity, and indeed all sexuality, depending on context, is all too often either aggrandized or demonized for an array of complex reasons by people both privately and in popular culture. The main reason behind it all is the simple truth that society as a whole remains sexually repressed, or at least sexually self-conscious. We are far less repressed in regards to the act of sex than we were even a few decades ago, but we are still far from comfortable when it comes to discussing and recognizing the many complex feelings behind each individual’s sexuality. Same sex couples still don’t have equal rights. Private and public institutions all over the world have absurd dress codes for women. Both men and women are and aren’t allowed to acknowledge their sexuality in various and often contradictory situations that make no logical sense.
So, in defense of Kim Kardsashian’s naked body, and all naked bodies, let us keep an open mind. Let us not say one gender is more or less sexual than another. Let us take the time to respect our own sexual feelings and the feelings of others, and expect them to be different rather than the same. If we can figure out how to do that, then one woman’s ass shouldn’t be controversial enough to “break the Internet.”