Celebrities create contention. They often appear to break social conventions when in fact they themselves are confined within them. This is entirely apparent in the case of Kim Kardashian’s “break the internet” shoot in Paper magazine.
Kardashian’s photos have been met with a mixed reaction. The responses tend to take one of two routes: they either criticize her for being a poor role model, or they cheer her on because “if you got it flaunt it, girl.”
For women who are critical of the never-ending onslaught of images like Kardashian’s, the old and worn gender stereotypes are dragged out.
One blogger asked: “Is it because we feel insecure when we look at perfectly lit, stunning bodies? Is it because we get jealous when others — maybe our partners — covet them?”
The response has nothing to do with the mental condition of Kardashian’s critics and everything to do with women being sick of the female body being used as a disposable object for enterprise. When women are incessantly objectified, the humanity of all women is undermined.
Porned up depictions of women’s bodies are no longer new, of course. Playboy has mass-distributed sexually objectifying media since the 1950s. It is hardly “contentious” for women in porn to get naked and oiled up in the name of free will, free choice and above all, free markets.
Yet Kardashian does not work in porn. Her image is the type of “soft porn” that is no longer niche and is instead integrated into mainstream media. Pornified, photo-shopped images are more widely circulated than ever before. You can hardly get out of bed in the morning without an Internet ad, TV commercial or newspaper article showing “soft porn” images of women.
So, in response, women are talking back, and rightfully so.
Women have long lived under the tyranny of a free market system that trades in their sexual objectification. And for decades, women have dealt with a media regime that makes objectified bodies is the dominant mode of our representation. Some argue that this is due to “sexual liberation,” but on the contrary, girls and women are increasingly dissatisfied. Sexual objectification is not only harming women’s quality of life but also their human rights. This is not mere hearsay but backed up by experimental evidence.
Women have the right to be pissed. This shit has gone too far, for too long. Kardashian is in the firing line because she is the current poster child for a long history of racist and sexist degradation that affects each and every woman.
Women’s anger may be misdirected — aimed at Kardashian rather than the complex network of industries behind her image — because she is the visible outcome and those industries are simply harder to take aim at. The issue is systemic, but Kardashian is one of its foremost representatives today.
Would Kardashian be widely recognized if she didn’t play into the rules of a racist and sexist media regime? Would she be talk of the Internet if she had instead given a fully clothed interview about her interest in social justice? Of course not. Kardashian is not the purveyor of sexism; she is just another one of its pawns. Women are not jealous, they are fed up.
Despite what the thinspo, fitness modeling, insta-genix or “belfie” crews try to argue, no clean-eating, cross-fit lifestyle is going to fix all of these problems. Because, as it turns out, women’s bodies are not the problem.
Women’s bodies — especially black women’s bodies — have been treated as “freak shows” for hundreds of years, since Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman, was toured around England so that people could gawk at her genitals and behind. Today, women are still expected to be on parade, as public property for everyone to view, judge, and rate.
The difference of course, is that today women are supposed to treat their bodies as a sideshow under the guise of “choice,” “confidence” and “sexuality.” While women may have won legal rights in recent decades, our right to be treated as humans and not objects is undermined at every step.
The historical obsession with women being pretty and demure is only compounded by today’s obsession with “sexy.” And sexual objectification is no longer limited to the world of pornography. Regular marketing easily outdoes Hugh Hefner’s porn empire today. As a result, pornography has had to seriously step up in order to differentiate itself from mass media, increasingly using violence rather than pleasure to define their product.
Historically, when women have spoken out against these issues they are sidelined, silenced, or punished. Not so long ago, women who did not quietly conform would be diagnosed as mentally ill. Freud was one of the first to recant the real issue of women’s sexual abuse and instead argue that female inadequacy lead to hysteria. Today’s branding of women as “insecure” and “jealous” is hardly an improvement on the sexism of yesteryear.
For industries that profit from the objectification of women, silence is a necessary tool. If women are silent they are assumed to consent. Pornography and objectification are potent tools for silencing women — Andrea Dworkin said:
“The civil impact of pornography on women is staggering. It keeps us socially silent, it keeps us socially compliant… pornography [is] a new institution of social control, a way of saying publicly to every woman: avert your eyes (a sign of second-class citizenship), look down, bitch.”
Silence is required complicity for many forms of violence against women’s bodies, including objectification and its close associates like plastic surgery. That’s why it’s so important that women don’t speak critically about Kardashian’s photo shoot, or the 6,000,000 other enhanced, photoshopped, and objectifying images that will circulate online today. “If you don’t like it don’t look” is an important catchphrase that silences women in a world of moving billboards and pornographic music videos televised in every gym, bar, and corner café.
If women spoke more openly about how dehumanizing, unrealistic, and harmful these images are, it might actually require industry to change. If women felt supported to fight back, it might actually cause a reduction in sales. If women weren’t told they are just insecure and jealous, they might be better placed to take this fight to the bottom line of business.
Listed companies cannot function without growth, which means our economy requires women’s repression and ongoing sexism. When women speak out against images like Kardashian’s “Break the Internet,” try to step out of the 1950s and recognize that women are not mentally deficient, they are, in fact, fighting for their own human rights.
Laura McNally is a psychologist, consultant, author, and PhD candidate. Her current work draws upon critical theory to examine the limitations of corporate social responsibility and liberal feminism. She blogs at lauramcnally.com.