Sophia Kaufman: The parabolic trajectory of Kim K’s feminism as told by someone who knows nothing about her (or parabolas)

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 5:55pm

Hint: when you’re at a loss for something to write about for a column called Gender & Media, there are always a couple standbys. Right now — this may be obvious, but bear with me — option number one is Taylor Swift. Everyone with any interest in the messy relationship between feminism and pop music has a hot take on whatever it was we made her do. Many are still furiously typing away as we speak.

Maybe someday I will write about Taylor Swift. Today is not that day.

Option number two is probably Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer or some other rent-a-rant (my new coined phrase) option: They don’t even have to be doing anything new or interesting to be utilized as a 600 word think piece generator,  a hot button topic guaranteed to drive your comment sections wild.

Option number three: the Kardashians. Any one of them, it seems, could be and have been the subject of a dissertation. Every couple of months, they seem to pop up and do something again. I have never paid attention to any of the Kardashian-Jenner dramas; I never watched the show, I don’t know what they sell, I can never remember who is married to whom, I don’t read the tabloids they frequently star in — I guess I’m just not like other girls.*

And yet, despite all that, Kim Kardashian’s name has been floating around in my periphery ever since a middle school teacher in 2007 had to request we refrain from discussing the infamous sex tape during class. (We didn’t. I learned a lot that day.) She’s ubiquitous in pop culture, and because she’s a woman of fame and fortune, every now and then, someone has to write about her relationship to feminism. It’s almost contractually obligated.

While marveling the other day over how weird it is that 2007 is a literal decade ago, I realized that even though I’ve never cared about Kim Kardashian, and I’m pretty uninterested in minute analyses of whether certain things she or her siblings do now are “feminist” or not, tracing the evolution of my perceptions of her over the last decade could be a way to map at least one possible trajectory of a young girl’s feminist education through pop culture.

I also realized at some point I would have to review basic math skills in order to take the GRE, so here goes: on a graph where x = age and/or length of time being a feminist and y = how “feminist” Kim K is perceived, this is the parabolic trajectory of Kim’s feminism: F(x) = -(x-10)^2 + 10. Here are the coordinates.

(6.8, 0) This is where we (or I, at least) started off, as a young middle schooler who loathed Kim Kardashian with all my heart and soul. She seemed to care about stupid things and I thought she didn’t represent women well. I was a “feminist,” but the kind of feminist that decided the best way to not be treated the way I could see Kim K being treated in the media was to disdain women like her and be “one of the boys.” This plot point represents internalized misogyny, something we all start with.

(8,6) Jump forward to the early years of high school. This is where my friends and I (some of them still vehemently rejecting the label feminist, despite being at an all-girls school) decided that maybe, Kim Kardashian actually was a feminist: She was a highly successful businesswoman, and that’s hard to do in a male-dominated field. This is what one could call “lean-in” corporate feminism: every woman for herself. If you can claw your way to the top, regardless of how, where, and why, congrats, you’re hailed a feminist icon.

(10,10) This is the vertex coordinate, representing the apex of our perception of Kim K’s feminism. At this point, because we’re young adults now — juniors or seniors in high school — we keep getting told that sexual empowerment in the crux of feminism. And Kim Kardashian is sexually empowered! She outmaneuvered the media who tried to shame her for a sex tape, she’s not afraid to wear whatever she wants, etc. A sexually empowered businesswoman? Maybe (we thought, cautiously) Kim K was the epitome of feminism.

(12,6) Then we learn about intersectionality and it’s all downhill from there. This is what I call the “Kim, there’s people that are dying” point (a reference to an episode of KUWTK in which Kim cries about losing her diamond earrings in the ocean, and Kourtney reminds her that the world has bigger problems). This is not to make an argument about whether the wealthy have an obligation to the rest of the world, but rather to question whether a woman (and by extension, her whole family) who is so far removed from the rest of the population’s problems can be considered any kind of women’s lib icon.

(13.2, 0) The low point of Kim K’s trajectory has happened in the last few years, as her cultural appropriation has gotten worse, her makeup line’s advertisements arguably dabbled in a kind of glamorized blackface and her whole family has had their own issues in trying to maintain a positive kind of relevance all while proving how wildly out of touch they are (Kylie got intense blowback for that modeling shoot in which she used a gold wheelchair as a prop, Kendall Jenner may never live down that Pepsi ad, and Caitlin Jenner is about as far from a good ally to anyone as a person can be). After this, the parabola surges downward into negative values. At this point, Kim might call herself a feminist — but there’s little to support it.

All of this is not to say that each individual act, event, or piece of media generated by Kim K or any of the rest of the Kardashians or Jenners isn’t worth analyzing in some capacity, nor am I arguing that this highly simplified graph represents a universal timeline. But I think it’s more useful to analyze trajectories like this, rather than their individual points. They can show not only how our understanding of feminism grows and shifts as we get older and have access to more education, but also how our definition and application of “feminist” changes over time too.  Mapping it out like this allows us to see that no point on this graph is obsolete. Does media coverage of Kim K rely sometimes on internalized misogyny and slut-shaming? Absolutely. Does this mean we have to shield her from criticism based on her practices of cultural appropriation? Absolutely not. Both can be equally true; each has their place in a nuanced analysis of her place within the praxis of feminism.

NB: Several values on this graph were rounded. Special thanks to my housemate Deirdre, who looked at my first attempt at writing a function and gently informed me that I was plotting a triangle.

*This is sarcasm.