We know, we know, but allow us to explain

By Emily Kirkpatrick
Updated September 01, 2016 09:32 AM
Courtesy Paul O'Dea

Feminism is already enough of a deeply misunderstood ideology — and that’s even before dragging the Kardashian-Jenner family and the fraught, surface level discourse that surrounds them into the fray. But a few weeks ago at the BlogHer conference, Kim Kardashian inserted herself into the midst of a feminism firestorm after she proudly proclaimed that she did not apply that term to herself. She told the audience, “I don’t think that I am [a feminist]. I don’t like labels. I just think I do what makes me happy and I want women to be confident and I’m so supportive of women.” (That is sort of one definition of a feminist, but, sure.)

But as Kim wrote in a post on her website shortly after responding to the backlash over that video, “For me, feminist is someone who advocates for the civil and social rights and liberties of all people, regardless of their gender; anyone who believes that women should have the same choices and opportunities as men when it comes to education and employment, their bodies and their lifestyles.”

The reality star went on to say that although she obviously wants all of those things and wants to empower and uplift women, she doesn’t want to limit herself with a label. She continued, “I’m a human being, and I have thoughts, feelings and opinions about a lot of different things. I don’t need to be defined by those beliefs, just as much as I don’t want to be set apart from — or viewed as being against — those who DO define themselves by those beliefs.” In the process of setting herself apart from the label, she continues to define herself even more as a feminist — someone who wants equal opportunity and treatment for both genders.

Ideally, yes, we should all live in a world where people believe in universal equality and are defined by their personhood rather than their gender, sexual orientation, skin color or whatever else they happen to have randomly been assigned in the genetic lottery. However, we do not live in that world. We live in a world where women are still slut-shamed, body-shamed, and just straight up shamed for daring to occupy their fair share of space (an experience no woman should be more deeply familiar with than Kim). We live in a world where women are still not receiving the same pay as men.

By refusing to accept the weight of this loaded term as a label for herself, Kim is only reaffirming all of the negative baggage that we have come to associate with this word. Instead of simply signifying her interest in equal rights, her denial re-imbues the word feminist with the same played out man-hating, bra-burning, old maid connotations. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche so eloquently put it in her Beyoncé-quoted TED talk, “We have evolved, but it seems to me that our ideas of gender have not evolved.”

This statement is also exactly why it seems more important now then ever before to demonstrate exactly why Kim and her entire family are actually very much feminists, and moreover, feminists who are crucially pushing the movement forward. Even if that feminism appears to have come upon them completely by accident and without their explicit understanding.

A few words of warning before we begin to unpack exactly what that statement means. The qualifier “accidental” in this title is a crucial one, one meant to suggest that these women have stumbled upon a way to pioneer the movement into its next iteration, rather than having tirelessly dedicated their lives towards equality. To suggest otherwise would be to do a great disservice to those celebrities who seem to be hyper-aware of their participation within that feminist dialogue and whom actively use their position of power to subvert the status quo. To say nothing of the many academic and political leaders of the movement who have given their all in promoting this cause.

It’s also extremely important to approach this proposition with the mind set put forth in Amy Poehler‘s book Yes, Please in which she says, the motto all women should approach life with is, “Good for her! Not for me.” By which she means accepting and embracing another woman’s actions and choices does not mean you would necessarily make the same ones for yourself. Being a feminist means allowing women the freedom to make whatever decision she thinks is best for her, her body, and her life. Do I want to wear half the latex apparel Kim K squeezes herself into? Absolutely not. Do I think she should be allowed to dress or not dress exactly as she pleases without fear of harm or reprobation? With all my heart.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps it’s easiest to outline the contributions the KarJenners have inadvertently made towards the equality of women in list form, just to make this giant concept a little more digestible.

They’re a Matriarchy

When the world is based on a patriarchal archetype, seeing a group of well-known women being led and managed by an even more powerful woman is oddly profound. Through the microcosm of this family, however, we’ve all been permitted to see one way that a female-led society would play itself out, and despite your feelings about the family, you can’t argue that they’ve been astoundingly successful (in terms of wealth and fame) while remaining as close-knit and supportive as ever. We’d say that makes the case for the matriarchy.

They Support Each Other Unconditionally

While many families can turn against each other in the spotlight, the KarJenners, on the other hand, have retained a steadfastly unified front. This is an especially empowering thing to witness in a world where women are often taught they need to cut each other down in order to get ahead. But reality TV’s first family has found a way to play to their individual strengths, developing non-competitive ways to distinguish themselves while still uplifting one another. They’ve even extended this same unwavering support towards other famous women. For example, when Kanye got into a Twitter feud with Wiz Khalifa, dragging his ex and Wiz’s baby mama Amber Rose into the mix, it was Kim and Amber, fittingly uniting over sipping tea and selfies, who restored order and put their significant other’s bickering to bed once and for all.

Of course the same generosity of spirit doesn’t seem to exist between Kim and Taylor Swift, but Swift’s brand of feminism is a whole other story best left for another time, or at least better left to the experts, like Camille Paglia.

They Control Their Own PR

This is truly an unprecedented feat in the history of celebrity. Never before has a star been so blatantly completely in control of both the spin of their own press and even the stories that actually make it into print — the import of which is difficult to fully grasp unless you’re a fellow celeb or in the media. Through their long-running reality TV show, the launch of their members-only websites and apps, and their social media presence, every woman in this family is writing and shaping their own pop culture story exactly how they want it written. Even their darkest secrets or wardrobe malfunctions become fodder they can plug back into their own Kardashian PR machine to generate even more content and more clicks, which in the end all just points towards an even bigger bottom line (pun 100 percent intended).

They’re All Self-Made, Multi-Millionaire Moguls

If Google is correct (which, who knows, but until we have bank account access, we’ll have to assume it’s close), the five sisters in the KarJenner family are collectively worth a projected $212 million. That’s a whole lot of money for a group of women largely decried as narcissists who do nothing all day. In fact, they’re so rich that when it was revealed Kanye West was $53 million in debt, Kim joked about paying the amount off from her personal account.

Although she was obviously kidding, that statement does underscore the financial power shift many women in all economic brackets are currently experiencing in America. Not only do Kim and her husband handle their finances separately, a true power couple move, but she is also the primary breadwinner in her family, accruing almost three times as much as her husband who also happens to be one of the most legendary musicians of all time. *Cue Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women”* And all of that is money she made all by herself thanks to savvy and strategic business decisions, despite the continuing narrative she has no talent. She’s talented at something, at least.

They Refuse To Be Shamed

This goes far beyond Kim leveraging a sex tape into international superstardom. (An occurrence which, you will note, once put celebrity careers in the grave but now is looked at as almost expected.) Collectively, they are defying all of the old-school conceptions of how women, especially famous women, should look or behave in public, flaunting their transgression of every gendered rule in the book, and thus inadvertently helping to dismantle them in the process.

Every sister wears exactly as much or as little as they like, from a completely sheer sheath one day to a full-coverage maxi with a fur coat the next, unfazed by what magazines or the public think of their ensembles. In fact, their collectively nonchalant attitude towards fashion can be perfectly summarized by Kendall Jenner‘s opinion on undergarments: “I really don’t see what the big deal is with going braless. I think it’s cool and I really just don’t care! It’s sexy, it’s comfortable and I’m cool with my breasts. That’s it!”

Kylie, on the other hand, turned her much-mocked lip injections into a massive cosmetics empire centered around her infamous pout, laughing all the way to bank. Likewise, when the tabloids called Khloé the “fat sister,” she changed her body through hardcore workouts rather than extreme dieting, and did so not because of media pressure, but because it made her feel good. She then turned her own health into a lucrative book deal, two TV shows, and countless magazine covers.

The family has also collectively changed the culture surrounding celebrity plastic surgery, openly discussing and owning up to all the work they’ve had done, something which previous generations of stars held as a tightly guarded secret.

And it’s precisely that type of relaxed attitude towards their bodies and living their best lives that is systematically chipping away at our puritanical ideas of what is or is not permissible for women. After all, if you can’t shame them, that also means you can’t stop them.

They Are Unapologetically Sex- and Body-Positive

In the ’70s, second wave feminists’ slogan — made famous in an essay by Carol Hanisch — was “the personal is political,” which at the time was meant to help underscore the connection between women’s everyday experiences and larger social issues. Now, with the rise of social media, we can see how the personal has become political yet again, with women often finding themselves at the center of a charged cultural conversation where their physical form becomes the landscape for a debate over questions of morality and decency. As this plays out in France with the burkini ban and N.Y.C. with the “free the nipple” movement, no one is more visible in the arena than the KarJenners.

Many feminists argue that proudly sharing your naked body does nothing to undermine the tyranny of the male gaze. Art historian Griselda Pollock who in her 1977 essay, “What’s Wrong With Images of Women?” suggested that because the nude female body has become such a heavily symbolic form of currency in our culture that when women attempt to subvert or reappropriate it by using their own unclothed image, it “often serves to consolidate the potency of the signification rather than actually rupture it.”

However, it seems there is something to be said for exposing yourself so systematically and unapologetically that the naked form becomes a prosaic, almost mundane occurrence: A non-story, if such a thing can even exist anymore in our 24/7 news cycle culture. Nonetheless, theKarJenners’ bodies have become sites of moral judgement and criticism in a way famous male bodies are almost never subjected to. A quick look at the reaction to Orlando Bloom or Justin Bieber’s nudes versus Kim’s regularly recurring unclothed shots should be more than enough proof of that fact.

The KarJenner model of nudity completely (albeit subtly) subverts the idea that the naked female form can only be seen through one lens — the male gaze. Although there is this conception that the KarJenners’ nudity is all a stunt, a desperate cry for attention, or a pathetic bid for the male libido, all of those hypotheses seem absurd considering they already have all of the above firmly on lock and in greater abundance than any human being could ever possibly desire.

Instead, these selfies seem to work as a mirror, with the person in control very clearly being the same person depicted in the buff. As Gloria Steinem said to Us Weekly in defense of Kim being bullied over her first pregnancy, “Our bodies are never public property under any circumstance…If our bodies are treated as ornaments instead of instruments, that’s because it’s an effort to distract us. So don’t be distracted. Why bother getting caught up in that?”

These women seem to be posting in a vacuum of their own self-gratification. Their selfies have become a gratuitous, blatantly self-indulgent act meant to celebrate their own self-confidence, their own pride in their bare form, rather than something seeking the validation of a mass audience. And clearly, there is absolutely nothing more threatening to the patriarchy than a woman who unabashedly loves herself. In that way, these selfies become well-honed weapons, they become subversive, especially within mainstream media where we’ve been taught to experience nude female celebrities in a very specific, lascivious way, often without their consent.

This point can most notably be applied to Kim, queen of the “nothing to wear LOL” selfie, who has capitalized on her own naked image ever since the advent of her leaked sex tape. She does this over and over again, whether through her barely-clothed selfies on Instagram, her bi-monthly nude magazine covers, or including a XXX section in her art book Selfish (a destabilizing act of radical self-love in and of itself) in which she republished images that were originally leaked in the celebrity iCloud hack of 2014.

Kim’s ownership over her own naked presentation defies the media’s attempt to place her within a certain set of constraints. Especially the moralizing bounds of motherhood, a state of being which is somehow meant to make her existence as a sexual adult woman null in void. Or as Kim put it after being shamed for her nude selfie on Twitter, “I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy.”

It’s also of note that in addition to subverting the idea of who owns and controls the naked female form, the KarJenners have subverted the idea of what that female form should look like — particularly in Hollywood, which has always celebrated a certain rail-thin, blonde and blue-eyed ideal. And nonetheless, these women find a way to celebrate and revel in their own form, which, the more it is publicized, changes our parameters of body acceptance in the process. They’ve taken on the brunt of social media and tabloid shaming so that all women, both famous and not, can consider embracing their shape and what it means to have a “bikini body.”

In conclusion, the KarJenners are an American-made product, the inevitable conclusion of our culture’s unquenchable thirst after fame for fame’s sake in its most unadulterated form. The reality-TV obsessed American public created this female-driven family to be puppets for their own viewing pleasure, but instead, they have become the puppet masters, exposing every string that once controlled them along the way and proving you don’t always have to follow the script you’ve been given. And instead of weakening their popularity, this strategic maneuver has clearly only made them an even stronger feminine force to be reckoned with.

At the end of the day, as Marie Shear famously said in her 1986 review of A Feminist Dictionary, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” And despite the pitfalls and deep sense of unreality that ironically accompanies being the stars of a reality TV show, Kim Kardashian and the rest of the KarJenner ladies are about as unapologetically human and fallible as they come.

With all of that blatantly pro-feminist text being said, it’s now up to you whether you now want to pick up your pitchforks and renew your chant about the KarJenners perpetuating the decline of American culture or have the life-changing revelation that a few naked selfies and a handful of powerful women can’t actually hurt you.

If anything, approached with a critical eye, this family can only serve to engage society in these types of important, dare we say it downright feminist, conversations. And that’s something undoubtedly worth celebrating, even if they don’t actually have any idea what they’re doing.

Are you a feminist? How do you think the KarJenners add or take away from the conversation surrounding feminism? Sound off below!