One of the founding principles of Western, neoliberal society is the idea that you can earn your way to success. Hard work and talent can afford anybody prosperity, regardless of their origins, making us all self-responsible. You get what you earn; this is the simple equation that gets us out of bed in the morning.
Kim didn’t earn it.
Amongst the chorus of racial slurs and slut-shaming that we hear from Kim Kardashian’s haters, there is also a self-righteous wailing about how she has ‘never done anything’. Does it erode one of the cruxes of our worldview, knowing that one of the most successful women in entertainment has ‘done nothing’?
And then there’s the nature of Kim’s fame, characterised by a complete absence of privacy. While we complain about her ‘shamelessness’ and ‘fakeness’, the truth is that the chronicling of Kim’s life couldn’t exist in the public sphere without our rabid voyeurism. If there was no audience for the intimate details of Kim’s life, they wouldn’t be in circulation. We made her famous by caring.
In case you didn’t know, academic study of the Kardashian phenomenon has become its own field, much of which focuses on the theory that Kim is a crystallisation of social media culture, the living embodiment of our selfie-storms, our trivial status updates, our public breakups; the endless unedited publication of every mistake, event and achievement. Kim simultaneously reassures us that our culture of sharing is normal and reminds us how vapid it is. Maybe we feel this contempt for her because we know that our profound fascination with her is tied to all our worst qualities. Our interest in her is shallow, nosy, even malicious, glued to her fluctuating silhouette, her ugly breakups. We resent the fact that we just spent 20 minutes examining her 25 Most Shocking Looks! instead of trying to understand the situation in Pakistan.
And the hate for Kim is not pretty. Sure, there’s some (probably) valid commentary about misrepresentation, opportunism and conspicuous consumption, but the conversation about Kim very quickly slides into the mean and ignorant. There’s a lot of variations on ‘slut’, ‘money-grubbing whore’, accusations that she’s a ‘terrible mother’ and that her clothing choices and selfies somehow make her a morally bad person. She bought hot pants and hair dye guys. She didn’t violate your human rights. But maybe, because we made her famous by consuming everything she offered, we feel like we own her. If Kim lives her life solely for the benefit of an audience, then she belongs to us. Like the Truman Show, we feel like we have say in how she lives her life, seeing her as less than a person. We identify with Kim more than other celebrities, yet we seem to empathise with her less.
There’s been a lot written by a lot of very smart people about how when we, as an audience, watch someone who doesn’t have the power to look back, we feel in control. Looking at somebody is a choice, an act of free will. Being looked at is something that happens to us, which we can only passively receive; it’s beyond our control. Kim disrupts this by taking selfies, by staging her existence through her ‘reality’ shows, choosing how she is seen, looking back through the lens. It’s also interesting how Kim never seems to be saying anything; for one of the most photographed women in the world, her words don’t seem to take up a lot of print. She’s the perfect celebrity for the visual age, infinitely recognisable, both scandalous and meaningless.
This might only scratch the surface of why Kim-bagging is a global pastime. No doubt there’s also the fact that she’s a non-white female, two groups who are significantly easier to criticize in a sexist, racist world. But maybe, when we’re hailing her as the first sign of the social apocalypse, we should consider that her defense might be the very thing that we’re accusing her of; Kim didn’t do anything.