Latest Kardashian Photoshoot Has Racial Undertones

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

Kim Kardashian has broken the internet. Her controversial photoshoot for the winter 2014 edition of Paper magazine, where she poses both nude and in a black dress, blew up on Twitter and Facebook after it was published on Tuesday, Nov. 11. Social media users expressed a variety of opinions, ranging from disapproval to praise to outrage. The two cover shots, specifically, got a lot of people talking. The first depicts Kim, slathered in body oil, showing off her famous butt and hourglass figure. In the second cover she is clothed in a fancy black dress and evening gloves, with a champagne glass balanced on her backside while the bottle of bubbly sprays over her head and into the glass. It’s actually an almost identical copy of a 1970 photograph by the same famous French photographer, Jean-Paul Goude.

While America has become accustomed to Kim’s and the rest of the Kardashians’ outrageous, overdramatized actions (remember that 72 day–long marriage?) the family has received a lot of criticism for behavior that is being produced and performed specifically for the American public. It’s the cyclical relationship of reality TV: Someone does something stupid and outlandish, the public condemns their actions as immoral, and, simultaneously, the audience can’t tear its eyes away from the screen. The cycle continues.

While the majority of responses were in some way critical of the shoot, some celebrities openly praised Kim or playfully spoofed the shoot. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s parody of the Kardashian annual Christmas card featured Ellen and Portia’s heads Photoshopped onto Kim’s body with red bows adorning her butt. Meanwhile, Lorde simply tweeted “mom,” expressing her approval of the photographs.

On the other hand, negative responses were diverse, ranging from simple annoyance to pointing out Instagram’s double standards to condemning Kim’s unmotherly choices. Everyone had an opinion on the shoot. Auto racing driver Arie Luyendyk, Jr. tweeted on Nov. 12, “So while I was sleeping we as humans landed ON A COMET 500 million km away and my whole feed involves Kim K’s naked body, makes sense,” commenting on the sensationalizing and hype of the photos. Alyssa Milano tweeted, “Wait! I don’t get it. No disrespect to Kim but… people are offended by my breastfeeding selfies & are fine with her (amazing) booty cover?” Naya Rivera commented on Kim’s Instagram, “I normally don’t. But… you’re someone’s mother…”

The last two remarks by Milano and Rivera focus on the dual limitations placed on the female body. First: Seen through the male gaze, the female body is only a sexual object, and anything pertaining to the biological functions of motherhood — such as breastfeeding or menstruating — is seen as disgusting and should be censored. Second: the idea that a woman’s sexuality and sexual appeal somehow disappear after motherhood. This is an extension of the Playboy-esque older-man-younger-woman myth, which teaches us that men want young women because they don’t want “old” women. Hidden in Rivera’s comment is also the implication that because Kim is now a mother, she must set an example for her daughter on how to act like a good girl. Her mother shouldn’t be a walking sex symbol for the American public.

Yet Kim, despite her controversial ways, proves that you can be both a mother and a sex icon; the two are not mutually exclusive. Kim’s acceptance of her body — including her sex appeal — is a powerful feminist statement in a society that constantly polices the female form.

Sensationalization of these photos have overshadowed what is, in my opinion, the actual most controversial and offensive issue at play here: Jean-Paul Goude’s blatant hypersexualization of the black female body. The second cover of the now infamous champagne bottle and glass is a replica of his earlier work, “Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976,” printed in his 1982 book Jungle Fever, a title that is rich with racist and sexist implications. Both of these photographs are eerily reminiscent of caricatures of Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman also known as the Hottentot Venus — an offensive label for her Khoikhoi ancestry.

Baartman was exhibited in freak shows across London and Paris from 1810 until her death in December 1815. Her body was seen as exotic and abnormal compared to the white women of Western Europe. In order to show off her large buttocks, breasts and rumored elongated labia minora, she was forced to wear skin-tight costumes and was put on display in a cage where European onlookers would gawk at her. In France, artists created scientific paintings of her body; after her death her cadaver was dissected, and her skeleton and body cast were displayed in the Musée de l’Homme until the 1970s.

This horrific abuse of Baartman and the sexualization and objectification of her body is a sickening event in the long history of European objectification of African bodies and cultures. Obviously, Kim wasn’t aware of this historical racist image that she was echoing. I’m guessing Goude wasn’t either, in 1976 or in 2014. I certainly wasn’t aware of Baartman’s story until last week. But Goude should definitely be called out on his exploitation of the black female body in both Jungle Fever and Kim’s “Break the Internet” photoshoot. Maybe there is a way for Kim to defy restrictions against the female body in modern society; but there is no way to repair the damage and abuse against Baartman and black women.