It turns out that Kim Kardashian West can make a pretty impressive attempt at breaking the internet just by being fully clothed.
The inevitable storm of denunciation that followed her shoot with Interview magazine, with Kardashian West dressed as Jackie Kennedy, is in full flow.
The sources of outrage: Kardashian West comparing herself to, or emulating, Mrs. Kennedy is supposedly terrible because Kennedy was an unimpeachably graceful style icon and most hallowed former First Lady and Kardashian West stands for something more debased, and certainly not, as the Interview cover line, has it: “America’s New First Lady.”
Then there is the color of her skin in the shoot, with some accusing her of trying to make herself look black.
This has yet to be confirmed or addressed by Kardashian West and/or Interview magazine; and if it is true, would raise questions as to who requested the skin darkening to take place.
Racial sensitivity and racism cannot be something that Kardashian West is unaware of: she is married to a black man, and is raising two biracial children. The obvious question to ask is, does she want to appear ‘black’ herself and if so, why?
Until and if she ever answers that, it can be duly noted that with arguments thrumming around race and the iconography of womanhood, Kardashian West has yet again achieved a characteristic rout of the online fury-stokers, facing an unpredictable challenger in Melania Trump wearing stilettos to walk to Air Force One en route to Houston. (The First Lady later changed into sneakers.)
What is clear looking at Steven Klein’s pictures of Kardashian West with daughter North is that Kardashian West likes to play dress-up, and knows how to parlay that sense of playfulness into media coverage and headlines.
Dressing up as Kennedy guarantees both, and Kardashian West presumably knew the naysaying chorus that would break out after the pictures were published.
By dressing up as Jackie Kennedy, Kardashian West forces us to consider the Camelot that Kennedy represented versus the Camelot that celebrity families like the Kardashians represent today. Both families have become iconic, both have been folded into the pop cultural pantheon.
The behavior and image of both families have been raked over by journalists and writers, academics and thinkers. And yet, for all those words—and in the Kardashian case, a self-engineered intrusion of a reality television show—both families still command a mystery.
Kim Kardashian West’s mystique may not be of the order of Jackie Kennedy’s, but it is still present.
The cover-line may be grandiloquent and ridiculous—and glossy magazine covers are not known for their subtlety—but, in that reality television now monopolizes pop culture, Kardashian West does stand as a First Lady of that all-conquering genre. You can blame or snark at Kardashian West all you want for that, but the public have bought into and bolstered her fame.
She herself says in the Interview magazine piece that she doesn’t act or sing or dance, but still works hard. She and her mother and sisters have built impressive brands around themselves, all built around the personas honed in 10 years of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Her critics’ condemnation willfully ignores this, and that is understandable. Kim Kardashian West stands for something to them, and that is everything that is cheap and disposable in the culture. When people condemn Kardashian West for her latest fashion, nudity or iconographic-imitating outrage, what they’re really howling against is the debasing of culture generally, of which she is the handiest, low-hanging signifier.
There may be simple envy mixed into that. Kardashian West has millions of followers on social media, a goggle-eyed army of fans. Those tweeting against her have considerably less glorification. If a major part of living a curated life online is about self-promotion, Kardashian West is one of the most canny and talented operators. Kardashian West is the patron saint for all of those who want to be watched and taken notice of.
It’s hard to see why the pictures would be directly disrespectful of Jackie Kennedy. Kardashian West is not mimicking her grotesquely; she has simply borrowed some dress and hair looks, and let the stylists do the rest. You can claim to feel depressed or annoyed at what counted for an icon in Mrs. Kennedy’s time, and what counts for one now—but, even in the cultural distance traveled between the two, the photographs prove more fascinating than damning.
If people are this upset over Kardashian West’s Jackie Kennedy dress-up, could it possibly signal they’re angrier about what fame has come to mean, and their own complicity in that?
Meanwhile, the darkening of Kardashian West’s skin, if that is something she or her team have overseen, is something for her to answer. In June, she was accused of the same after a shoot for her make-up line.
“I would obviously never want to offend anyone,” Kardashian told The New York Times after that. “I used an amazing photographer and a team of people. I was really tan when we shot the images, and it might be that the contrast was off. But I showed the image to many people, to many in the business. No one brought that to our attention. No one mentioned it.”
“Of course, I have the utmost respect for why people might feel the way they did. But we made the necessary changes to that photo and the rest of the photos. We saw the problem, and we adapted and changed right away,” the reality star continued. “Definitely I have learned from it.”
If that is true, with these latest pictures, Kardashian West has decided to simply disregard her critics. Or there may be another apology.
Janet Mock, who conducted the interview with Kardashian West, has herself faced criticism for conducting the interview, tweeting her own defense of so doing today.
Kardashian West has yet to address the various controversies flowing from the cover shoot. On Tuesday morning, she tweeted that her family would be donating $500,000 to the Houston flooding relief effort.
That act of generosity, one can safely predict, will be overshadowed by continued criticism of Kardashian West’s Jackie Kennedy pictures. Click, click, click. She’s done it again.