According to ad agencies and men with opinions everywhere, there are two types of women.
As far back as anyone can remember, history has bifurcated femininity like some kind of fucked-up, patriarchal sorting hat. In the beginning there was Lilith and Eve, humankind’s first example of the sexual side piece being cast aside for someone who’s wifey material. More recently, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe became iconic examples of the divide.
These lessons in female contrast are essentially cautionary tales. We’re taught that being blond, fun, and unmarried might get you a few minutes in the limelight, but that that sort of seduction isn’t sustainable or ladylike. In the end, everybody wants to be a Kennedy.
Of course, these two restrictive options do women a disservice by pitting them against one another, and reducing broad, messy, abundant human beings to silly archetypes. Judging by the boxes we stuff famous women into, we’re all suffering from a Madonna-whore complex—Freud’s diagnosis for men who can’t help but divide the world of women into virtuous mothers and disposable prostitutes.
This depressingly archaic formula is still alive and well in 2017. And while there are many examples of wives being held to saintly standards and women getting slut-shamed, a particularly overt case involves two celebrity archetypes: Kim Kardashian and Ayesha Curry. This imaginary tension between two famous women was essentially created and perpetuated by social media trolls. Physically incapable of resisting a chance to weigh in, Twitter users started opining on the merits of a sexy Kim Kardashian versus a domestic Ayesha Curry. Apparently, people on the internet would like to “see more Ayesha Currys and less Kim Kardashians.” Of course, the internet has historically seen a whole lot of Kim Kardashian, and appeared to like it.
The same men who loudly congratulate Ayesha Curry on her wifey credentials probably watch Kardashian’s sex tape in private, or contributed to the nude photoshoot traffic that broke the internet. Kardashian’s scintillating shoots and sexy selfies perpetually keep the reality TV star in the news; they are endlessly shared, screenshotted, and consumed. Still, a large part of this cultural conversation is wrapped up in criticism and condemnation. Kardashian, unlike Curry, is not an uncomplicated object of adoration. She’s a sex symbol who propels herself forward despite constant backlash, someone who’s loathed almost as much as she’s lusted after.
Whenever Kim gets naked for a camera, she’s met with unsolicited sermons on how a wife and mother ought to behave. Kardashian’s 2016 naked selfie is a perfect example of the rollercoaster that follows any act of Kardashian self-exposure. She posted a risqué picture of herself, because that’s a thing that social media stars often do. Some celebrities publicly criticized her, because social media trolling is a great way to get written up in articles like this one. Piers Morgan, the self-appointed chief Kardashian policer, decided, “It’s time for Kim Kardashian to put her clothes back on.” Bette Midler joked, “If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen, she’s gonna have to swallow the camera,” and Chloë Grace Moretz implored Kardashian to be a better role model for young women. In turn, Kardashian chastised Piers, called out Bette, and welcomed Chloë to Twitter (“since no one knows who she is”). She followed up this Twitter offensive with, of all things, a very thoughtful essay in celebration of International Women’s Day.
“In all seriousness, I never understand why people get so bothered by what other people choose to do with their lives… I don’t do drugs, I hardly drink, I’ve never committed a crime—and yet I’m a bad role model for being proud of my body?” Kardashian wrote. “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”
With a good deal of self-awareness, Kardashian noted, “It always seems to come back around to my sex tape,” concluding, “I shouldn’t have to constantly be on the defense, listing off my accomplishments just to prove that I am more than something that happened 13 years ago… Let’s move on, already. I have.” But even Kardashian, who built a reality TV empire and created a world in which women paint entirely new faces on top of their actual faces, can’t overcome the stigma of female sexuality. The Madonna-whore complex is inflexible and unforgiving; make one sex tape with Ray J, and any future attempt at respectability will be immediately labeled as a reach. As often as Kardashian is critiqued for her scantily clad pictures, she’s lectured for trying to elevate herself above video girl status. The most recent example of this came courtesy of an Interview photo shoot in which Kardashian posed as “America’s New First Lady,” styled in homage to Jackie Kennedy. Naturally, this conflation of a sexualized reality TV star and a respectable American icon rubbed some readers the wrong way—the implication being that Kim Kardashian is far too low-brow to fashion herself after a true first lady.
As Kardashian explained in the accompanying cover story, “You can say a lot of things about me, but you cannot say I don’t work hard. I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I don’t act. But I am not lazy.” One of her particular talents is full transparency—not just physical exposure, but the seemingly endless ability to reveal herself on social media and TV. Kim Kardashian shares herself for profit—her image, her family, her makeup tips, her political opinions and, occasionally, her butt. Reducing Kardashian to a picture or a video of a naked woman exposes an inability to see her in full, as both the woman in front of the camera and the one who’s pulling the strings. Kardashian’s particular strain of self-branding genius would likely elicit less derision if it didn’t rely so heavily on her own sexualization. But of course, if Kim didn’t market herself as a sex symbol, she probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention in the first place.
Kim Kardashian seems well aware that, to a certain subset of society, she will always be seen as a ditzy slut and an unfit mother. But slurs have never gotten in Kardashian’s way in the past, and it’s hard to imagine the critics having any impact on her future behavior. If anything, Kardashian has ramped up her efforts to defy easy categorization and enrage internet misogynists. In the immediate wake of her Interview shoot, Kim was featured in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, where she confessed, “It’s really scary, the world that we’re living in now. And when you did feel safe at home, now with Trump in presidency, you just don’t feel safe anymore.
“We’ve worked so hard to get to where we were and to have so many things that we were so proud of in our country, to just literally revert backwards is the most frustrating thing,” Kardashian continued, joking that her 4-year-old daughter North would be a more competent leader than our current president. This political statement might feel off-brand, but anyone who follows the star on social media knows she has become increasingly outspoken of late, sharing links and opinions on issues ranging from gun control to Planned Parenthood. Most recently, Kardashian donated to Hurricane Harvey relief, tweeted in support of Dreamers, and retweeted a number of anti-Trump sentiments.
While other celebrities seem content to push out bland sentiments and keep their political affiliations private, Kardashian has stepped up at a time when her wide-reaching platform means more than ever. Even more astonishingly, Kardashian doesn’t feel the need to legitimize her serious opinions with a new buttoned-up image. On Tuesday, she shared a nude photo of herself climbing a tree, described as a sneak peek at fashion photographers Mert and Marcus’ upcoming offering. Naturally, the picture of Kardashian in nothing but combat boots earned her internet ire. But, perhaps cognizant of the fact that this media uproar can easily be monetized in her favor, Kardashian seems intent on representing a range of femininities—proper and presidential one day, natural and naturalist the next.
On one hand, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t; when Kim K is sexy, she’s slut-shamed, and when she’s prim or political, she’s told to stay in her lane. On the other hand, Kardashian is winning no matter what. Her haters are as essential to her influence as her fans. Whether you’re retweeting her or questioning her character, you’re still talking about Kim Kardashian. And after decades spent flouting expectations, she seems more resolved than ever to show the world her full, multifaceted self—whether you like it or not.