Keeping up with the Kardashians: Celebrity symbols of modern-day racism and sexism

Leah Olasehinde is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

The Kardashians have created a social media empire, that had expanded from reality TV to fashion, make-up, and even video games. They run a multi-million-dollar business, headed almost exclusively by women, and should be commended. Yet, the foundations of their success have proven to be exploitative, racist, and sexist. Racism and sexism in the modern-day Western world is becoming more and more implicit, and it is only by addressing each issue hidden within our culture that we can fully combat them.

It is a shame to have to be so critical of such a successful female empire, but successive media scandals prove it to be more than necessary.

Kylie: cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is one of the most difficult racial issues to explain.

On the one hand, culture is meant to be fluid: festivities, customs and traditions can help bring people together and create unity between those of different backgrounds. Yet, profiting off of others’ cultures crosses the line between engaging with others’ cultures, and using them to boost personal means.

The thin line between the former – cultural appreciation – and the latter – cultural appropriation – is difficult to draw.

In 2015, Kylie Jenner posed for a Teen Vogue photo shoot wearing faux dreadlocks.[1]

Dreadlocks are traditionally worn by Rastafarians to represent their African heritage and solidify their spiritual connection with the African lion.[2]

They are also worn by other black men and women, as a protective style, to prevent breakage, boost hair growth, and make Afro hair more manageable.

In 2016, a woman was fired from her job from wearing dreadlocks – they were too ‘messy’ for the workplace. This wrongful dismissal based on racial discrimination was supported by the Federal Court of Alabama.[3]

In 2015, Kylie wore and re-wore cainrows – renamed ‘boxer braids’ – another Afro protective style – which was also used by African slaves in America to map plantations and plan escapes. [4]

In 2014, Kylie Jenner went to Coachella wearing a bindi – a religious symbol worn by men and women in the Hindu Dharma, to signify spiritual guidance and – ironically – self realisation.[5]

Maybe this is just a smart business strategy: spot trends, use them, discard them for the next.

Kylie’s celebrity status allows her to experiment with ‘crazy’ styles to spark media interest, while others are mocked and discriminated against for wearing them for genuine reasons.

What Kylie does not (or refuses to) realise is that the ‘trends’ that she treats as disposable have cultural connotations, and have an impact on the people that genuinely hold them. A disposable fashion trend demands a lot less respect, and is subject to a lot less bias than a genuine cultural practice.

Kim: fetishisation and hyper sexualisation

Kim Kardashian is both the perpetrator and victim of these intertwined issues: her career is based on her fetishisation of black men, and, through this, she is objectified and sexualised.

Fetishisation

There is no secret to the break-through of the Kardashians into reality TV and celebrity culture. Kim’s sex tape with rapper Ray J brought huge attention to the family and the media hysteria imposed on the Kardashians was out of their control. The way the family used this to their advantage to build a social media empire is impressive.

However, it must be noted that part of their success in turning the story into their favour was the creation of a narrative of dating exclusively black men and socialising exclusively in black circles.

‘It can’t be the white guy ever, it always has to be the black guys’.

Kim has frequently expressed how she could never date white men, and has always been more attracted to black men.

The problem here is that there is a difference between racial preference and racial fetishisation, and Kim has many times crossed this line.

In an interview with Howard Stern[6], Kim demonstrated her fetishisation of black men and black culture. She objectified them by referring to their ‘schlongs’, and associated the black men she dated with the ‘ghetto’ and ‘gangster living’. She also perpetuated the stereotype of hyper sexualisation within the black community, referring many time to how much black men love her ‘big ass’ and always stare at it when flirting with her.

Here, Kim has forged a connection with the black community to create an exploitative persona and profit off of black culture.

Hyper sexualisation

Kim is also the target of hyper sexualisation – yet, looking more closely, she is only an indirect target: with the real fetishisation being targeted at black women.

In 2009, Kim’s team posted a photo to ‘break the internet’ through a recreation of a photo shot by photographer Jean-Paul Goude. In the image, the body of each woman is the centre of the photo, and is heavily edited to enhance their curves – more specifically, of their ‘big asses’. Jean-Paul was most proud of this piece, of his ‘happy savage pleased to serve’.[7] He frequently expressed his self-proclaimed ‘jungle fever’ throughout his career and his works.

With Kim recreating this image, is she not showing the same?

Did she realise the historical and racial connotations of this photoshoot? Did she realise that she was recreating a photo directly connected with a historic enslavement, sexualisation, and objectification of black women?

Maybe not.

But did her team realise? Definitely. The very fact that they used this recreation in their publicity strategy shows how the Kardashian empire is based on a sexual exploitation of black women and a fetishisation of black culture.

Caitlyn: white feminism

Caitlyn Jenner has spent the last few years transitioning, and has been in the media spotlight for the majority of her journey. For that alone, she warrants respect. However, this respect can only be limited. It is hard to sympathise with someone who has – and actively uses – the money, the platform, and the influence, and could make a real change in LGBT rights, but decides only to use them to boost her celebrity career.

Caitlyn Jenner was a respected celebrity both before and after her transition, and is clearly a member of the LGBT community, yet she has done little more than use her TV show I am Cait to talk about fashion and makeup. According to her, ‘the hardest thing about being a woman is choosing what to wear’.[8]

Caitlyn has a platform in which she expresses her journey through her transition: she has the perfect opportunity to address and challenge such issues, yet she has done little more than advance the Kardashian brand.

However, this alone would not be an issue. The nature of any transgender person’s transition is inherently personal and sensitive, and it is not the right of anyone to dictate how and if they decide to share their story.

The problem with Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity personality is in her political views – she openly supports the Republican party, while at the same belonging to a social group that its members directly targets.

In 2016, Caitlyn stated that Donald Trump would be ‘very good for women’s issues’[9].

In the same year, the Republican party made suggestions to make conversion therapy legal for minors, and allow LGBT discrimination in the workplace and medical practice[10]. Conversion therapy has been classed as an international human rights issue by the UN Committee Against Torture[11], and legal discrimination would allow employers to fire LGBT employees for their sexuality, and even permit doctors to refuse to treat patients of the LGBT community.

What does this contradiction mean?

Under the policies of a party that she openly advocates, LGBT people would face further mistreatment, discrimination, and even violence. But due to her financial and celebrity status, most likely she would not face the brunt of these issues. For this reason, she would not be phased by the open homophobia and misogyny that underline the foundations of the political party she supports. Probably, what would most influences her is their stance tax cuts for high earners, and flexibility in rules regulating million-dollar industries.

This is a prime example of White feminism: Caitlyn, despite being trans, represents the most privileged group within feminism through her financial and celebrity status. This status enables her to be wilfully ignorant of issues faced by poorer LGBT men and women.

After having identified the issues behind our generation’s biggest celebrity family, it is hard to engage with their brand, and leads to the question of which other celebrities, if, under the same critique, would be found to be as problematic.

 

References:

[1] http://www.hypehair.com/47033/kylie-jenner-dons-faux-locs-for-teen-vogue/

[2] http://www.religionfacts.com/rastafarianism/dreadlocks

[3]http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/09/21/a_federal_court_ruled_that_employers_can_fire_people_just_for_having_dreadlocks.html

[4] https://blackdoctor.org/508605/history-of-african-hair-braiding/

[5] http://www.innovateus.net/innopedia/what-does-bindi-signify

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxkYXCSTsjU

[7] https://www.refinery29.com/2014/11/77809/kim-kardashian-carolina-beaumont-john-paul-goude

[8] https://www.buzzfeed.com/kristinharris/caitlyn-jenner-the-power-of-the-woman-hasnt-been-unleashed?utm_term=.cw6E1gpGA#.iqem62ROD

[9] http://www.eonline.com/shows/i_am_cait/news/747403/caitlyn-jenner-says-donald-trump-would-be-very-good-for-women-s-issues-calls-hillary-clinton-a-f-king-liar-watch

[10] https://prod-static-ngop-pbl.s3.amazonaws.com/media/documents/DRAFT_12_FINAL%5B1%5D-ben_1468872234.pdf

[11] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/gay-conversion-therapy-un-committee

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