Are "empowering" racy covers really all that empowering?
So you may have seen Kim Kardashian’s “Break The Internet” cover for Paper Magazine. It features the star in pearls, gloves, and THAT’S IT mooning the camera. There’s another safe for work cover of the magazine that features Kardashian in a black evening gown popping a bottle of champagne, the liquid arc-ing gracefully over her head and landing in a glass resting on her rear end (because apparently Kardashian has a butt that can actually DO THIS). Both covers were shot by Jean-Paul Goude, and the latter champagne shot was based on his 1976 shot known as “Champagne Incident” in which his muse Carolina Beaumont modeled for that same popping-the-champagne-glass-sitting-on-her-butt shot, only Beamont posed in the buff.
Kardashian’s shoot did NOT literally break the Internet (we’re all still here, aren’t we?) but it is worthy of discussion. Namely, what is the point of a magazine cover like this? Are we empowering Kardashian, are we objectifying her, are we doing a little of column A, a little bit of column B, what are we talking about when we talk about Kardashian’s naked butt? When Paper Magazine tells us that this nude rear shot is going to “break the Internet,” what is it about the shot that is going to be doing all that breaking?
I guess I can’t help but remember that first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians when Playboy tried to convince Kim to pose in the nude (and momager Kris Jenner [with cartoon dollar signs in her eyes] was like “Mm-hmm, yes dear, whatever Playboy says.”) I remember how uncomfortable Kim was with the idea of baring it all, and in the end, compromised with Playboy by posing with a ton of strings of pearls that covered up her bathing suit parts. And now Kardashian is wearing pearls once again, but this time those pearls are on her neck and the body parts she once tried to keep clothed are now the body parts she’s using to break the Internet.
That Playboy episode was shot back in 2007. Seven years have gone by and we’re up to season nine of the series. That’s a lot of years, and a lot of reality show seasons, and a lot has happened over the course of this almost-decade. Maybe Kim completely changed her mind about the birthday suit modeling game, maybe at one time posing nude felt like selling out and now a naked photo sesh feels like the most empowering thing in the world for Kardashian. If that was the case, I would say “Sounds good, Kim, you go back to rocking out with your naked butt out.”
But I just can’t help wondering if this “Break The Internet” photo session was a defeat for Kardashian. If she’s just been so worn down over the years, so brainwashed into thinking that her butt is the most interesting thing about her and a provocative shot is the best (and maybe the only way) for her to command an audience. And that’s patently untrue. This is the same woman who made FORTY THREE MILLION DOLLARS off her mobile game app in just three months. She’s a phenomenon, a supernova of a star, and a behemoth of a businesswoman. However in-your-face covers like this support the idea that the most valuable thing about Kim Kardashian is her butt. And when the world keeps telling you that your best and only weapon is your naked body, it’s hard not to believe the world.
The litmus test for any questionably sexist practice is this: do men do this? Do famous men regularly pose nude? And the answer is no. They don’t. Famous men HAVE posed nude. It’s happened. But it’s not standard practice for a well-known man to strip down and bare it all for the camera. Because we have all agreed that men are to be valued for their actions. Just as we have all agreed that no matter how powerful a woman is, we need to pressure her into seeing herself as ornamental, as sexual window dressing, as a woman who is more object than person.
And still, when a female celebrity poses nude for a photoshoot, the emphasis is on empowerment, while the subtext is something very different. There is absolutely nothing wrong with revealing your nude body in all its glory, but something feels ick when it’s used to sell magazines or “break the Internet.”
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane at other “empowering” magazine covers for women: