Nope. I can’t believe I’ve written not one but two – TWO – Kardashian posts in the same week, or even at all. I pray to everything that is holy that I don’t ever get this perplexed by anything else these people do. Because I am keenly aware that this feeds the very profitable machinery that runs on our attention to their gratuitous overexposure. I know. By even engaging this, I am helping the Kardashian enterprise, but Jehovah forgive me, I cannot help it with this one. The more I think about it, the more I think Khloe K’s KKK debacle was sibling rivalry, because you know, Kim was about to drop something big. Yes. That pun was fully intended and I make no apologies for it. Khloe’s impoverished and white privileged attempt at grabbing some spotlight by any means necessary from big sis, was no match for Kim’s rear and full frontal nudity. It is all enough to have me thinking about big butts once again.
At the beginning of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Becky’s friend implores her to look at some girl’s butt. Her first words are ones of incredulity – “Oh, my God!” These words seem to indicate that the speaker is surprised, so surprised that she wants to draw her friend’s attention to the girl’s butt – “look at her butt,” she says. By taking in the spectacle of the girl’s butt, the speaker makes assumptions about the chick’s sexual affiliations to “rap guys” and possibly to her employment as a “total prostitute.” To top it off, these musings are derived solely from looking at the girl’s butt. By the end of this prelude, the girl’s butt is the totality of her being, the sole determinant of her self, her sexuality and her race – “she’s just so…black.” The word “black” is spat out derisively. Big butt = rapper’s girlfriend = prostitute = black. Mixed in with this racist scorn, however, is the girl’s desirability, which for Sir Mix-A-Lot and rap guys everywhere is also contingent on her big butt. So the ladies with the stereotypically white accents react with disgust and scorn and the fellas with lust. If you’re me, when you look closely at the politics at work in this opening, it resonates almost too clearly with the logic born during a historical period ironically called the enlightenment, when things like people’s physical features were used to determine whether or not the were humans, chattel, or human chattel. Put another way, what people looked like determined whether they deserved the dignity of personhood or were instead reduced to objects of labor.
As usual, I linger on a seemingly mundane thing to think about another parallel thing, which in turn, I hope will help me figure out why I am so deeply bothered not so much by Kim K yet again baring her body – her butt in particular – but rather how we look at what has to now be one of the most boring and non-titillating spectacles (for me anyway) of our present day. Shout out to Awesomely Luvvie who launched a twitter campaign for some nudity I can get behind and be about – Idris Elba’s #NekkidIdris. But I digress. What I want to talk about is not the spectacle, but the very disturbing ways we are responding to it. Things like making Christmas ornaments out of cardboard cut outs of the image that you glue round ornaments to, for example. I’d like to parallel Becky and her girl’s gawking on the black chick, who is little in the middle and has got much back, with the Hottentot Venus or now more correctly, Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman.
You see, church, it is neither Kim’s nakedness nor the robust gratuitousness with which she displays herself that troubles me. Folks have been coming down on Kim all over the interwebs in different ways. On the Twitters, for example, there is denunciation of her crassness on the basis of her status as wife and mother. As a wife and mother she has no business jumping bare-assed out of a garbage bag on the cover of anyone’s magazine, much less all over our interwebs. Am I right? Because everybody knows mothers are not allowed to have sex appeal. They used all that shit to get knocked up and once that goal has been achieved there is no need for sexy mommies. Moreover, there is no such thing as public sex appeal for women once they have a husband and a kid. That shit is fo yo man and it should be private! Obvi, yes? Hell naw! Run way from ‘ere wid dat. Scour that backward shit from you mind this minute. If you don’t understand why, holla at yo gurl. I can help you with this. I have to leave the mommy wars politics on the drafting table for a spell too – too much to work into a post about how we process the spectacle of a specific kind of nudity. So forgive me.
But back to the matter at hand: how we look at Kim K’s bottom in this picture in which it looks like a melty Werthers. Church, Sister Rockstar did look and she looked hard and I have to tell you, it did not make her mouth run water like some thirsty folks out there. Instead she was perplexed. Again, this was not because of the nudity itself, but rather the genealogy of the iconography behind it. The grinning woman displayed in a way that emphasizes a hyperbolically large bottom is not unfamiliar to us and neither are the predictable ways we look at it. So, while some clutched their pearls and policed respectability, others amped up the mockery, in ways that are the exact things that puzzled me, for reasons that Baartman will soon help me to explain.
These mocking responses engage the attention-hogging ethos that makes the Kardashian brand profitable and you know folks, I have to tell you, I do not hate on this hustle. It is attention hogging and gahtdamn annoying, but it keeps them in matte Mercedes, enviable finery when they choose to wear clothes, and front row seats to wherever the hell they want. Live the dream, girls! Others are not as generous. Chelsea Handler circulated a picture of her own, noticeably flatter, nude butt next to Kim’s. For why? Who ever knows why Chelsea does nudity when she does it? (I know, but I’m being cheeky. Get it?) Images of the butt picture have also been photoshopped to highlight the parallels between Kim’s bottom and food (donuts, chocolates, peaches, frankfurters) and to wedge Russell Brand’s head between her cheeks (like she’s shitting him out). The photo has been juxtaposed with Pipa Middleton’s proper English bum to show just how improper Brit lookers think the bared largesse of Kim’s derriere is, and with an actual Barbie doll’s butt to convey the similar levels of unreality (I suppose). I’m a little horrified by the photoshopped things in particular, because I think they traffic in some of the elements of the grotesque that I will talk about in a little bit.
The judgey respectability politics that define the first set of critiques are too predictable for me to give them too much thought. The brand of feminism I try to practice at this stage in my life is one that respects every woman’s right to make choices about her own life and especially about what she does or does not do with her body. I might not make the same choices for myself – hell, no one is ever going to see me on the cover of any magazine with my bare ass peeking out over the top of some garbage bag looking thing. Of course the likkle man at home might be able to ask me to for kicks and giggles, but he’s seen it all already and there is no security like the familiar. Nonetheless, I respect and advocate for women’s right to make choices for themselves, even those I wouldn’t make for me. This is a part of what equality and freedom mean to me. I am not so arrogant as to think that my experiences, beliefs, and values are universal, or that they have endowed me with the wisdom or right to dictate other women’s choices. Will I always agree with every choice women make for themselves? Hell nah; I would have preferred that Sister Kim did not get into that garbage bag all oiled up and naked.
Of course, the issue of race is one I am always mindful of here, but I am making it sit obediently in the corner so we can think about the politics of looking. I know in the American context that Kim K, though of Armenian descent, is considered white and feted (fetid?) with all the attendant privileges. If it were Nicki Minaj busting bare assed with champagne out of whatever that black shiny thing is, we wouldn’t be having the avant-garde art conversation. What gets designated as high or low culture/aesthetics is important and has everything to do with race. Beyond race, though, and the ways it inflects these considerations with important nuance and variance, the spectacle of the large bottom is a thing very much at play today in appropriative ways among women who are not of African descent – Kim K, Iggy, J-Lo. I’ve already talked on this blog about what it means to think about these ladies as the booty pioneers in contemporary culture, and so I don’t have to re-cover this ground. What I am interested in at this juncture, though, are the ways this particular image of Kim harkens back to a thoroughly racialized iconography that is entrenched in a troubling tradition of gawking at and relishing large parts of certain women’s bodies with a strange mixture of arousal and revulsion. This is a mixture that in turn perpetuates the discrimination against, and sexualization of, some bodies simply because of how they are constituted.
What bothers me is how we participate in the spectacle of this particular choice of nudity, in ways that intersect with how we perceive the grotesque and in turn form logics of discrimination based on the perception of the grotesque. Now, when I say grotesque, I don’t mean that the thing being looked at, itself, is comically repulsive, distorted, or ugly. Rather I mean that we as viewers project these and other aesthetic values unto the images we perceive. Deciding that something is grotesque has everything to do with the looker’s own values surrounding beauty and aesthetics rather than with the object being viewed itself. Thus, it is a racist set of values that make Becky and her girl regard the chick with the big butt with disgust and scorn and associate her anatomy derisively with her person and her race. The object of their gaze herself does not actually embody revulsion, but rather revulsion is a response provoked by racist values, which in turn are projected unto the spectacle and render the viewed an object of their disgust and “some rap guy’s” lust.
In thinking about how Baartman was looked at in the nineteenth century, I can see more clearly the connections between values that imbue some physical attributes with revulsion and curiosity, ultimately rendering them grotesque, while at the same time also generating sexual arousal. Arguably, it is Baartman’s embodied iconography that Jean Paul Goude, the photographer responsible for Kim’s “Break the Internet” shoot, echoes in this particular staging of this photo shoot. It is worth noting that Kim’s shoot is a call back to a 1976 shoot, which was also controversial in its own time for its use of a black woman who also balances a champagne glass on her protruding bottom. And both shoots evoke Baartman. Baartman, according to popular history, was born in the late eighteenth century. She was “discovered,” to use a modern turn of phrase, in her early twenties, while a slave, by a doctor who ran a side business of supplying showmen with animal specimen for European exhibition. She was first exhibited in London as a “freak” in the early 1800s, “entertaining” audiences with her exotic origin and unusual physical features. In particular, as you can see from the pictures I’ve added throughout, among her most exciting and compelling features were her steatopygia.
Steato-what you say? Never heard of it? According to the OED, steatopygia means “a protuberance of the buttocks, due to an abnormal accumulation of fat in and behind the hips and thighs, found (more markedly in women than in men) as a characteristic of certain peoples, esp. the Khoekhoe and San of South Africa.” The italics here are my emphasis. A part of the “entertainment” of this particular spectacle is its abnormality. Both the artistic renderings and the modification of an excess of fat in the behind with the word abnormal convey the mixture of curiosity and revulsion that attended Baartman’s steatophygia. Notice how I reduced Baartman to a facet of her anatomy there? It’s to convey how she was treated all the way into the late twentieth century; moreover it also conveys how easy it is to slip into this de-humanizing objectification. The curiosity and fascination with Baartman’s body continued even after her death, when her corpse was given to a French scientist, depriving her even then of a personhood defined by anything beyond what was considered an anatomical abnormality. This guy, George Cuvier, made a plaster cast of her entire body and then removed her brain and genitalia for display in his own private collection, where they remained on display until 1974 – 1974! – when they were placed in storage. Her remains are eventually returned to South Africa in the eighties, but as dead as they were, we can see even today how enduring her iconography continues to be.
In case you think this is yet another cry for the sisters of all colors to wake up and realize they have allowed themselves and their bodies to continue to be ravaged by a system of sexualization steeped in slavery . . . of course, yes, this is definitely a part of it. But I am more interested in the way we as an audience continue to respond with the same brand of anatomical curiosity, revulsion, and arousal that characterized early nineteenth century viewers’ gaze at Baartman’s body. Have we not gotten past this yet?
I’d like to propose, ladies and gentlemen, that we stop thinking that it is the butts themselves, the women who wear them, or even their decision to wear them nude publicly that we need to focus on, but rather how we as an audience continue to watch, consume, and respond in racist, sexist, xenophobic, and ultimately hypocritical ways. The appearance of yet another image of Kim K’s body is not an event in itself. Every day we can get that over on Instagram. It is neither noteworthy nor novel. What is noteworthy and worth some reflection is why we as spectators continue to respond to things like steatopygia in ways that resonate with the politics of pre-abolition nineteenth century Europeans. Surely we have advanced some. Or at the very least would like to. If Kim K chooses to rest her personal posterity on her posterior, lord knows it’s vast enough to hold it, then that is her choice and I support her right to make it. But I also ask that we, as an audience, not be passive and ignorant spectators of these choices, rehearsing without even realizing it worn and frightening ways of seeing.