Is Kardashian culture the ultimate feminist dilemma?

Love her or hate her, you can’t deny that Kim Kardashian-West is ruling the world at the moment. The social-media savvy Queen of contour has 112 million Instagram followers, is listed in Time’s 100 most influential people, and was reportedly the highest-paid TV personality of 2015. She pretty much exemplifies the power of social media and, along with her sisters and ‘momager’ Kris Jenner, has crafted a lucrative life for herself.

Alongside the imminent Kardashian-Jenner world takeover, female-led campaigns have also been gaining major traction. The #MeToo movement of 2017 revolutionised the way we think about visibility of sexual harassment. The Women’s March in January showed that pussies really do grab back. The referendum in Ireland has made it so abortion will no longer be illegal. The world is changing, women’s voices are being heard, and there is a real sense of #GirlPower running like a common thread through society. I am fully here for it.

My Instagram feed is filled with #ThisGirlCan, badass women doing badass things, and inspirational quotes of equality and womanhood. However, every now and again a Kardashian or Jenner finds her way onto my Instagram feed. On one particularly memorable occasion, a photo of my best pal Rosie travelling alone through Asia (classic #galpower moment) was directly below a photo of Kimmy K looking very lovely, but also very (very) naked.

So now I can’t help but wonder about Ms Kardashian-West. Is she the ultimate feminist icon? Or are her nudey insta antics making it more difficult for other women’s movements to be taken seriously?

If we take feminism to mean everyone doing whatever they please with no gendered restrictions, then it can’t be denied that the Kardashian-Jenner clan embody this pretty well. I think with this argument it’s important to note that feminism, as I see it, isn’t about making women more powerful. The point is: we’re already pretty powerful. If anything, Kim K shows us that. The main point of feminism is to change the way the world reacts to female power. Feminism dismantles assumptions, challenges the very core of these stereotypes, and then repackages it all up and calls it ‘equality’. It’s literally as simple as that.

When we think about stereotypes and women our minds are quickly drawn to inequal treatment, prejudice, and harassment. These stories are rife in the media and are part of a really important conversation to be had. With this in mind, I think that the Kardashian-Jenner brigade are actually subject to some damaging stereotypes themselves. As women who are both competent and business-minded, as well as typically beautiful, they struggle to fit in to one nice neat box. Therefore, they are controversial characters in modern discussions.

Research in social psychology backs this up. Studies show that focussing on your appearance can have negative implications, particularly in relation to how we then feel about our capabilities or intelligence. If you make a woman “self-objectify” (i.e. scrutinise her appearance), she tends to rate her own capabilities lower. For example, researchers in America in the late nineties got one group of women to complete a maths test in a swimsuit and another group to do the same test wearing a jumper. The swimsuit wearers performed worse on the test. Emphasising your body makes emphasising your mind harder. Effectively, Kim K-W lives in a world where she is constantly in the swimsuit condition (both figuratively and sometimes literally).

Does this mean that Kim (or any of her other sisters) should tone down the nakedness and focus on constructing a “better message” (whatever that may mean)? Or instead, should we as a society quit judging women for having sexy bods and instead scrutinise our treatment of women? There may be major moral and ethical problems with some of the Kardashian-Jenner ventures (Kim’s endorsement of appetite suppressant lollipops took some getting over for me), but ultimately are they just a set of women who are just using their position to carve out a pretty cool life for themselves?

The phenomenon is so embedded into our culture that there are whole research-based models to explain how perceptions of women work. This links to the idea that women can be one of two things: sexy or intelligent. The Stereotype Content Model, proposed by Professor Susan Fiske in the early 2000s, suggests that we evaluate people based on two different factors: warmth or competence. The research shows that we admire people who are high in both and show disgust towards people who are low in both. So, where does Kimmy K sit within this? She is warm, in that she is highly likeable (112m followers can’t be wrong) and has become a media icon. She is also, however, extremely competent. She is an activist, businesswomen, and a social justice advocate (she recently met with Donald Trump to discuss prison reform and successfully petitioned for Alice Johnson’s clemency).

There’s something about this whole argument that doesn’t sit particularly well with me. In light of all this, is, for example, Kylie Jenner any less of a feminist than my feminist solo-traveller pal Rosie? They are both badass women who are figuring out their own path and living their best life. It just so happens that only one of them shows their boobs a lot on Twitter. Do we disregard the Kardashian-Jenner family as antifeminist just because they get naked on social media and spend a lot of time contouring their face? Whose definition of womanhood and empowerment are we now going by? OR it is really because we can’t stand the idea that a group of women can be both ballsy, brilliant, and also look hot in an Instagram selfie? I think that we find it difficult to accept the Kardashian-Jenner clan as feminists because they don’t fit into our cultural template of what a feminist looks like. And to put it bluntly, I’m not sure whether the problem is them or us.

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