On Tuesday, the internet nearly broke [again].
Kim Kardashian West uploaded – another – full-frontal nude selfie of herself exclaiming that this multimillionaire just didn’t have anything to wear. Facing a barrage of both criticism and admiration, Kim stoked the flames sky-high by releasing a second nude photo simply declaring one word to the world: #liberated.
It was International Women’s Day.
So is Kim a vibrant example of a liberated woman demonstrating her own agency or an illustration of our society’s enslavement of women through sexual objectification?
Despite what the internet may think, there’s no simple answer. This question touches on the many paradoxical forces that control and restrict ideas about femininity in popular culture today.
In her own words, it’s very clear that Kim feels empowered. As a successful business woman, she’s smart; Kim knows that her nude selfie will probably be one of the most retweeted tweets of 2016. And this means increasing exposure and more $$$! Wealth enables her to have independence, choice and status. For many, Kim’s entrepreneurial skills, boldness and unapologetic nature are admirable.
On the other hand, Kim’s individual choices are being made within a patriarchal culture that limits, reduces, punishes and controls women as a whole. So, Kim and others may indeed feel ‘empowered’. They may choose to express their sexual agency through public nude selfies. But why? Because patriarchy rewards women when they conform to a narrow ideal of beauty and sexiness centred on the male gaze.
To me, that’s not liberation, it’s a strategic plan.
In fact, it’s a patriarchal bargain.
Kim’s particular compromise – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for wealth, celebrity, and power – is a common one. Kim has used her sexual attractiveness to make a career from winning the attention of men. She’s made the decision to manipulate patriarchy to her own best advantage without actually challenging the injustice of the system itself.
Women like Kim may demonstrate personal power in choices that they make, but the most important question has to always be: what impact does their choices have on other women?
Being a gender historian in my past life, coupled with my passion and experience of investing in girls and young women today, leads me to believe that Kim’s nude selfie communicates negative and restrictive messages about femininity. She’s disempowering other women – even if it may not be intentional. Let me explain.
Today’s toxic mix of consumerism and capitalism teaches girls that their bodies are projects to be improved on. For many girls and women, Kim’s selfie reinforces the perception that their only value is in what they look like and that their main aspiration should be to become a ‘living doll’, pleasing to the male gaze. There is a lot of money to be made out of exploiting women’s insecurities and even the Kardashians are cashing in. They have their own beauty product line and recently sold $300 tickets for a two-hour make-up tutorial. The Kardashians, and many others, are generating a huge amount of money from making other women aspire to look just like them.
We live in a sexual objectification culture which treats – primarily – women like commodities, largely ignoring their personality, talents and giftings. Women’s sexualised bodies are being used to sell everything – crisps, fizzy drinks and even cars. This objectification culture is marketed to be empowering for women, but the truth is, it’s fundamentally disempowering for everyone concerned. A subject acts but objects are always acted on. There is no power in being a sex object – it will always be a less equal and passive position.
Kim’s nude selfie plastered over social media bolsters a culture where girls feel their bodies are a project. It fuels a society that makes many girls and women feel that they are not enough. It enslaves many girls by encouraging them to self-objectify themselves as they strive to conform to a narrow ideal of beauty. It robs many men and women of their self-worth, reducing them to a collection of body parts to be scrutinised. It also conditions men to view women simply as being created for their own sexual pleasure fuelling harassment and violence. It strengthens the roots of gender injustice in our culture.
The Kardashians, like many other female celebrities, have made a patriarchal bargain; they’ve accepted gender rules that restrict women in return for personal gain. While their individual choices may help them achieve personal fame, fortune and power, unfortunately they’re simply reinforcing a wider culture that seeks to limit and reduce women’s collective power and potential.
But here’s the tough pill to swallow: in some ways, you and I are just like Kim. Many of us choose not to challenge the injustice of the system as we reap personal rewards and benefits. Consciously or not, men and women make patriarchal bargains every single day.
Gender justice is not a feminist issue. It’s not even a women’s issue. It’s a Gospel issue. Let’s challenge patriarchy by cultivating a culture of worth where every person is valued… just like Jesus did. Let’s refuse to compromise and settle for anything less.
Girls’ Brigade Ministries believes it is time for a new hope-filled narrative for girls. On International Women’s Day, GB Ministries launched a UK Girl conversation to shine a spotlight on the issue of girls, faith and culture. We’d love to hear your voice in the conversation!
Girls and women – including Kim – have so much more to give to the world than just their bodies. Let’s enable them to be the generation-shapers, hope-bingers and transformers of culture that God created them to be.
This is the final post in our week-long series on womanhood and feminism. See the previous posts here.