Criticizing Kim Kardashian

It all started at Trinity’s reunion weekend.  I was at a reception chatting with a student I had not seen in more than decade.  Somehow, in the course of the conversation, Kim Kardashian came up.  While I try to avoid reading anything about her and her family, I do not live under a rock and I had some vague knowledge about who she is.  I response, I made a snide remark, referring to her as a “slut.”  This provoked a fairly sharp response from the alum I was talking to:  an arched eyebrow and a pointed question as to whether the fact that Kim Kardashian “is comfortable with her own sexuality” makes her a slut.

Since I am generally not quick on my feet, and had no real desire to argue (or even engage in a serious intellectual conversation), I punted and changed the subject.  The rest of the evening passed (I had a great time) but the underlying question remained:  on what grounds, if any, could I criticize Kim Kardashian?

Thinking about it for the past several days, I realized that while the term “slut” was convenient shorthand, on a fundamental level it is problematic in two ways.   A slut is a woman who has sex with multiple people, usually without any other relationship or emotional attachment.    The first problem with the term is that it highly gendered:  it almost always refers to women and never to men who engage in the same behavior.  It encapsulates an ideology that his highly sexist:  women who engage in this behavior are bad and to be scorned, men who do so are good and are to be admired.  The only comparable term I could think of for men is “stud” and that is generally taken to be a compliment.   Thus, while Kim Kardashian is criticized for her now infamous sex tape, her partner, the hiphop artist Ray-J, was not.

The second problem with the term is that it misses the mark.   I was not—at least in retrospect—simply criticizing her sexual behavior. (Though it is worthy of criticism:  she may be comfortable with her own sexuality, but that does not necessarily make her expression of it valorous.  And I think her sexual expression distorts the meanings of human sexuality.)  Rather, I am more interested in criticizing the way in which she has identified herself with her sexuality.  She has commodified herself in terms of her sex life:  this is what she sells, and it would seem that this is what she has reduced herself to.  The market value of her sexuality has replaced any other social worth that she had.  (And, to be clear:  as a person with intrinsic dignity, she has a great deal of social worth.)

There is no good word for this in English.  The closest I can come is an expression coined by Ursula LeGuin in her novel The Dispossessed.  The main character, a visitor from an anarchist society, is interacting with a wealthy woman from a capitalist society (obviously intended to represent 20th century America).   He describes the woman, Vea, as a body profiteer:

“A body profiteer,” Takver [his partner] called women who used their sexuality as a weapon in a power struggle with men.  To look at her, Vea was the body profiteer to end them all….She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being.

There are some strains of feminist thought, notably “girl power”, that find Kim Kardashian’s actions expressive of her identity as a woman:  she is ambitious, assertive and comfortable expressing her individual identity.  The problem with this reading is that it abstracts her from the broader cultural setting:  what she is doing must be read through the lens of the underlying sexism that permeates our culture.  She may be standing up for herself, but in so doing she is simply reinforcing the cultural mores that work against women in general.

Stepping back, it seems to me that Kim Kardashian exemplifies the whole notion of a structure of sin.  She is responsible for the choices she has made, but her decisions were made in a society in which there are ample economic and social rewards for making bad choices.   So we need to be more judgmental about a society which makes evil so much easier (and attractive) than good.  As Dorothy Day said, we need to work on building a world in which it is easier to be good.

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  • Thales

    The only comparable term I could think of for men is “stud” and that is generally taken to be a compliment.

    Maybe “pig”? Or “pervert”? I was trying to think of disapproving names of men due to some sexual proclivity, but they’re not exactly in line with your point. And I agree with you about the oddity of different standards for women vs. men when it comes to promiscuity.

    She may be standing up for herself, but in so doing she is simply reinforcing the cultural mores that work against women in general.

    I agree. You may have had this in mind when you wrote your post, but I think your point is closely related to another oddity of our culture: that the notion of “woman’s empowerment” through highlighting and promoting one’s sexuality, through promiscuity, through actively choosing and claiming the name of “slut”, through pervasive contraceptive use, through abortion rights, through “sex work” as meaningful employment, etc. don’t actually empower women in relation to men, but tend to make them objects in relation to men.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thales, very well put, though I would disagree only to the extent that I would not call this an oddity of our culture, but an intrinsic feature of it, reflecting in an essential way the brokenness that original sin imposed on relations between men and women. Healing this should be central to our mission as Christians in this world.

      • Thales

        David,
        Agreed! Well said!

    • Pinky

      Two comments. First, the word “slut” is perfectly applicable to men. Second, I’m not sure about the value in blaming society – that is, this particular society. Every society has provided special opportunties for advancement for the young, attractive, promiscuous woman.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        In theory, the word “slut” is applicable to men as well as to women. However, in practice the word is so highly gendered that it is only applied to women. See the previous comments on this point.

        • Pinky

          David, trust me on this, it’s a perfectly effective word applied to either sex.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            I am not sure what you mean: do you use it in this way? Do other people? If so, I am interested, because in my experience and that of others on the blog, it was only used on women.

  • Julia Smucker

    At first blush, I wouldn’t have thought such a thoughtful analysis could be made of such a shallow subject, but I guess that just shows my tendency toward the same gut reaction you had, namely a scornful dismissal of such people (and of the value of discussing them at all). You’re right, though, that the popular appeal of this sort of thing is revealing on a social level.

    Your conclusions remind me of Ariel Levy’s appearance on the Colbert Report a few years ago, promoting her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which appeared to be making pretty much the same point about women objectifying themselves and mistaking that for liberation.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      One thing I have taken from my reading of Zizek is that pop culture is very important for understanding the deeper issues in our culture. He makes a very good case that, especially today, what we do is far more revealing than what we say.

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    “She may be standing up for herself, but in so doing she is simply reinforcing the cultural mores that work against women in general.”

    These mores may work against women in general, but I doubt whether they were imposed upon women as opposed to women taking them upon themselves (which I suspect was the point of Thales’ comment above). It seems to me that sexual mores have become looser pretty much in direct proportion to women’s level of enfranchisement.

    Why is it that the more control women have over their own lives, the skimpier and more revealing women’s clothing has become? Why doesn’t NOW embark on a modesty campaign in opposition to sexual exploitation and in defense of female dignity?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      It is more complicated than simply women taking them up or having them imposed upon them. A culture of misogyny is endlessly adaptable and has interacted with the women’s movement to create the current situation.

      As for the slippage of mores in proportion to enfranchisement: I hope you are not suggesting that women were better off when they were “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen”?

      • Smith

        I hate socks so being barefoot is great. What’s so wrong with being pregnant and in the kitchen? It seems to me this critical statement can be just as offensive as otherwise, but then again I am a man so what do I know?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Irony and sarcasm are hard to “hear” on a blog. Hopefully, you can see that this was my intent.

    • Thales

      A Sinner,
      I’m with David here: It’s more complicated than simply women taking these loosened cultural mores on themselves. Sure, it appears that sexual mores have become looser pretty much in direct proportion to women’s level of enfranchisement. But I suspect that the loosening of sexual mores and the women’s level of enfranchisement (of the sexual liberty variety) are both effects of a deeper underlying cause: perhaps the failure of men (fathers, brothers, spouses, and friends) from authentically loving and respecting women. I tend to think that a woman who feels validated and empowered by constant love and respect from her father, spouse, etc., isn’t going to be as inclined to seek validation and empowerment through the number of partners she can “hook up” with.

    • Andrew

      “Why is it that the more control women have over their own lives, the skimpier and more revealing women’s clothing has become? Why doesn’t NOW embark on a modesty campaign in opposition to sexual exploitation and in defense of female dignity?”

      I think that the social mores we are discussing come from a cultural paradigm in which liberation from control is essentially the only moral good. Sexual modesty is not seen as a virtue. After all, if it were a virtue, then men (as members of the currently dominant class) would seek it for themselves, and it is clear that the cultural perception is that they are not doing so.

      Since modesty is not a virtue in this paradigm, a woman would reasonably not choose it voluntarily; the only way a woman would be modest is if it were imposed upon her by some controlling social force. In other words, a slut may or may not be exploited, but a modest girl almost certainly is!

      So I suspect that the cultural shift towards more sexiness exhibited by empowered women is a sign not of looser morals per se, but an attempt to allow women to enjoy the same sexual freedom that men already take advantage of.

      Please be aware that I am not advocating this cultural view — I’m just describing how I understand it.

    • http://www.kehutchinson.com Kate Hutchinson

      Agellius, I have to take a quick issue with your standpoint about women’s clothing. The bulk of fashion designers, the ones that really lead the pack are men: Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Oscar de la Renta, etc. And while I’m certainly not wearing runway clothes, the cheap knockoffs at Zara, Forever 21, etc are all trickle down copies of what those men are putting on the runways. Men make the clothes and tell women to wear them. If you don’t wear them, you are laughed at and ignored. Fashion has a big impact on a woman’s life, because she’s either frumpy and unattractive or too sexy. Check out any commentary on Secretary Clinton vs. President Obama. Look at how Kim Kardashian is described and photographed vs. one of her basketball playing boyfriends.

    • defendingpandora

      Agellius, I have to take a quick issue with your standpoint about women’s clothing. The bulk of fashion designers, the ones that really lead the pack are men: Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Oscar de la Renta, etc. And while I’m certainly not wearing runway clothes, the cheap knockoffs at Zara, Forever 21, etc are all trickle down copies of what those men are putting on the runways. Men make the clothes and tell women to wear them. If you don’t wear them, you are laughed at and ignored. Fashion has a big impact on a woman’s life, because she’s either frumpy and unattractive or too sexy. Check out any commentary on Secretary Clinton vs. President Obama. Look at how Kim Kardashian is described and photographed vs. one of her basketball playing boyfriends.

  • Melody

    Not sure Kim K. really thinks she’s liberated so much as she’s trying to retain her status in the famous-for-being-famous crowd. Trouble is, if you don’t really have much to be famous about, you have to keep doing and saying shocking things (or say that you’re doing them) to retain your notariety. But sooner or later you have to develop some actual talent, or your 15 minutes in the sun is over. And that may be the best thing that could happen to some people.
    I think the lovely term “slut” has crossed gender lines. My 30-something sons were chuckling ruefully about one of their (male) friends who had said, “Can’t help it. I’m just a slut!” I had heard it before in reference to guys who are promiscuous.
    As for Kim, I have to think God isn’t finished with her yet.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I wish there were more students around so I could check about contemporary usage, but I must confess I have never heard it applied to men. Could they have been using it ironically—that is the sense I get from the snippet you report.

      As for Ms. K: I don’t think she worries about being “liberated” in any self-reflective way. But I am pretty sure that she thinks that she is making wise and shrewd decisions that are in her best interest. So perhaps you are right: she may learn something when her 15 minutes run out. On the other hand, she has been in the game for close to a decade, so maybe she has more shelf-life than we give her credit for.

  • Nick

    I am a student(undergrad). In my experience, when applied to men, slut is always used ironically…Though I might add that thanks to the efforts of sex-positive feminists(like the student you mention), the use of slut in reference to women has almost totally disappeared from casual conversation. It has entered the realm of words like “f*ggot, n*gger, etc” you can only use “in-company”- among people you know won’t be offended(alternate statement: among known bigots). I think in the last two years I’ve heard it more often applied ironically to men than seriously to women.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    David,

    I sympathize, but I think you are reading this the wrong way, but with perhaps the right emotion underlying. Kim — butt like pudding as Butters says on South Park, like I should care! — signifies only the anti-culture. It is the void of meaning, the triumph of non-talent, the seriousness of the utterly non-serious. It speaks well of you that you react viscerally to it. But remember she is just a chick who somehow has made money representing a black hole. Ignore.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, she is the apotheosis of the the anti-culture, but I disagree: ignoring her only helps feed the beast. I am not interested in leading a moralist campaign against her, but I think we need to seriously question and challenge the social and economic underpinnings that make her actions both possible and highly visible.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        David,

        I sympathize again. And maybe 10 years ago I might have agreed. But I think we are culturally (or anti-culturally, to be more exact) way past that point now. As I see it what we can do now is to help keep the worst from happening. And thus over time things might get better.

  • http://www.rrrrodak.blogspot.com Rodak

    It might be useful, in the furtherance of developing some sense of charity on the issue, to consider this paragraph from the Wikipedia article on the etymology of the word “slut”:

    Another early meaning was “kitchen maid or drudge” (c. 1450), a meaning retained as late as the 18th century, when hard knots of dough found in bread were referred to as “slut’s pennies.”[5] A notable example of this use is Samuel Pepys’s diary description of his servant girl as “an admirable slut” who “pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better” (February 1664).

    In addition to doing the scut work around the kitchen and the rest of the house, the women of the service staff were generally considered to be sexually available to the gentlemen of the house, who, however, being good Christians, would attribute the consummation of their forced attentions on these women to the in-born lasciviousness of those “sluts.” Just sayin’.

  • Bill Wilson

    I’m no fan of Ms. Kardashian, or of other celebs who are merely famous for being famous. That said, whatever happened to “Judge not lest ye be judged”?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      A good point, but let me make two different replies:

      1) applied uncritically, this scriptural injunction would mean that we could never criticize anyone, anywhere for any reason. I think that is going to far. KK is a public figure with impact on others and I think that criticism of her, as long as it is respectful of her as a person, is legitimate. If one of my kids came home raving about her and her lifestyle, how should I convey to my kids the point that I believe she has made a lot of wrong choices?

      2) Notice too that I wanted to reframe the discussion on the social structures in which she moved and made her decisions. There is more to judge here than just the individual.

      • Bill Wilson

        Two points well taken. My issue is that I am so judgmental that I criticize others as a way of aggrandizing myself. I need to realize that when I am pointing the finger at someone, three others are pointing back at me. We do have a duty to help our kids (in my case grandkids) to view the world critically. We also need to examine and work to change social structures that devalue any human being: ethnic minority, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual, among others. This, I see, as the crux of the dust-up between the Vatican and our female sisters in the faith: Rome has been devaluating women since the time of Origen and Tertullian, at least.

  • Mark Gordon

    I think she’s hot. :-)

  • http://chrysologus.blogspot.com Chrysologus

    The word “slut” can ONLY be applied to a woman, unless it is being used facetiously. It is, in my opinion, always offensive and sexist because, as you rightly point out, it stigmatizes women for fornicating in a culture that is completely accepting of male fornication. I’m glad that you took the rebuke you received as an opportunity for moral reflection and growth. Would that we all had your humility!

    • defendingpandora

      At Trinity in my college days, there was one equivalent to “slut” for men, which was “garbage dick.”

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I never heard this one.

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    David writes, “It is more complicated than simply women taking them up or having them imposed upon them. A culture of misogyny is endlessly adaptable and has interacted with the women’s movement to create the current situation.”

    So you say. Nevertheless the fact that the “culture of misogyny” has become *more* rather than less exploitative of women than it was during the time when women were less able to fight back, leads me to believe that much of the blame must be borne by women themselves. (Not all women, obviously, just as not all men are misogynists.)

    Yes, men will always be more than happy to look on women as sex objects. Everyone agrees that this is not a particularly good thing, even if it does seem to come naturally to them. The fact that it comes naturally doesn’t excuse them from the need to resist it.

    But granting that men have a proclivity to look on women as sex objects, which many of them indulge, my question is to what extent women have a proclivity to enjoy being looked on as sex objects, which many of *them* indulge. Why are men held responsible for their proclivities in this regard, whereas women are assumed to be victims of society? Isn’t that rather condescending?

    David writes, “As for the slippage of mores in proportion to enfranchisement: I hope you are not suggesting that women were better off when they were ‘barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen’?”

    To the extent that mores were better, I would think both men and women were better off in that particular respect.

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    Thales:

    You addressed your comment to “A Sinner” but I think it was in response to me.

    You write, “I tend to think that a woman who feels validated and empowered by constant love and respect from her father, spouse, etc., isn’t going to be as inclined to seek validation and empowerment through the number of partners she can “hook up” with.”

    And won’t a man who feels validated and empowered by constant love and respect from his mother, wife, etc., be less inclined to seek validation and empowerment through the number of partners *he* can hook up with? Again, why are women assumed to be victims while men are assumed fully responsible for their actions?

    A hundred years ago, I could see excusing such behavior in women due to their impotency in the face of male dominance. You could say they had no choice but to become what men made them. Then again, a hundred years ago decency codes would have prevented Kim Kardashian from becoming Kim Kardashian. (Ironic, no?) So why is there no women’s movement to reinstate decency codes? Isn’t the simple answer, because there is no strong feeling among women, in the main, that they are being sexually exploited by their misogynistic culture? And when there were decency codes, weren’t they instituted at the initiative of men?

    I’m not at all saying that men are innocent of sexually exploiting women. I just find it remarkable that during the time when men could have exploited women a hundred times worse than they are exploited today, due to their politial and economic powerlessness, instead they instituted decency codes. And when women finally reached the point of real economic and political power, instead of sexual exploitation dropping dramatically, it increased dramatically. There can’t be any explanation for this other than that women are cooperating in it.

    Now I fully agree that the largely amoral culture in which men and women grow up today is the reason they indulge in this mutual orgy of exploitation. Hardly anyone teaches them to do otherwise. But I don’t think the fault for this can be laid at either men or women per se. I attribute it to the abandonment of the influence of religion over public morals. Which in turn I trace back ultimately to the Reformation. (Then again the Reformation was the fault of men, wasn’t it?) But that’s another story.

    • Thales

      Agellius,
      You’re right, sorry for the identity mix-up.
      I see what you’re saying, and there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. I don’t think that I disagree with your points. Obviously, it’s not only just men, or just women, who are responsible for negative societal mores. It’s probably a vicious cycle: mothers don’t love their sons properly, who don’t love their spouses and children properly, who don’t love their children properly, etc., etc.
      Maybe, because I’m a man, my biased tendency is to fault men for not being more honorable to women, instead of seeing the equal fault in women.

  • LM

    The inherent problem with “modesty campaigns” is that the burden of being modest falls entirely on women. For example, Catholic conservatives and traditionalists like to talk about “Mary-like” standards of modesty, which only apply to women (e.g., discussions about pants vs dresses/skirts, how long said skirts should be, how low a neckline can be and still be considered modest), but there is no corresponding notion of “Joseph-like” modesty for men, aside from not wearing shorts or low-riding pants to mass. Women are told to dress in such a way as to not cause “their brothers to stumble” but not vice versa. Taken one step further, one can extrapolate the notion that an immodestly dressed woman – however that may be defined – only has herself to blame if she gets raped because she dressed in a provocative manner.

    Whether a woman is loved or validated by her father and/or brothers is also besides the point when it comes to whether she engages in the practice of serial dating and/or immodest dress. The fact is that many women, like men, have lots of sexual partners for the sole reason that they just like having sex with a lot of people. A man may love and be loved by his mother and children, but that has no bearing on how he treats his wife or whether he has women on the side, because love is often compartmentalized. In fact, in many traditional Catholic countries, it was – and still is – common for men to have a legal wife, and one or two other mistresses, all of whom had/have their own children and households and knew (and accepted) the existence of the others. It is because of this double standard that a Kim Kardashian can be viewed as being a liberating figure; she took an incident that would have branded her as a nonperson in another era and parlayed it into a successful business career. Rather than be shamed by her sex tape fiasco, Kardashian was empowered, personally and fiscally.

    • Thales

      Whether a woman is loved or validated by her father and/or brothers is also besides the point when it comes to whether she engages in the practice of serial dating and/or immodest dress. The fact is that many women, like men, have lots of sexual partners for the sole reason that they just like having sex with a lot of people. A man may love and be loved by his mother and children, but that has no bearing on how he treats his wife or whether he has women on the side, because love is often compartmentalized.

      I have to vehemently disagree with you, LM. In my opinion, how one receives love has a lot to do with how one later shows love. And, no, people just don’t have sex with lots of partners only because they like to have sex with lots of partners — people have sex in order to find love, or because they’ve been wounded in such a way that they don’t know how to find love and all they know is sex. Finally, maybe you and I have different definitions of love, because your compartmentalization of love makes absolutely no sense to me: I think that love means seeking the well-being of the other so much so that the lover has to be selfless and self-giving — and that is completely incompatible with a man having multiple sexual relationships with wife, mistresses, etc., because it’s impossible for a man to love more than one woman at the same time in that “self-giving-and-seeking-the-best-for-the-beloved” manner.

      • LM

        Let me begin my response by admitting that I am extremely cynical when it comes to the nature of human relationship. What I mean when I say that many people compartmentalize love is that the emotions individuals have towards each other will vary depending on the nature of the relationship and do not necessarily carry over into other relationships. For example, the way a man loves his mother is different from the way he loves his wife, which is also different from the way he loves his children. The fact that our hypothetical man deeply loves and cares for his own daughter has no bearing on how he feels towards the girl’s mother or whether he will decide to have an affair with some random woman. The fact that he doesn’t not want another man to use sexual language and innuendo towards his own mother or daughter probably won’t prevent him from using such invective against a woman he doesn’t know (you can switch man for woman and he for she in each scenario and it still works). This compartmentalization of emotions is probably why child custody fights are particularly ugly.

        “I think that love means seeking the well-being of the other so much so that the lover has to be selfless and self-giving…”

        I’m familiar with this definition of love, and to be honest, I think this phenomenon that you describe almost never happens. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many divorces and messy breakups. Given that the majority of murdered children are killed by their own parents, I even question whether this selfless love exists in parent-child relationships. Most people are not selfless and self-giving in their actions, whether with spouses, parents, children, friends, or even God. There’s always a touch of “What’s in it for me?” that can’t be ignored.

        • Thales

          LM,

          To your first point: sure, I agree, sometimes people compartmentalize relationships. But that doesn’t refute my point that a person’s experience in one relationship (say, when the person is a child and how he is treated by a parent) often affects how that person engages in a subsequent relationship (say, when that person is a parent himself) — a point which is practically self-evident to anyone involved in counseling, mental health, psychology, etc.

          To your second point that selfless and self-giving love almost never happens: yes, I agree — we’re all sinners after all, and we all act selfishly. And this supports the original point I was trying to make earlier in my comments: that our twisted cultural mores, the “structure of sin” David identifies in his post, is caused (at least in part) by the failure of people to love selflessly and in a self-giving manner, and is caused (at least in part) by the selfishness and sin in people’s relationships.