Kim Kardashian’s risqué photo spread in Paper magazine may have put the focus on her famous derriere, but it’s the subtext that really gives us something to talk about. The photo shoot, which evoked controversial images of black women, has staked an ongoing debate over how black women are represented (or not) in mainstream media.
The Grio detailed the controversial history of photographer Jean-Paul Goude, whose 1976 portrait “Carolina Beaumont” served as inspiration for the cover shot you’ll see on newstands. Kardashian appears in a long gown, balancing a champagne glass on her rear. The original portrait, also known as “Champagne Incident” featured a nude black model and appeared in Goude’s 1982 book, “Jungle Fever.”
— PAPER Magazine (@papermagazine) November 14, 2014
It’s hard not to notice that Goude’s image distortions have often been used in service of the objectification and eroticization of black women. “Blacks are the premise of my work … I have jungle fever,” he told People in 1979. The image that appears on the cover of Goude’s book with that title depicts Jones naked, in a cage, surrounded by raw meat (cropped out of the cover photograph, though visible in other versions, is a sign that reads “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.”
Kardashian has been called out by some for appearing fully nude in the photo shoot. But if the reality TV star is aware of the criticism of Goude’s work, she hasn’t acknowledged it. On Tuesday, she praised the photographer, telling an Australian TV show that she “was so excited and honored to work with him because he is a legend.”
The history behind the Kardashian images goes far beyond Goude. The shoot also drew comparisons to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman who was forced to perform sideshow-like routines throughout Europe as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early 19th century.
“It feels to many black women that here we are again having a conversation that is essentially about the black woman’s body, minus the black woman,” said Kierna Mayo, vice president of digital content for Ebony.
The feeling that black women are being stripped from the conversation extends beyond Kardashian and her photo shoot. Mayo, who discussed the Kardashian photos in a recent segment on Melissa Harris-Perry, said that Kardashian has been able to capitalize on her body in a way that black women historically have not. One example she gives is 90s-era hip-hop music videos, in which scantily clad dancers were notoriously underpaid and, in some cases, exploited, despite the videos being broadcast constantly on cable and other networks.
“Are black women the only women in the world that have prominent rear ends? No,” Mayo said in a phone interview. “But have black women’s bodies — their rear ends in particular — been fodder for commerce and conversation for hundreds of years in this country? Absolutely.”
At the heart of the criticism is a tendency of pop culture and fashion to celebrate white women for their art or style, while denouncing — or ignoring completely — black women in the same arenas.
Take, for example, Vogue declaring in September that we had officially entered “the era of the big booty.” The article, pegged to a song by Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea, was perceived as crediting female celebrities who are not black for the trend.
Or earlier this year, when Nicki Minaj was criticized for appearing in a g-string on the cover for her single, “Anaconda.” Minaj responded by tweeting the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated, which featured topless models in barely-there bikini bottoms. On Instagram, she captioned the photo with a reference to what she (and many of her fans) saw as a double standard in favor of the models, who were not black: “Angelic. Acceptable. LOL.”
Even discussions around the history of the imagery beneath the surface of Kardashian’s Paper spread have proved complicated. A recent Jezebel piece dubbed Baartman “The Original Booty Queen,” is drawing criticism for what some have seen as glossing over the brutality of what Baartman endured. Here’s an excerpt:
Like Kim, Saartjie (pronounced Sar-key) was voluptuous but tiny. She stood four feet, seven inches to Kim’s purported five-three. Unlike Kim, she didn’t just have her sizable assets in the way of talent. (Whether ‘balancing a champagne glass on your ass’ is a talent remains up for discussion.) She had learned and practiced multiple instruments in her native land (in what is now South Africa). On the stages of London and Paris, she regaled packed audiences with singing, dancing, and instrumental routines. When it comes to her contemporary booty-sisters, she is less Kim Kardashian, more Nicki Minaj.
In a piece for XoJane, writer Pia Glenn explained the backlash. “[Baartman’s] life story resonates in the rampant objectification and exploitation of our bodies that is still going on, not as some aspiring singer/dancer with stars in her eyes,” Glenn wrote.
In reality, Baartman “was an exhibit,” said A. Lynn Bolles, an anthropologist and professor of women’s studies at The University of Maryland. “She was put on display like she was an animal.” Even after her death, her body was not her own — it was dissected, parts of it put on public display.
Today, Bolles said, Baartman is considered a heroine in South Africa. “She gave up her life. She becomes a symbol of exploitation, she becomes a symbol of brutality, what can happen to a person– versus Nicki Minaj who would say it’s her own agency that allows her to do this, versus Kim Kardashian who would say it’s her body.”
Mayo says that distinction adds complex layers to the conversation around Kardashian’s photos.
“It’s a hearty conversation to have — the question of women utilizing their bodies with full agency in a commercial way,” she said. “Not just white women, not just black women, but all women, because it could be argued that there is something empowering about finally being able to have total control over our own bodies and make decisions as to how they’re utilized and how we choose to depict ourselves.”
At the same time, Mayo says that the context of the images — the historical objectification of black women’s bodies — is important to consider.
“Even at the time of its release, ‘Jungle Fever’ was seen as something extremely controversial and problematic for many black women,” Mayo said. “That a non-black woman would be able to kind of recreate the imagery that was so painful for us for so many years — kind of flippantly — is, I think, why so many black women are taking this issue to heart and have a lot to say about it.”
Act Four: How the fashion media erase black women