On Wednesday, Vulture published a “conversation” between senior art critic Jerry Saltz and editor David Wallace-Wells that purported to be an intellectual dive into the self-presentation of Kim Kardashian in her book, Selfish. The article’s headline: “How and Why We Started Taking Kim Kardashian Seriously (and What She Teaches Us About the State of Criticism).”
The sound of my groan is so deep and low that it can only be heard by demons dwelling in the most unsavory, twisted, and shit-covered level of hell. There, these demons groan, too.
Here is some of what Wallace-Wells and Saltz are eager to discover by having this conversation. How has Kardashian upended our ideas about criticism and the self? When did we (men) begin to take her seriously? For starters, they would like to distill the mystery behind Kardashian-West fame:
[Saltz]: Now Kanye has gotten an honorary Ph.D. from the same art school that gave me one. I mean, how freakish is that!
Kanye West is a multiplatinum-selling musician; Jerry Saltz works for a magazine. It is more freakish that Saltz was given the degree first, considering that he described the couple’s decision to marry as “a blatant biraciality of their combined meme.”
But because Kim began taking selfies before the term was en vogue, she is heralded by Saltz in a methinks-thou-dost-protest-too-much manner, in which he gives her selfies a heightened attention, which I can assure you, she does not need:
She started taking selfies in the mid-1980s with pre-digital cameras, and many of the genre’s formal earmarks are already present in her pictures: the odd angles, arm holding the camera visible, peeks behind scenes, the fish-eyed distortion in the depth of field, the urge to create reality by documenting it. The irretrievability of passing moments.
Saltz also has an inkling that perhaps her “unconventional” body inspired this self-interest:
She was enamored of her own form. We don’t even discuss how unconventional her form is and was at the time, given the rigid strictures of female beauty defined by society!
Wallace-Wells, in an effort to outpace Saltz in his gaze-heavy, cringe-worthy (and tent half-pitched tone), goes on to immortalize the following words, which he shall never escape for as long as the web-based word exists: “About that body.”
DWW: About that body: It was amazing to see, just a few months after Kim was derided online for joking that her ass was a work of art, a series of think pieces coming out of the Met Costume Institute gala celebrating sheer fabrics and declaring the body a worthy work of art (and the gym the new couturier).
But let’s leave aside — for now, anyway — the interesting way we’ve come to celebrate as feminist the sexualization of ampler female bodies (which suggests the crime against women by media over the past decades has been about bad body image, not pulverizing sexualization).
Kim does have a remarkable ass. It’s something almost everyone can agree on. But who is responsible for sexualization of “ampler female bodies”? The “bad body image” that has plagued women since the advent of the media? Hmm, it might have something to do with men talking about women’s bodies as if they know more about them than those who inhabit them.
The conversation continues apace. For a couple paragraphs, they discuss the Golden Age of Television. For a few more, they wax poetic on their purpose as critics—do they have any now that everyone’s a critic? (Saltz on modern criticism: “Now we are wrong in public.” As opposed to before?) We all are afraid of being wrong, so we align ourselves with the most populist, obvious thing, for its what we are familiar with, what culture is stuffing our gullets with, what makes us sated and full and drooling. That take is fine! It’s fine. And in the case of Kim Kardashian’s success, it very well may be true.
But it’s contradictory: why write out a dialogue between two men on Kim Kardashian at all, especially if those men so fiercely align themselves with the supposed other side of the fence: smart, thoughtful, critical, and forward-thinking? They allege to be the gatekeepers of “intellectual” thought and dialogue, so why not just do what men have been doing throughout all of history and continue to ridicule women like Kim. Or better yet, disregard her entirely.
It’s here that men continuously show their, um, asses. The Kim Kardashian selfie book has been coveted and admired by women, discussed by women, Instagrammed and talked about by women. And because Kim Kardashian is something of a malleable icon, women have reclaimed her as ours, when she was previously, in a different point in her career, geared for male consumption. Men don’t get Selfish because it’s not for them. All of these selfies of Kim—even the sexy ones with little clothing—are for women to take in, observe, and contextualize for our own self-presentation. There is a reason that there are so goddamn many of them: she becomes something of a character study in one example of the endless kinds of femininity available to us, the likes of which used to be left up to men to decide.
The men choose to engage, though, for they feel that they must. Men now feel their obsolescence so acutely that instead of letting the women speaking for themselves (as so many already have about Kim’s book and otherwise), they must throw their feather-topped fedoras into the mix. When I was working on my informal review of Kim’s book, a male friend dismissively described her to me as a “girl icon.” If that’s the case, then just let her be that. Let us have something of our own. After all, no one asked you.
[Saltz]: Here’s where it may start to get really interesting. What might it mean that collective critical thinking, such as it is, in this case, the acceptance of Kim not as a freak show, huckster, or something sold, but instead as something self-created, self-aware, and sincere, with its own essences and vulnerabilities.
Men routinely think these exact thoughts about women—not famous women, not beautiful women, women who are just in the world, living their lives. “We thought you were silly and inferior, and now that we have looked at numerous pictures of Kim’s butt and boobs and heard about how she is a hundred-millionaire despite that, maybe you are not? Maybe there is more to you?”
The conversation ends (though, for my money I can guarantee it went on for much longer) with the pair declaring Kim an innovator of her genre—the selfie.
Women’s bodies, actions, movements, photographs, friendships, relationships, words, and lives have been so eagerly policed by men for so long that men are left now—in this time of nth wave feminism—to wonder how they can still, please, we must, enter the conversation at any cost. Kim Kardashian might not represent the be-all and end-all of femininity and womanhood, but she definitely is a part of it: a figure in popular culture through which women can see themselves, reclaim perspectives, understand better who we are, and celebrate (or argue against) versions of new femininity. About including men in these conversations: not necessary. At all.