Breaking the Internet: Identity Tourism, Image-Sharing, and Whitewashing the Black Female Body

On November 11, 2014 the internet exploded with two announcements; the first, that Rosetta mission scientists made history by landing a probe on a comet for the first time, and the second, that Kim Kardashian and Paper Magazine had set out to “break the internet” with a photographic spread. “Breaking the Internet” is defined by TIME magazine as an act that requires “engineering one story to dominate Facebook and Twitter at the expense of more newsworthy things.”[1] And Kim Kardashian did just that – her Paper spread, which featured a nude, well-oiled Kim undressing from a black evening gown and balancing champagne on her backside, completely eclipsed the comet landing and dominated Google Searches, Facebook, and Twitter feeds for several days.[2] Even after the chatter and viral sharing of the photo subsided, she found a second wind through endless memes and parodies. As I observed discussions on my own timelines, I realized that what made the photographs so stunning to my peers was not their near-pornographic nature but rather the reminder that Kim Kardashian, a white woman from Beverley Hills, California, had built her career from day-1 with the backside of a (stereotypical) black woman. As one fashion journalist remarked, it was “like a TBT to her sex tape” with African-American R&B artist Ray J.[3]

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 7.05.13 PM

 

Vogue graph of celebrity search trends for 2014: http://www.vogue.com/4536865/most-searched-celebrities-google-trends-2014/

 

Not long after the spread’s release, critics began to notice the racial dissonance inherent in the imagery. Kim was not the first celebrity to set out to “break the internet” – Beyonce broke the internet with the surprise iTunes release of her self-titled album and Taylor Swift did the same with her Yahoo! livestream announcement. What separated Kim was not that she had masterminded a unique product release or that she had even done anything new (millions have seen her derriere and several artists had already released bare-all album covers in 2014). What allowed Kim to dominate social media was her unique ability to use images to embody and impersonate “black femininity for profit, while still advancing white female beauty dynamics.”[4]

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 6.44.37 PM Kim-Kardashian-Paper-butt-blurred

 

Side-by-side comparison from: Drayton, Tiffanie. “More Thoughts On Jean-Paul Goude, The Black Jezebel Stereotype & That Racist Kim Kardashian Photoshoot.” The Frisky. Spin Media, 13 Nov. 2014. Web.

Kim’s images were deliberate reproductions of the images of black female performers before her, who had been manipulated and commoditized by white photographers and audiences. The entire shoot was done by Jean-Paul Goude, a French photographer who famously called blacks the “premise of his work” and who diagnosed himself with “jungle fever.”[5] One photo of Kim was a direct remake of Goude’ s 1976 photograph of a nude black female performer balancing champagne on her backside. Kim’s hairstyle, posture, and jewelry reminded many critics of representations of Saartjie Baartman, a black South African woman who was paraded around Europe in the 18th century as a “freak” to show off her voluptuous dimensions and to justify blacks’ aesthetic inferiority. For many, Kim’s paper spread became a stark reminder that the same attributes that had led to the ridicule of black women for centuries, had afforded Kim Kardashian a path to international stardom and immense wealth. The viral photos were steeped in the historical exploitation of black women’s’ bodies and sexuality for entertainment. The internet, whether consciously or not, was “breaking” under the dissonance and shock created by the pairing of those historical posturings with the pale skin, straight hair, and luxurious accessories of one of the world’s most famous white women.

 

Champagne Pic

Image taken from Styleite, contrasts Goude’s original with his Kardashian remake for Paper

Kim Kardashian’s Paper spread stunt reminded me of Jesse Daniels’ Race and Racism in Internet Studies and the fallacy of the internet’s virtual, freeing environment. As Daniels explains in the article, the internet does not offer the kind of “escape from the burdens of race or experience of racism” promised during its formation, and the dream of “identity tourism” (people using the playful possibilities of gaming to visit different racial and gender identities online) has turned out to be entirely untrue.[6] Figures like Kim Kardashian are engaging in “identity tourism” via social media, but they are not earnestly exploring or honoring the people whose beings they attempt to assume. As the Paper spread illustrated, Kim’s entire career has rested on her ability to very literally “mimic attributes of black beauty to gain acknowledgement,” along with the concurrent and paradoxical ability to retreat into her white privilege and remain removed from the other less glamorous and profitable facets of the black experience.[7] As image-sharing increasingly surpasses other forms of social media interaction, identity tourism in its most insidious forms will continue. Online negotiations about the boundaries of women’s bodies and sexuality will continue as well, and it is clear that the winners and losers will generally fall along racial lines.

An interesting foil to the Kim Kardashian internet breakage is Nicki Minaj’s cover release for Anaconda. When the rapper shared her song’s art in July 2014, she received immediate backlash from the internet, with outlets like The Guardian penning pieces questioning her choice to bear her behind and what the presentation may say about her independence and self-worth. Nicki responded fittingly, by flooding her social media accounts with the near-nude, well-known photographs of celebrated white women.[8]

 

 

[1] Alter, Charlotte. “What Does It Mean to ‘Break the Internet’?” Time. Time, 12 Nov. 2014. Web.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Medine, Leandra. “MR Round Table: Why Can’t We Stop Talking About Kim Kardashian?” Man Repeller. Man Repeller, LLC, 14 Nov. 2014. Web.

[4] Bailey, Saaraa. “The “Kurse” of Kim K.: Blackness, Beauty, and Big Behinds.” For Harriet. For Harriet, 22 Nov. 2014. Web.

[5] Ongley, Hannah. “Kim Kardashian’s Paper Cover Has a Race Problem That No One Is Talking About.” Styleite. Styleite, 12 Nov. 2014. Web.

[6] Daniels, Jessie. “Race and Racism in Internet Studies: A Review and Critique.” New Media & Society 15.5 (2013): 695-719. Web.

[7] Bailey, Saaraa. “The “Kurse” of Kim K.: Blackness, Beauty, and Big Behinds.” For Harriet. For Harriet, 22 Nov. 2014. Web.

[8] Reilly, Dan. “Nicki Minaj Ponders Why Her Ass-Tastic ‘Anaconda’ Cover Is ‘Unacceptable'” SPIN. Spin Media, 25 July 2014. Web.

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