Kim Kardashian West wrote (well, photographed) the book on how to objectify the self with Selfish, and now she plans to take up the topic June 30 in an open interview at Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif.
We’ll leave “the pot calling the kettle black” idioms aside and hope that Kardashian West, as a media darling who’s fashioned an $85 million career out of her objectification, offers a nuanced perspective on the topic. We don’t know the depth of her philosophy awareness. We do like to pretend the Twitter amalgam of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy and Kardashian West’s banal tweets could exist as a lovechild. Kool-Aid pickles are a thing, so anything’s possible. Since women’s objectification is a central tenet of feminist philosophy, though, we’ve compiled a sort of study guide for her, and those of you who would shell out a few hundred for the talk’s VIP Party Experience.
A Bit of History
Oddly enough, our understanding of women’s objectification began with an old, white German dude. Literally, objectification means to “make objective,” or to turn something into a tangible object, but, philosophically, objectification occurs in the sexual realm. We actually get this sexual association from modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, who distinguished humanity’s capacity for rational thought from base sexual desires. To him, our sexual desires reduce us to mere sexual instruments sans logic and rationality. According to Kant, the rationally sexy solution is monogamy. In a monogamous marriage, sex can be exchanged equitably and reciprocally because each spouse is the other’s property. Yeah, you can partially thank Kant for America’s perennial moralizing and sexual repression.
Our modern usage of the term, however, comes from contemporary feminist theory. In simplest terms, it involves seeing and treating an individual, usually a woman, as an object, and in the process removing some of their humanity and agency.
The Porn Problem
Feminist debates surrounding objectification roughly coincided with the proliferation of America’s actual favorite pastime: porn. The 1970’s and 80’s saw the climax of what’s called The Porn Wars (coming soon to a theater near you?).
For nearly two decades, a vocal selection of anti-pornography feminists thrived in a conservative political climate, convincing politicians that pornography blighted society and inspired cycles of violence against women. At the root of this violence, of course, was sexual objectification. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “In the eyes of both these feminists and Kant, there is the powerful objectifier on the one hand, and on the other hand there exists his powerless victim. Due to their unequal power, the former objectifies the latter.”
Among the most famous anti-pornography feminists was Andrea Dworkin, who, in 1986, testified before the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, dubbed the “Meese Commission” for Attorney General Edwin Meese.
In her Meese Commission testimony, Dworkin launched into a ruthless, 40-minute takedown of pornography with all the evangelical intensity of a sermon. She cited it as a catalyst for rape and violence, a source of dehumanization, and the ultimate exploitation of women. Not one to ease into things, Dworkin began the speech, “In this country where I live, every year millions and millions of pictures are being made of women with our legs spread. We are called beaver, we are called pussy, our genitals are tied up, they are pasted, makeup is put on them to make them pop out of a page at a male viewer.”
With Kardashian West’s (allegedly stolen) sex tape entry into the entertainment business, she would be the poster child for Dworkin’s understanding of porn as harmful in its objectification of women. She would be, had she not used the alleged sex tape leak to craft a career largely founded on her value as a sexual object.
Objectification and Empowerment
Dworkin-esque arguments about the harms of objectification have largely fallen out of favor in today’s prevailing feminist thought. Sex-positivity, that is, the belief that sexual freedom is integral to women’s freedom, tends toward the idea that porn and sexually-charged pop culture (more on that later) can be empowering to the women who participate in it.
If anyone knows this life, it’s got to be Kim Kardashian West. Her talk’s bill claims that she “has taken everything that is modern day society – from selfies to self-promotion to sexuality – embraced it, monetized it and now we’re going to talk about it.” Kardashian West not only saturates the media with her objectified self, she makes a shit ton of money doing it. Financially, she’s more empowered than many of us may ever hope to be. In a culture where money buys clout, she’s more empowered than most of us, period. We can debate the merits of her work, but she is certainly a reflection of values in American culture. Heirloom-tomato growing media mogul Martha Stewart even recognizes this, calling Kim and her family “a totally modern construct.”
Pop Culture is Objectification
Ultimately, Kim Kardashian West is a mogul because she plays into a culture that uses objectification as its chief means of communication. The obvious example is social media, and the way we use it to condense life into tangible snapshots, discarding much of life’s complexity along the way.
To be sure, all of this is problematic. Rampant objectification breeds disgusting stereotypes about women. We need only look at the subtext of Kardashian West’s Paper Magazine cover to know this. All the more reason for Kardashian West to know what she’s talking about when she lectures on “women’s objectification.”