On Feminism: Celebrity Culture

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

I need feminism

So here’s the scenario a few weeks ago: I’m reading a smart, interesting, articulate and well-researched article by a female journalist about a significant topic to women. I wonder why this article doesn’t have many hits or comments, and I realise it will quickly be forgotten the next day. And then I click on the front page of a major news outlet and see Kim Kardashian slapped on a front-page article, exclaiming her gratitude at being called a ‘bitch’ by her boyfriend. This story receives many hits and comments, and is featured on the evening news for days and weeks. Not to mention the fact that a short time later, Kim Kardashian visits Australia to plug her wares and sell diet crap on our daily news shows. I then conclude: the culture of stupidity has taken over, when this woman, and others like her, are considered newsworthy.

But then, the guilt comes. I often feel a conflicted sense of outrage: I want to critically address what Kim Kardashian represents, but I also feel that in doing so, I’m participating in a hypocritical sexist culture that likes to blame women for living up to the superficial and limited ideals it sets up for them as definitions of ‘success’. So how do I talk about this in a constructive manner? This is what I’m about to attempt with this post.

Every time I get annoyed when I see Kim Kardashian on the news or in magazines, I try to remind myself that what really annoys me about her as a celebrity actually has to do with something beyond her as an individual. There’s a reason why the media loves her, why magazines love her and why consumer culture loves her: she represents a general trend offered to women on a mass scale in place of sustained critique and change. She represents the status quo, and a misleading idea of feminine ‘success’. To get annoyed with her as an individual person seems silly therefore, when there are bigger fish to fry.

Here’s why the media loves her. You’d have to be blind not to notice that magazines and the mass media like to cash in on the idea that feminism has been ‘surpassed’ and is no longer necessary or relevant. And to ‘confirm’ this idea of feminine success, every once in a while they throw a female celebrity in our face as an example of a woman who has ‘made it’. So her success is turned into our success; her ability to turn herself into a brand and an industry is held up as feminism’s modern irrelevance. It’s specious reasoning, yet it often works. It’s the equivalent of saying to a farmer in a drought season: ‘look, it rained today, we’re no longer in a drought!’ One measly rainy day in a season of drought does not mean the farmer is out of trouble.

Similarly, one example of a rich woman’s ‘success’ does not confirm a single thing other than the fact that capitalism and consumerism work for certain individuals. It has absolutely nothing to do with feminism or gender equality – it’s simply capitalism at work. To suggest that the financial success of an individual female celebrity is a realistic mirror to society and to the modern state of gender equality is quite frankly, stupid. Yet, we’re buying this myth on a grand scale. Just as I shouldn’t be annoyed with Kim Kardashian as an individual, we shouldn’t accept individual female celebrities’ stories as evidence of gender equality.

There’s also another side to this. Female celebrities’ success is often defined in conservative and sexist terms. They are conventionally beautiful, they often exploit the persona of the ‘dumb’ and harmless girl, and they represent a traditional idea of femininity. If they dare move beyond the parameters of conventional femininity, they are quickly punished by the mass media and public alike. They are either good girls or sluts, virgins or whores. They are not allowed to be psychologically complex human beings very often. So how on earth is this held up as feminism supposed ‘success’?

Yesterday, after reading a bunch of articles online about whether feminism is still ‘relevant’ to modern women, I tweeted in frustration: “All those ‘is feminism still relevant?’ articles on the net are cheap tricks. They need to be relegated to the crap pile of journalism. As long as we haven’t got equality, feminism is necessary. Full stop. Wasting time arguing whether it’s ‘relevant’ is derailing tactics.” We need to stop buying into this shit. And I need to keep reminding myself that Kim Kardashian as an individual isn’t the problem (even if I may not like her), it’s the stupid sexist culture that allows her brand of celebrity to flourish and exist that’s the problem. Writing out posts like this one helps me do so, and I hope others feel the same.

Above image is my own response to Who Needs Feminism.


anne louise said...

you are - of course - correct, hila. i'm not a kim kardashian fan either, but i don't REALLY blame her when all she is doing is playing the role that 'we' seemingly want her to.

did you see this article a month or so in the guardian? http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/sep/07/kim-kardashian-life-as-brand

my favourite section was this:


Kardashian has probably attracted more criticism for her decision to pose topless in Playboy and W magazines, something she hesitated over, but her mother talked her into. Good old Kris. Her father would have been horrified, Kardashian says. "He would have killed me."

But her mum? "Oh, she was all for it."

Doesn't she think it undermines her credibility as a business person? "No, sex is powerful and I think it's empowering, so I don't. I would have thought that before, but now I don't. I go back and forth about it."

The point is that men in her position would not be asked to pose naked. "Yeah!" she says with wonder, as if we have hit upon yet another feminist advantage in the world. "I think it's empowering and I'll do what I want!"


she just doesn't get it, and the scary thing is is that i think that this is what a lot of younger girls think feminism is, too. the ones that will admit to being a feminist, i mean.

Petra said...

I think I may even like Kim Kardashian on a personal level, or at least not dislike her. there is something genuine about her naivety that most other reality stars lack. she might be genuinely stupid and thus believable. that doesn't change the fact that what she represents is so majorly fucked up that I wouldn't even know where to start talking about it.

I agree, the question if we still need feminism is ridiculous. it's like declaring racism overcome because Obama is president of the US. what I notice is that there is a huge gender and beauty gap, getting bigger and bigger by the minute. all these twenty somethings who grew into this media dominated world don't see. how old is Lena Dunham? 25?

I don't post about feminism often on my blog, but I got comments too saying I should stop fighting or complaining, even though it is honourable, speaking of being condescending!!! because there is nothing left to fight for. we got everything we wanted. we can do what we want. and when I checked out the authors of these comments they were all pretty twenty somethings running fashion blogs in the hopes of becoming the next online sensation. talk to a chubby wallflower twenty somethings and you get different answers. talk to (most) thirty somethings and you get different answers too.

Lena Dunham seems so proud to not look the part, but she is nevertheless privileged and white. and she knows it. this is not against her. I think it's great what she does. but I don't like that her voice, point of view or situation seem to dominate current feminism debates. or the voice of Caitlin Moran. but at least there is a debate.

this may sound bitter (but I'm not not that far into my 30s and no wallflower either :) but I can't wait for the current 20+ pretty girls who are coveted by the media to get old(er). let's see what they say about feminism then?

helen tilston said...

Hello Hila

You have articulated how I feel about the "K's".

When I think of my grandmother, mother and aunts who were role models to us. They showed examples of equality and feminism and always carrying oneself with class and the importance of self sufficiency. To always be on a path of learning and to watch out for "the mushrooms" (those who grow overnight).

My personal opinion is that children exposed to TV from birth feel that whatever is shown on TV is validated and acceptable.

I am re-reading your post and hoping to find some hope and may wisdom and common sense prevail.

Helen xx

rooth said...

I like the distinction that you made between Kim Kardashian the brand and Kim Kardashian the person. Regardless of the brand of what the media turns her into, you're right in that we know nothing about the person. And I just don't choose to follow any of the things that she's involved with. However, if you look at her evolution from 'friend of Paris Hilton' to what she is today, I'm much bigger of a fan of her than Paris. An Armenian girl who isn't a stick skinny, white and blonde is getting a lot of press coverage. I'm curious as to your thoughts on that.

Marla Stromponsky said...

Thank you for this article - I totally agree with you, that for female celebrities, fame most times comes with a conservative and sexist attitude. A good example is one Interview Anne Hathaway gave about her role als Cat Woman. The (male) interviewer asked her repeatedly about her fitness regime and her eating habits and how hard ist was - not about her actual work as an actress.

vegetablej said...

Probably the articles get so many comments because they are posted prominently on popular sites like Yahoo, and celebrities are so visible that everyone has an opinion.

I think the whole throwaway celebrity "news" springs up because it's so cheap and easy to produce, same as reality TV. They can easily raise some "controversy" that's not really threatening to anyone and at the same time sell.

It's unfortunate that that culture likes to stereotype women as brainless, sexy and superficial but I doubt that Kim herself, whatever her public persona is, is as dumb and naive as she lets on. Her mother is no better or worse than most of Hollywood managers, probably.

More troubling to me is young girls' buy in of this route to "success". We need more women who get good press and make a strong statement for another way. As one commenter said, time will disabuse most of these women of having any real power, if they rely just on their looks.

It's the media who should be ashamed of themselves for this kind of crappy "journalism". It's really just advertising, isn't it?

Glad you spoke out about this.

ronnie said...

in my formative years women were marching in the streets for the right to equality so I grew up with the idea of feminism as an ongoing important issue. As a tweeny in primary school I took on the establishment over compulsory sewing classes for girls (the boys got to do cool woodcraft) and won - I've never looked back...

1970s and 80s rural (coastal) australia was a monsterously male place.... and for me 'puberty blues' was a cautionary tale... (don't be a doormat! don't be a trophy!)

nowdays I don't witness firsthand very much regards popular culture - for more than a decade I've had no commercial TV, no TV news, no glossy gossip magazines, no pop music.... (I think I'm one of the last folk NOT to seeing video footage of the planes hitting the twin towers....) so I don't have the greatest understanding of celebrity head (or perhaps its better to cite another body part?) culture - and am only vaguely aware of Kim K .... but its impossible not to see celebrity (tart) culture oozing its toxic spread everywhere... (try buying clothes for a young girl in any store these days.... eeek!)

given that I have a young daughter - feminism remains foremost in my mind. I think she faces a harder road than girls of my era did as things have become progressively worse over the past decade for women and girls. Kim K is NOT a role model. Malala Yousufzai is.

Gabriela said...

Great post. It's the same all over the western world (in which I count my country as well, we sure are very western in that) I guess. I don't follow news here, because they're full of sexist crap like that.

Erin said...

Did you see the feature about Kim Kardashian by artist Barbara Kruger in a 2010 edition of W Magazine? It deals quite specifically with the media fascination with Kim while at the same time questioning her role in modern culture. The questions posed by Kruger are very much in line with the questions you explore in your post.

Hila said...

Anne Louise: I haven't seen that article, and I'm glad you linked it here. I don't think she does get it, or, as you said, the many girls and women who want to emulate her. I find it frightening that they're buying into this crap - it's just a way to keep them in their place, there's nothing 'empowering' about it. It's so, so sad to hear women describe exploitation of themselves and their bodies as 'power'. We've lost all meaning of words! But I don't blame them as individuals, because that would be me buying into sexism too.

Hila said...

Petra: I just don't like her. But that shouldn't be my problem with her. What you're talking about here has aptly been summarised as 'choice feminism' - an easy, faux-feminism in which we supposedly live in a magical world were equality has been reached and all that matters is individual choice. Such bullshit. But it's a seductive message because it doesn't require much effort or critical thought (or change). To me, choice feminism is incredibly conservative.

I'm with you: I'm glad there is a debate, using people like Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran. But they are hardly representative, and I often feel their feminism, as well intended as it is, just gets co-opted into the status quo too often. There's a positive, but also a negative side to all this.

It's funny you talk about women in their 20s, because I'm still in my 20s, and I've never really bought into this shit of 'choice'. I think as much as age is a factor in this, and some of these young women will realise how much more complex the situation is later on in life, it's also a matter of how one is raised, and what culture you come from. My family and my background have influenced how I see the world, and I've always been critical of the 'dream' of consumer 'success' and 'choice' politics.

Hila said...

Helen: Yes, so much of who we are depends on how we're brought up. I may not always see eye-to-eye with my parents, but I credit them for instilling within me a sense of worth beyond the superficial elements in life. It's sad how many children, and how many girls, don't get that in their upbringing.

Rooth: Well, I'm a stick-thin girl myself, ha! But seriously, I don't really see much difference between Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton as celebrities and brands. Kardashian manipulates her body in the same way as Hilton. So while ostensibly they are physically 'different' (but still conventionally beautiful), they both conform to a traditional idea of femininity.

Marla: Ugh, those types of questions in interviews with female celebrities are one of the reasons why I stopped reading fashion magazines. It's so condescending, and it reduces women to their bodies, yet again.

Hila said...

vegetablej: I really have no idea whether Kim is really as dumb as she makes out - but real or not, she's made a lot of money out of this persona, and that's an indictment of our sexist culture. She's rather harmless as an individual person, but as representative of a cultural trend, she does a lot of damage. As you said, so many girls copy her because they want her 'success', and I just want the definition of 'success' to be widened.

Ronnie: I also think it's gotten worse, not better. People often look at me like I'm insane when I say this because some positive steps have been made for women. But we've also built huge industries, that seem to be consuming us, based on sexism. I don't see how that's 'better' for women.

Gabriela: I often sit there totally baffled as to why these people are even 'news'. It's like tabloid journalism has taken over journalism per se.

Hila said...

Erin: No I haven't read it - I'll try to track it down, thanks.

Miss Chassé said...

All I can say is thank you.

Hila said...

Miss Chasse: Thanks for reading it.