Kim Kardashian and the Line Between Empowerment and Plain Old Self-Absorption

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This was the week everyone with a public profile and a social media account had something to say about Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie. There were so many philosophical questions posed: was it a step backwards? Was it feminist? Was it something a bad girl would do, or the act of a super-powerful woman? Indeed, the world of celebrity social media accounts resembled a heated feminist listserv discussion.

First into the fray was Chloë Grace Moretz, who mawkishly admonished the reality star for not promoting good “goals” for young women. “I truly hope you realize how important setting goals are for young women, teaching them we have so much more to offer than just our bodies,” she tweeted, and then deleted — later making sure to note she was not slut-shaming. Really, she wasn’t.

In this same vein, memes contrasting Kardashian with more buttoned-up NBA wife Ayesha Curry circulated, leading to a discussion of the Madonna-whore complex online. Celebrities Pink and Amber Rose also each weighed in, with Pink on Team “Brains Over Bodies” (basically a veiled “Kim’s a bad girl” response) and Amber Rose on Team “Leave Kim Alone!”

Pink encouraged women to use their non-physical assets to feel self-respect, while Rose responded:

Now, if u wanna talk to kids and be a mentor to young teens, tell them to go to school and to not use their bodies to get ahead?! I’m all for it! But please as a grown woman let another grown woman live as she wishes. That’s our problem! We’re so quick to down each other instead of uplifting! Pink, We’ve seen u damn near naked swinging from a rope( Beautifully) but what’s the difference between a rope, a pole and a pic on Instagram?

Finally, not to be outdone by the younger women. Sharon Osbourne posted her own nude selfie in response to Kim Kardashian’s cry of “empowerment,” declaring herself inspired and, yes, empowered.

Meanwhile, Bette Midler made fun of Kardashian and took part in a spirited back and forth with the reality star and queen of the sexy selfie:

And what did the selfie queen herself have to say about all this discussion? On Twitter, Kardashian was at the ready with sharp and witty retorts for all the naysayers that mostly consisted of shade-throwing and garden-variety disses, but she also penned an essay, which of course was available only at her own website and required a subscription to read. Her piece included the following statement:

I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.

As delightful as her confidence is, Kardashian’s implication that simply posting glamorous, well-framed shots of her attractive body is somehow a victory for all the women of the world epitomizes the worst aspects of commodified feminism in 2016: the conflation of “branding,” narcissism, and self-absorption with some kind of political statement. Self-love is regularly co-opted these days, used to hawk products and promote fairly typical beauty standards (which Kardashian, curves and all, embodies), and the Kardashians are very guilty of this. So in my mind, it was acceptable for Midler to poke fun at Kardashian’s self-obsession, the main feature of her persona.

Furthermore, I still remain perplexed by the idea of selfie as inherent moral good. Feminism can liberate practices from undue scrutiny without exalting those practices. Staring at our own visages and bodies, or asking others for approval, doesn’t have an inherent value; their worth and meaning depend on context. The best thing Kardashian can do with her image is convince people with all sorts of bodies to be proud of them, which has clearly worked to an extent (see: Osbourne’s pic). Yet others are frustrated by the attention she gets, and it clearly makes them feel worse, or worried. It raises the question: are voices like Pink and Moretz merely speaking out for the purpose of shaming Kardashian, or are they perhaps also women in entertainment who often feel reduced to their bodies and wish they could all be taken more seriously?

It’s a valid question to raise, but misdirected. Better that celebrities own their opinions like Carrie Fisher and use their own selves to make the point that bodies aren’t everything. Using another woman’s body as your object lesson is always a mistake.

This is a a fine distinction: Kardashian shouldn’t be shamed or called out for for her picture. It’s sexist to harp on women’s vanity as though it’s some sort of fatal flaw since it’s a human trait, and men are vain to the same extent. But must we herald glamour and mirror-gazing, whether nude or clothed, as a feminist triumph? I will be satisfied with the state of Internet feminism if we just accept vanity, from folks of all gender permutations, as a habit akin to oversleeping, binge-watching TV, or eating breakfast: semi-universal, fun to share, and most importantly morally neutral, neither a blow for women’s equality nor against it.