LOUISE O'NEILL: What our reaction to Kim Kardashian says about us as people - and feminists

In January, the Philosophical Society at Trinity College Dublin asked me to take part in a debate entitled “This house would use its sexuality to get ahead”.

I was opposing the motion.

My argument was that we live in a world that is constantly sexualising women anyway, where sex is used to sell everything from shampoo to crisps, and that by engaging with that and attempting to use their sexuality as currency to further their careers, women might run the risk of reinforcing the patriarchal idea that a woman’s integral worth is inextricably tied up with her physical attractiveness.

It was an interesting night, and the team proposing the motion made some valid points about the importance of sex-positivity in modern day feminism and the implicit danger in attempting to police other women’s sexuality.

I was reminded of their arguments when Kim Kardashian posted a photo of herself naked with the caption “when you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL” and once again almost broke the internet. 

Bette Midler weighed in, the actress Chloe Moretz commented that Kim should be aware of the importance of teaching young women that they have so much more to offer than their bodies, Piers Morgan called her ‘desperate’ (oh, the humanity!), Pink called on women to resist ‘the urge to cave’ to the need to monetise their bodies. 

Kardashian hit back with a series of cutting tweets before writing an open letter in which she said “I am empowered by my body, I am empowered by my sexuality” and denouncing those who referenced the sex tape that she made 13 years ago in an attempt to shame her.

I watched all of this unfold with a sense of fascination. I know little to nothing about the Kardashians. I don’t watch their TV show and I don’t read gossip magazines so the entire phenomenon holds no interest for me.

However, I do believe that celebrity gossip has an important role to play in an anthropological sense – the way in which we discuss famous people and how we react to them actually has very little to do with the celebrities themselves but can tell us a great deal about our own preconceived notions and can even reveal greater societal prejudices.

It was with a growing sense of discomfort that I listened to middle-aged male presenters dismiss her as a ‘desperate tramp’ on the radio and watched people sternly remind Kardashian that she’s a mother now (because apparently once you have given birth any sense of sexual agency is destroyed). 

I was reminded of an article that I myself wrote for this very paper a couple of years ago in which I complained that Kim was a poor role model for young women and I felt embarrassed at my patronising tone. The fury and vitriol directed at Kardashian seemed utterly misplaced although, in some ways, I could understand it.

Many women are exhausted at being constantly objectified and it can feel as if those attitudes are being excused and somehow reinforced when someone as high-profile as Kardashian appears to endorse the reduction of women to their bodies. 

But ultimately it is her body and she can do whatever she wants with it – surely that is a tenant of what feminism has been striving to achieve for all these years.

The real issue here is the lack of visibility for women; statistically we are less likely to the main protagonists in award winning literature, in movies, in television shows. 

We are hungry for women to aspire to and sometimes fall prey to the fallacy that any woman in the public eye needs to be without fault, that she can never make any mistakes, that she has to be every thing to every woman. 

The same kind of pressure is not evident for famous men. They can be complicated, unlikeable, difficult, ornery. They do not need to be perfect.

And it’s not like self proclaimed feminists have never been photographed naked before. 

Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham are two of the most high profile feminists in Hollywood today and were both (rightly) lauded for using nudity to challenge traditional ideals of beauty and ‘acceptable’ body standards. 

So, why the disparity in reaction to Dunham and Schumer’s nude shots and Kardashian’s? 

It felt to me as if we were trying to say that there was a ‘right’ type of woman, or a ‘right’ type of feminist and that feels antithetical to the movement itself. 

Feminism is about inclusion. Feminism is for everyone.

It’s for women of all races and religion, it’s for trans-people, it’s for men, it’s for straight people, gay people and everyone in between. Sex workers can be feminists. Strippers can be feminists. 

While I might find using my sexuality and my body for financial gain impossible to align with my personal views of feminism, it is not my place to say that other women who do so should be excluded.

I think the most important thing to retain when discussing political issues like these is a sense of nuance. 

I can side-eye Kardashian for saying that she accepts her flaws when clearly she’s had extensive plastic surgery but I can still believe that she has the right to modify her body if she so wishes. 

I can say that I think the Kardashians are obsessed with money and status and appearance while applauding their rather astounding business acumen. 

I don’t think they should be held up as role models for young women to aspire to but I don’t believe that they’re the harbingers of the Apocalypse either.

I can agree with Chloe Moretz that young women need to know that they’re more than just their bodies while also thinking Kim Kardashian is making an interesting commentary on slut-shaming women. 

Surely, as intelligent, reasonable people we can see that it’s possible to simultaneously hold two conflicting arguments in mind and understand them both to be true. 

My own sense of feminism is constantly evolving and incidents such as this help to further develop my political ideologies – I would never be as quick to judge as I would have been only two short years ago. 

Robust discourse and debate are crucial for the health of any social movement but infighting and tearing each other apart for daring to hold different opinions is not.

Can’t we all just get along?

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