Last night I told myself I would post every day for 10 work days, so I’ll start my POWER 10 with a confession…
I watched the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians last week. (They’re 21 minute episodes, in my defense!) I have become a total stan for Kimye in the last two years and thought watching Kimmy K’s show would be a fun way to indulge my new obsession even further.
I also imagined that the 9 seasons of KUWTK would keep me company for much of my second year of my PhD program, which starts in August–but given that I’m well into the second season now, I’ll be lucky if this lasts me through the end of 2014.
The first season was shot and debuted in 2007, right after Kim’s sex tape came out, and seems to depict a family at a crossroads: do we leverage our daughter’s smutty 15-minutes of fame into something bigger, or do we keep our heads down and try to stay “classy,” a word that hilariously and apparently earnestly recurs during the first season.
Apparent in that effort are some early fissures in Kris and Bruce Jenner’s marriage, which now seem prophetic. But who knows if they were always there or if the terms of Kardashian fame were itself the problem. In the first season, Kris lies repeatedly to Bruce, and always because of the girls’ sexualized business arrangements: once to cover their trip to Puerto Vallarta to pose for Girls Gone Wild’s swimwear line, and another time to hide that Kim may be posing for Playboy. But it’s easy to see from Kris’s goading that she knows that selling her sexuality is Kim’s only open path to fame. Kris seems like Kim’s fluffer as she encourages her to strip down for Hef.
One thing’s for sure about the first season: Kim seemed different back then. She had a sense of humor, and potentially a slightly lumpier nose.
This is the first time I’ve ever really watched a non-competition reality show, and so I find myself wracked with the question of scriptedness: did Kris and her daughters really lie to Bruce? did he really just hop on a jet and fly down to them in Mexico? Did these events happen in this order? How much did the producers say? Did they edit out the weird stuff that Khloe and Kourtney must have said to the cameramen?
I guess I”ll never know. But I can’t wait until the girls start wearing skinny jeans.
In my first post on this subject, I considered two important questions: why care about celebrities at all, and why care about Kimye when there are Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carter? For the first question I used the work of star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen to suggest, as she does, that “when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves.” Celebrities resonate with us, and divining why a certain star becomes a superstar is a project in self-understanding and cultural scrutiny.
My second question held Kim and Kanye up to Beyonce and Jay, their natural foils. I suggested that loving the former more than the latter, as I do, is a function of their lives’ messiness and mistakes. In reflecting my own life’s messiness and mistakes, Kimye’s love is fragile and human in my eyes. I am invested in it because I too have made mistakes and been judged harshly, and if their love can last then perhaps so will mine.
When Kim and Kanye began dating in earnest, I was very, very excited. They were on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times and I still have that paper next to my writing desk. Remember when people threw royal wedding-watch pajama parties for Will and Kate? I didn’t. I don’t care about Will and Kate. But when Kim and Kanye hooked up I would tell anyone who would listen that when they got married I would throw a party about it. Think: Grown N’Sexy KIMYE Wedding Bash! I would wear stilletos and a metallic dress in their honor and we would listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat until it got late enough to switch to R. Kelley and Notorious B.I.G.
But before the engagement announcement arrived, Kim got knocked up. And I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I wanted to throw my engagement party. I wanted them to do it in the order you’re supposed to do it. Bey and Jay did it! Hell, they got married in secret! What happened to “first comes love, then comes marriage”?
And in noticing my reaction to Kim’s pregnancy, I realized that even though I loved this couple because their lives were messy, I still wanted their relationship to be neat.
Ye’s banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo
In America, Kim and Kanye’s coupling represents a deviant sexuality on almost all possible fronts. In almost all the ways a heterosexual couple can fit into America’s historical portrait of deviant sexuality, Kim and Kanye fit the bill:
1.Kim’s curves are objectified (the sense is,k by her, for money). Also, she made a sex tape, which reads pornography. Her body + the sex tape both read prostitute.
2. Kanye is a black male rapper, which reads criminal/violent/drug dealer (not–as we might hope–“poet/artist”).
3. Kanye is a black man attracted to a white woman, which reads “Birth of a Nation” lascivious, hypersexed, dangerous black man out for your white daughters.
4. Kim is a white woman attracted to a black man (and, in the past, other black men) which means she’s addicted to sex, dirty, somehow animalistic, somehow less white and more Armenian, i.e., Arab. (SNL: “And to all our boyfriends, Happy Kwanzaa!”
5. Kim allegedly married basketballer Kris Humphries for financial gain in the form of royalties from her television show and televised wedding special on E!, which reads that she sells her intimacy for money, which reads prostitute. See derogatory phrase: “fame whore.”
6. Kim is an adulteress with a capital scarlet A: she started dating Kanye and is now impregenated by him while still legally married to Humphries.
I don’t have the energy to defend that all the above are extant American prejudices or taboos. Watch “Barack and Curtis” or “Birth of a Nation” or read some of the suggested’s before. What I’m interested in here is how all of these taboos become coopted into a heteronormative, pro-marriage and pro-family narrative when we as a culture become invested in these two sullied individuals’ relationship. Even this morning there was an article in the New York Times about some prominent conservatives’ shift towards a pro-marriage (any marriage, gay marriage) agenda. And in rapper Macklemore’s video for “Same Love,” a celebrated pro-gay marriage song, we see a similar move, the normalization of gay people through marriage: “same love,” not “I respect your different love.”
Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page, April 6 2012
Interestingly,when Kim and her ex Kris Humphries first called their marriage quits, the media (see SNL, below) demonized Kim as a woman who would sell her intimacy for the price of a televised wedding special on E! But now that Kim is pregnant, the narrative has switched to a demonization of Kris for refusing to give Kim a divorce because of his “desperate need for revenge” and “power.” Whether this new narrative arises from the power of Kim’s publicity or America’s genuine affection for Kimye, I don’t know. But the fact remains that as a culture we seem to want Kim and Kanye to stay together and get married–a triumph of our conservative, pro-family values, and a testament to those values’ ability to somehow cleanse what we view as sexual sins like prostitution, miscegenation, adultery.
In her book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar suggests that the recent welcome Americans have showed to homosexual couples in mainstream culture has been accompanied by the shaming of a new set of bodies, namely Arab bodies who have been branded as “terrorists” (Puar mentions The L Word and Six Feet Under, 132, to which we could add Modern Family and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Writing in 2007, Puar argues that our nation still uses sexualized humiliation and violence to mark criminalized sexuality. In the Jim Crow south, to be a black man whistling at a white woman or even just a black man was a sexuality that marked its owner’s body as available for state-sanctioned violence and murder. These days, Kanye can rap about “30 white bitches” and we all laugh. But Puar suggests this is the illusion of progress. While we pat Kanye on the back, out of sight, at Abu Graib, new bodies are available for state-sanctioned violence.
I’ve started already to extend Puar’s arguments on queer bodies to extend the kind of non-normative sexuality we see in the coupling of Kim and Kanye: a sexuality that invokes sex work, laciviousness, interracial coupling. Puar argues that queer sexualities are absorbed into the national project as a way to manage threats to the social order. She writes, “homonormativity is both disciplined by the nation and its heteronormative underpinnings and also effectively surveils and disciplines those sexually perverse bodies that fall outside its purview. Thus the nation not only allows for queer bodies, but also actually disciplines and normalizes them” (49). That is, a normalized homosexuality is still heteronormative–that is, pro-heterosexual practices and behaviors. But by accepting homosexual behavior of a certain kind, the nation is able to regulate and control those behaviors. Meanwhile, what is unaccepted and unregulated has shifted to a new target: in Puar’s argument, terrorist bodies, who are not welcome in our polity and instead still subject to violence, not cooptation.
I want to suggest that interracial relationships and even in some senses sex work are being “surveiled and disciplined,” and therefore normalized, in the persons of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, through our insistence on their marriage. Let’s take a look at Kim Kardashian’s appearance on The View in September, when she and Kanye had been dating for 6 months (my Sun-Times, above, is from April of last year). Feel free, first off, to note that Barbara Walter’s first question for Kim is what part of her body she doesn’t like. Way to build a girl up, Barb. But it’s this later moment that’s more interesting to me:
Around 2:12 – –catch that? Barbara asks, “What about marriage? Do you want his child? Where are we?” Everyone laughs at Barbara’s candor, Joy says “No rush,” but Barb pushes on, claiming, “You gotta ask!” Why, Barbara Walters, why have you gotta ask? Kim demurs: “Well technically I’m still married.” Barbara is undeterred. THese are the terms of her acceptance of Kim as our Armenian-American darling. “You’re divorced, undivorced, whatever,” Barb pushes on. “Are you really thinking in terms of a permanent relationship?…Have you talked about children?”
At this point, Whoopi Goldberg, bless her heart, flops over in her chair and says, “Jesus.”
Kim starts explaining how she does want kids, and she wanted them before but “didn’t take the time” to pick the right person.
Whoopi interjects, a voice of reason.”You move too fast, you move too fast.”
“Exactly,” says Kim.
Now, imagining that Kim Kardashian is a real person with real feelings who really moves too fast, Barbara and Whoopi sort of represent our two impulses with Kim. We want her to slow down and get to know herself and be patient with her decisions, but we also want her decision to be marriage, ideally to Kanye. It’s healing: it feels good as a nation to celebrate the interracial coupling of an amateur sextress and a guy who insulted two national darlings, George W. Bush and Taylor Swift, on national TV.
If Puar was here, she might ask what violence our celebration of Kimye is obscuring? Who don’t we love when we love Kimye?
…and this one I’m struggling to answer. The families destroyed by drone strikes or the prison-industrial complex? The children killed not in mass suburban shootings but by daily inner-city gun violence? What don’t we see when we bathe in the starlight of Kimye? I am thinking of the New Jim Crow, of the families whose lovers and fathers and mothers are in prison, of the fathers taken away for state-sanctioned violence not for whistling at a white woman but for having small amounts of drugs on them when they were racially profiled and frisked by police, of these men who if they are released into certain states will never be able to vote, no matter the race of the president on the ballot. In loving Kimye, whom do we forget?
Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?
First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:
Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.
…[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).
Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?
(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.
Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.
But enuf of that.)
From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:
Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.
Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.
For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.
But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.
Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?
Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.
The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.
So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.
Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)
Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.
Bear with me here.
Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)
Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.
The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.
I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Just listen, for a minute.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,
How many people you know could take it this far?
So many stars [scars].
Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.
I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.
Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye? We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.