Kardashian photo plays off controversial black imagery
By Jolie Lee, USA TODAY Network
The Paper magazine cover photo of Kim Kardashian and her famous derriere has sparked a conversation about the exploitation and fetishism of the black female body.
In the photo, the reality TV star balances a champagne glass on her backside while popping a bottle of champagne.
The photo is actually a recreation that the photographer, Jean-Paul Goude, took of a nude black model as part of a 1982 book called Jungle Fever.
TheGrio.com columnist Blue Telusma likens the photos to images of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a black South African woman brought to London in the 19th century and displayed for her large buttocks and genitalia. Baartman was on display even after her death. Her body was dissected and parts of her body displayed in a Paris museum until the 1970s.
“When I looked at the (Kardashian) spread, all I saw was a not so subtle reincarnation of Saartjie Baartman – imagery that is steeped in centuries of racism, oppression and misogyny,” Telusma wrote in her article entitled “Kim Kardashian doesn’t realize she’s the butt of an old racial joke.”
Telusma told USA TODAY Network that Kardashian is unknowingly recreating the Baartman image “in a very glaring way.”
The photographer Goude was known for his fascination with “ethnic minorities” and “black girls,” as he told People magazine in 1979.
“I had jungle fever,” he said in the interview.
Goude is famous for his photos of his girlfriend Grace Jones. On the cover of the book Jungle Fever, Goude poses Jones in a cage next to raw meat.
“There’s almost an animalistic leaning about the way he describes black women, even when he’s admiring them supposedly,” Telusa said. “It’s fetishism in its purest form.”
Baartman’s stage name was Hottentot Venus. Hottentot was a racist colonial term for the Khoikhoi, a group of native people in South Africa.
“Hottentot Venus was this way of saying, here’s this exotic creature from Africa,” said Rachel Holmes, author of the Baartman biography African Queen: The Real Life of the Hottentot.
The word “hottentot” evoked mystery, while Venus told people she was “everything sexual and exciting,” Holmes said.
The focus on Baartman’s behind was also to play up sexuality. In particular, a large behind was a symbol of “hypersexuality,” said Tarshia Stanley, associate professor of English at Spelman College, who teaches a course about women’s representation in the media.
The message was that black women “did not have the same morals and did not have the same understanding of sexuality,” Stanley said. They were “outside of the norm .. which justifies a whole lot of injustices,” she said.
In her article, Telusma uses the term “Columbusing” to describe the Kardashian photo. The term refers to a group of people “discovering” something that’s already been around. In this case, big bottoms have been “Columbused,” Telusma argues.
“Kim Kardashian gets to represent black bodies that black women don’t get to represent themselves,” Telusma said.
London-based journalist Yomi Adegoke says the overall “big bum” craze is an example of Columbusing, writing in a Guardian article entitled, “Why does a black butt only look good in white skin?”
Women such as Iggy Azalea and Jennifer Lopez (who released a song called Booty) are celebrated for their big butts. In September, Vogue announced, “We’re officially in the era of the big booty.”
The big bottom is just one of the things that were “previously lauded in black culture and then make the cross to the mainstream, completely ignoring the fact it has roots in black culture,” Adegoke said.
Telusma said the discussion about the Paper magazine photograph has centered on Kardashian as a polarizing figure and about the sexism of the image. But the discussion has largely overlooked race, she said.
“There was a much deeper story, and it was making me sad that nobody was talking about it,” she said.