Keeping up with the Rump Rage: E!’s Commodification of Kim Kardashian’s Assets
Candice Haddad / FLOW Staff
On October 4, 2007, E! debuted Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a realty television show featuring the blended Kardashian- Jenner family, and is currently gearing up for its third season, which is set to air in the beginning quarter of 2009. From the onset, the primary premise of Keeping Up has been to feature the stories surrounding the rising fame of the second oldest Kardashian sister, Kim. With her mother, Kris as the mom-manager, her sisters, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall, and Kylie, and step-father, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, in supporting roles, Kim Kardashian’s bouts with the tabloids and other celebutante- inflicted problems take center stage in the narrative construction of the show, despite her airtime being equal to or less than the others. Undoubtedly, E! sees the exploitation of the Kardashian family as another site of bankable reality television programming to add to its lineup of celebrity-based family shows, which includes Snoop Dogg’s Fatherhood and Living Lohan (starring Lindsay Lohan’s family). Of particular bankability is the star persona of Kim Kardashain and all that which it includes; needless to say, I am talking about her ass.
For a few years prior to the debut of Keeping Up, Kim Kardashian began gaining recognition from the tabloids and celebrity bloggers through her association with other Hollywood socialites turned reality television stars such as Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. Following what seems to be the formula for quick fame in Hollywood, Kim Kardashian’s early 2007 sex-tape scandal projected her from being another rich, L.A. girl seen with the Hilton sisters to being a rich, L.A. girl with a video of her having sex with her then boyfriend, rapper and R &B artist Ray J., being broadcasted to any interested spectator across the internet.1 While a threat of a lawsuit against Vidvid Entertainment, the adult film production company that tried to publicly release the tape, brought upon by the Kardashians ensued, the popularity of Kim and her derriere soared. Seeing her as a site (or sight) to commodify, only months later E! publicly announced that they would start airing a show featuring Kim and the rest of the Kardashian clan in the fall of 2007. Rightly following its missions to be the entertainment news source, E! and E! Online, its internet counterpart, have been one of the primary sites of promotion of the Kim Kardashian star persona and its body-focused publicity. Thus, this article will examine a number of the ways E! has promoted Kim and her assets throughout her stint as Hollywood, reality television royalty.
Riding the wave of body-focused publicity induced by the sex-tape scandal, the show text itself presents multiple secondary plotlines that contribute to the ongoing fame-seeking narrative of Kim Kardashian aspiring to become a Hollywood sex symbol. Whatever the exact job requirements and prerequisites needed for this status are, of course, debatable. Never is this more apparent than in Episode 2 of Season 1 when prospective managers ask Kim(the “crisis” of this episode is Kim becoming fed up with her Mom as her manager) what it is that she wants to do and her answer is a resounding, “I don’t know”. Through the number of events and gigs Kim (and sometimes her sisters) are shown doing on the series, being a poster child for all clothes scantily-clad seems to be the type of job done by one aspiring to become a model and, thus, their occupational goal. Therefore, it could be said that Kim Kardashian’s occupation is that of a model with a reality television show. Yet, I am hesitant to state this as her profession for it becomes apparent in the show that she is not necessarily considered a model by the industry. Kim’s hesitancy with deciding what to aspire to combined with the discontentment of a number of the designers she works for — they explicitly state her non-professional model status (e.g., the Ashely Paige swimsuit photo shoot when Ashley Paige makes the statement regarding her perceived laziness of Kim and her sisters and their inability to do what she wants: “That’s the difference between a working model who makes their living off working and whatever they are.”) — make it clear that it is her sex-tape, rump-associated persona that gets her the jobs. Nonetheless, Keeping Up follows Kim on a number of her excursions in creating this new form of stardom. Whether the camera follows Kim who is accompanied by her mother and manager, Kris, on her photo shoot for Playboy or dropping in on her and her sisters’ karate lesson, where they constantly comment on her backside and its ability to the do the defense move called “the butt strike”, Kim’s backend blatantly plays a major role in the narrative of show.
Promotional items and appearances produced by E! for Kim and Keeping Up also promote this rump-centric discourse. With her family in the background to each of her sides, the cover of the Season 1 DVD features Kim wearing a skin-tight, animal print outfit in the foreground striking her signature look-behind-the-shoulder pose – thus, ensuring that her backside takes center stage. Further promoting this idea is the supplementary website of Keeping Up found on the E! Online site. The official E! Online Keeping Up website features photos, episode synopses, computer desktops able to be downloaded, and a number of other staples of online star and television show promotional items and activities. One of the online games/ activities you can play on E! Online’s Keeping Up website is the “Take the Tush Test” quiz game. Presented with two pictures side-by-side of two different celebritys’ backends, the user is asked to decide which of the two is Kim Kardashian’s. After being matched up against other stars such as Jessica Biel and Jennifer Lopez, the user finds out how many backends they “brilliantly branded” by choosing the “correct” tush.
Throughout many of these instances of body-focused promotional items, Kim is constantly compared to another contemporary female star famous not only for her singing and acting career, but also for her derrière. I am talking about none other than Jennifer Lopez. Granted E! may not have initiated this connection between Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian — for I understand that E! is participating in a much larger discourse influenced by many other media outlets, it is undeniable that E! promotes Kim Kardashian’s image by constantly drawing upon the abundant and, thus, familiar rump-centric discourse about Jennifer Lopez.2 Between featuring Lopez as one of Kim’s contenders in the “Tush Test”, the mentioning of their connection in Kim’s cast bio through the statement, “And with the hottest junk-in-the-trunk since J.Lo,…”, and Chelsea Handler, the host of E!’s late-night program Chelsea Lately, immediately talking to Kim about her butt and its comparison to Lopez’s when Kim made an appearance on her show, it’s apparent that E! is not only in the business of generating rump-centric discourse and putting Kim and her assets in the leading role(s), but also draw upon familiar strategies of fetishizing the ethnic, female other through audience flattery. In these instances of comparison, it is important to take into consideration the different ramifications and connotations this rump-centric discourse has between a Latina, second-generation Puerto Rican star and a multiracial Armenian and Irish-German star (her father is the late Robert Kardashian, one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys). While further investigation and comparison is needed to make strong conclusions between the stardoms of Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian, I find this association between the rump of Kim and the rump of J.Lo to be working as a way to pan-ethnicize and contain the peculiarity of Kim’s racial and ethnic identity.
While the instances of Kim’s rump commentary are plentiful (I have only presented a select set of examples produced by E!), I want to conclude by discussing the implications of this discourse surrounding the body of a mixed-race, off-white female. While conclusions can immediately be drawn by dismissing these instances of fetishizing the Other as only an effort to contain its potential threat, I want to open up the potential for Kim Kardashian and her curves to be working as an active agent in pushing the status quo of white-centric beauty dominating the United States media landscape.3 However, I do not want to present too optimistic of a view, for it is undeniable that Kim’s Hottentot-inspired imagery does present a problematic representation of a non-white female unquestionably under the scrutiny of the white and male gaze. Furthermore, her complex form of stardom as a socialite turned sex-tape star turned reality television star struggling to articulate her role in the Hollywood limelight further complicates her agency. Nonetheless, as a multiracial woman who is only gaining in popularity with United States media, Kim Kardashian’s and her body’s infiltration into the mainstream media and discourse of beauty ideals should not be taken lightly. Further exploration into the continuing formation of her stardom and career in tandem with investigating the reception of her persona will further reveal the complexities and the politics of her (and her rump’s) representation.
1. The cover of Keeping Up with the Kardashians Season One DVD set
2. Kim at the Ashley Paige photo shoot
3. Kim posing for Playboy
4. E! Online’s Kim Kardashian Tush Test
Please feel free to comment.
- Other lower-list celebrities who have leaked sex tapes include Dustin Diamond, Paris Hilton, Chyna, Verne Troyer, and Jenna Lewis; all of which gained some publicity following its circulation on the web and in some instances by its distribution by an adult film company. [↩]
- See Beltran, Mary. The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s Cross-over Butt. Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19.1. Jan. 2002, 71-86. [↩]
- This correlates with Mary Beltran’s ideas in her aforementioned article, The Hollywood Latina Body… for this article finds Jennifer Lopez’s body-focused publicity as carrying the ambivalence of being both an act of containment and as social power to make her an active agent by pushing the status quo of white beauty. [↩]
Great article, Candice — you should check out Priscilla Ovalle’s “Framing Jennifer Lopez: Mobilizing Race from the Wide Shot to the Close-Up” in *The Persistence of Whiteness*….she focuses on similar issues of how the “off-white” body is framed (especially the rear) in music videos and dance….
Nice job, Candice! I completely agree that Kardashian’s ethnicity most definitely plays into the discourse surrounding her “assets” as you say. These discourses definitely echo previous efforts to exoticize women of color. Even the first picture you included with the leopard print one-piece plays on the ways in which big butts become affiliated with animalistic sexuality. In short, bodily excess becomes a marker of “primitiveness,” while thinness continues to be associated with civilized, restrained whiteness. I agree that it might be productive to explore possible ways that the discourse surrounding Kardashian may in some ways be positive by presenting a curvier body as attractive, but like you I hesitate to make too much the focus on Kardashian’s butt, as it seems to merely reinforce racist assumptions about full-figured women, particularly since Kardashian’s body has been made so available via the sex tape with Ray J.
I suggest you take a look at this recent slide show from Slate called “A history of the buttocks.” Particularly of interest to me is the photo of Ice-T’s wife, Coco, who is white. Allegedly, she has obtained butt implants to give her a fuller derriere. This raises a whole other set of questions about race and body that might be interesting in light of Kardashian’s rising star.
Nice article! As an anthropologist working on body modification practices among Latinas, I agree that the subtext of the butt-craze certainly includes notions of primitiveness, excess, hypersexuality, class, and diet (as in a bad diet)–and you are right on, to point out the “Hottentot-inspired imagery” in the Kardashian case. As the media continues to equals the “large ass” with the ethnic-Other, another stereotype is upheld: that Anglo-American women all lack a round and plump rear end (except Coco, of course!, but then again, as Caitlin mentions above, her “thick” body is allegedly the result of implants). Also, while butt implants have been on the market for some time the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports than in 2007 there were 5,325 butt implants performed in the US (this includes Puerto Rico); this is only an increase of 2,769 from 2006. My point is that for the butt implant to ever catch on, say as breast implants have (among all groups in the population), the racial (and class) stigmata associated with that particular part of the body must be overcome (not that I am advocating for the butt-implant). In the Kardashian case, as in the case of J.Lo, Beyoncé and others, audiences are encouraged to focus on the visual character of women’s bodies–collapsing identity with representation.
It’s the new flavor for eating the other… Kim can have what she wants of blackness, but still be deemed white, and in this case, ‘sexy.’
Where are the black butts? I always wonder — in mainstream culture, what happens to the big ass when it’s on a body that is deemed unambiguously “black?” Is it still a great ass, or is it too ‘grotesque,’ in that carnivalesque sense? I suspect it is. There, it signifies low- or working-class status, obesity, pornography/sex work, ugliness. It’s not ‘sexy.’
Yes, people talk about Beyonce Knowles’ butt. But her butt isn’t that big (or is Lopez’s for that matter) – she has a curvaceous body, and just enough butt for white commentators to think it’s a lot. And she knows how to shake it. Beyonce and her ‘people’ have created imagery and movement that accentuate her butt. I’ve shown my students a cover from one of her singles – Her image has been turned in impossible angles in order to make it seem like she has a big butt. And of course, fascination with Beyonce has everything to do with how her light skin, long weaves and perhaps other features come close enough to whiteness (or far enough away from the ugliness of blackness) to be deemed ‘beautiful’ by whites.
Kim’s butt is bigger than Jennifer’s or Beyonce’s, and seems to approach what blacks would consider to be a “big ass.” Since she is already on the fringes of media culture and already lacks ‘respectability,’ ‘blackening’ herself in this way isn’t costly in the way that it would be for other white women. (Apparently, it even accentuates her ‘out of control’ body and attitude.) Meanwhile, Jennifer and Beyonce change their bodies through exercise and diet (and perhaps surgery) in order to not get ‘too’ curvy and to remain contenders for certain movie roles. Jennifer Lopez’s legendary butt is mostly just a legend by this point…
It is interesting that, having located Kim Kardashian’s backside as a site of discourse, you then presume to frame her Armenian heritage as non-white. You have some interesting ideas on the discourse issue, but if you were to take this further as a research topic, you would definitely want to re-examine this non-white coding. Specifically, many (if not most) Armenian-Americans code themselves as white (and specifically, non-Arab, non-Turkish and non-Persian). I imagine there is some literature on this. I base this on my own anecdotal evidence, but I would be surprised if this issue of race coding among Armenian-Americans has not been addressed. If it has not, it would be a fruitful area for research.
I found that interesting, too, Erik and Candice. Race is, of course, constructed. But as to the manner of its construction, Armenian ethnicity has been coded in America as racially White (see Mirak, Bakalian and, particularly Mesrobian) — like others ranging from, oh, say, Jewish to Syrian. (Of which the first speaks to a whole history of relationships and similarities: see Gilman et al; the second, interesting given the whole post-9/11 recodification and realignment, particularly given the subsequent fracturing of the early-twentieth century “Syrian” group into separate “national” groups, or at least separate states from which to hail, in more recent waves of migration; and the combination of the three a good example of how ethnic mappings both overlap and are elided in favour of the fictional homogeneous Old-Countries of America’s imagination.)
Now that Whiteness is so settled, or at least all around us, a contemporary move seems to be to try and escape it — put differently, Self as Other. Nothing new about positioning moves such as these, but perhaps they are worth rethinking, at least as much it is worth thinking about whether a particular ethnic group is “really” coded in one way or another.
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I think that this article touches on a very important theme that has shown up in the media portrayals of women throughout history. The idea of to-be-looked-at-ness, that women’s existence in the media is purely for male pleasure and to satisfy what Laura Mulvey’s theory calls the “male gaze.” Kim Kardashian is using her “rump” grab the attention of the male audience, she is “something” that is admired and in many ways she has commodified her body into something that can be bought through the creation of her sex tape.
Although she is Armenian, It seems that she is reinforcing the stereotypes that were and still are associated with African Americans, of laziness, and the expectation that everything should be handed to them (as portrayed through the “welfare queen” of the Reagan era).
Unfortunately it seems that Kim Kardashian has made the mistake of putting herself into the category to be seen not as a subject but a sexual object that is geared towards the satisfaction of men.
Au passage, très bien votre blog :) Je vous remercie une fois de plus. A bientôt.
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