Earlier this week, Kim Kardashian posted a photo of herself with her sister, Khloé, on a tropical vacation wearing matching black bikinis. This is not terribly newsworthy, I know. But you know what is notable? What’s not in the photo: no spray tan, no ‘boxer braids’ (ahem, cornrows), no overlined lips. Their hair is blonde, and they’re noticeably thinner and less curvy. In short: they look like the rich white women they actually are. It’s a new aesthetic approach for them—which is why I think it’s worth thinking critically about.
There’s no way anyone could have missed the many and varied ways the Kardashian/Jenner family has performed Blackness via their beauty and fashion choices since Keeping Up With the Kardashians debuted in 2007, but if you’ve been paying attention recently, you have probably already noticed that Kim has been slowly transitioning away from the Black-lady cosplay that helped make her famous. TikTokers have been speculating since last fall that she had removed her Brazilian butt lift (BBL), for example, and a December 2021 i-D article touched on her seemingly smaller ass in the context of a wider shift away from the BBL aesthetic. She was still visually referencing Black women as recently as this winter. In her March 2020 Vogue cover shoot, which dropped at the beginning of February (yes, during Black History Month), her skin looked like it had been darkened, and the “tone and styling [of the images] closely mirror[ed] photographs of Black women over the years such as Nina Simone, Naomi Campbell, and Alicia Keys,” as Jameelah Nasheed pointed out in The Cut.
That changed rather theatrically in May when she showed up at the Met Gala in the Bob Mackie-designed “naked” dress that Marilyn Monroe famously wore in 1962 to serenade U.S. President John F. Kennedy for his 45th birthday. Kardashian did her best to channel Monroe for the event, bleaching her hair blonde and losing 16 pounds in three weeks, something she faced ample criticism over. She defended herself by referring to her (extremely unhealthy) actions as ‘preparing for a role,’ but in retrospect, it was clearly the soft launch of a completely new aesthetic, one centred on a very particular performance of whiteness. And while I’m sure she didn’t purposely choose Monroe as her avatar for this transformation, it’s kind of perfect that she did.
Kim Kardashian is done cosplaying as a black woman and is entering her white woman era, hence the sudden weird obsession with Marilyn Monroe.— . (@VeeO19) May 7, 2022
As University of Exeter associate professor Fiona Handyside argued in a 2013 paper published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Monroe’s whiteness was incredibly important to her desirability. Handyside cites academic Richard Dyer, whose seminal 1979 work, Stars, introduces the academic concept of a “star text,” which is the ‘story’ of a celebrity based on their work as well as the interviews they give, the ads they appear in and even the things fans and tabloids say about them. She writes: “Dyer pointed out dyed platinum blonde hair is key to [Monroe’s] sexual appeal, particularly as it was constructed through the ‘playboy’ discourses of the 1950s. ‘Monroe conforms to, and is part of the construction of, what constitutes desirability in women […] for the most desirable woman is a white woman. The typical playmate is white, and most often blonde […] to be ideal, Monroe had to be white, and not only white but blonde, the most unambiguously white you can get.’ As a blonde in the 1950s Hollywood film industry, Monroe is considered to be the sexual and racial embodiment of perfection. In an era of civil rights movements, decolonisation and race rebellion, Hollywood’s vision of female sexual desirability is a glowing white icon.”
Similarly, Kardashian’s platinum blonde hair and much slimmer physique constitute a totally different type of sex appeal than anything we’ve ever seen from her—and it didn’t end with the Met Gala. At the June launch party for SKKN, her new skincare line, her skin was lighter than it’s been in years. (Sidenote: Khloé is right there with her.) I noticed the same thing when she walked in Balenciaga’s couture show last week. And when the photos for her recent Skims Swim launch recently dropped, I immediately saw a reference to another iconic white woman: Farrah Fawcett.
Confession: while I’ve been thinking and talking about Kardashian’s new look as a ‘return to whiteness’ this week, that’s not exactly what’s going on. As MJ Corey, who covers the famous family through an academic lens on the Instagram account Kardashian Kolloquium, put it, “recent (important) discourse has been that ‘Kim Kardashian is white again,’ which might be another way to say ‘Kim Kardashian is yet again leveraging her racial mutability’ [emphasis mine]. That the Kardashians' success is attributable to Black appropriation is a fact, whether outrage-baiting by donning braids or stealing business names from Black women. Now, as Kim moves on from her marriage to Kanye West—and seems to be having the biggest year her career has ever seen—we are also seeing a starkly blonde and strikingly thin Kim. This, of course, is THE aesthetic from which she was notably othered during her beginnings as Paris Hilton's ‘exotic’ sidekick… As Kim dominates everything in her path, from massive luxury fashion campaigns to ‘breaking the Internet’ all over again with controversial Marilyn Monroe cosplay—she's finally coming for the archetype she was once gatekept from for being too brown.”
Yes—back in the day, when Kardashian was just Paris Hilton’s sidekick, many people joked about her resembling the Disney villain Jafar, which indicates that there was never a point in her public life that she ‘read’ as white to the general public. To be clear, while her identity as a mixed-race Armenian woman does complicate our understanding of her identity (something writer Anya Zoledziowski explored beautifully in a 2020 essay for Vice), and while whiteness itself is a malleable concept that’s more about power and control than it is about phenotypes, Kardashian is legally and sociologically a white woman, and she moves through the world with all the privilege that entails. But at the same time, I think part of the reason she could so easily ‘play’ with race in the first place was because she already read as vaguely ethnic—and it’s fascinating to me that, as she lets go of the visual signifiers of Blackness she has been appropriating for years, she’s not doing so to embrace her own ‘ethnic’ features. Instead, she is turning herself into the type of skinny, blonde, white woman who probably overshadowed her in her youth. She’s still cosplaying on some level.
I think that’s part of why I am simultaneously fascinated and bothered by this new look. If Kardashian and her sisters were finally reverting to their own physical features, maybe I could see that as a sign of personal growth. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, after spending the better part of a decade crafting a signature look (or maybe pastiche is a more accurate description) out of features cherry-picked from Black women—big breasts, a tiny waist, curvy hips and ass, dark skin, bee-stung lips, dark hair—Kardashian is ready to move on from the slim-thick, ethnically ambiguous aesthetic she and her family both popularized and profited from. And I do mean ‘move on.’ Just watch—instead of selling us undergarments and clothing that promise to (but will not) wrangle our bodies into an acceptably slim-thick silhouette and makeup that seems to (but does not) sculpt our cheekbones and plumps our lips, we’ll eventually see them pivot to selling us the perfect blonde locks, or ‘clean girl’ (read: wealthy, white) skin or ultra-skinny bodies.
Also, on a very basic level, this transformation is just annoying. Kardashian has never even acknowledged that her previous aesthetic was totally unrealistic and deeply problematic. In fact, she continues to evade all responsibility for the beauty standard she helped popularize, and now she’s just… moving on because it no longer suits her? Cool, cool, cool.
To be fair, this isn’t restricted to Kardashian. When Justin Timberlake was establishing himself as a solo artist, he deliberately worked with Black producers and mimicked Black artists to signal his adulthood, edginess and sexiness, difficult as that is to imagine based on his most recent attempts at dancing. Then, in 2018, he decided to telegraph his maturity—and all-American whiteness—by making a pop country album, a strategy that we had seen before and would see again, many more times. And, as the Instagram account @darkest.hue pointed out last fall, plenty of white celebrities, including Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, are *currently* “ditching ‘Black’ aesthetics in pursuit of more mature and respected public personas. [They] are wiping off their tans, taking out their butt fillers (allegedly), and publicly dating white men. They are growing out their pixie cuts, decrying Black genres of music and sporting their natural fair skin on their wedding days. They know when to turn Black aesthetics on and off.” There's even a TikTok trend about white girls who have ‘retired’ from being ‘Ghetto Hot Cheeto Girls,’ a.k.a., white girls who appropriate Black and Latinx aesthetics.
Obviously, it takes massive amounts of privilege to be able to don and discard racial signifiers at will. Still, it’s just as important to consider why it no longer suits these women, especially Kardashian, to appropriate Blackness now. At least part of it is about the desire to be seen as refined, respectable and ‘serious.’ @darkest.hue’s most recent post on Kardashian’s new look does an excellent job of breaking down how her exit strategy, which includes continued advocacy, allows her to “preserve her ties with Black people (and still extract social capital) while retiring Black American aesthetics on her road to ‘legitimacy.’” Maybe it also signals a renewed interest in early 2000s aesthetics. But… as right-wing extremists regain influence in mainstream American politics, laws and society, maybe it’s safer to retreat into whiteness? Is it perhaps more politically expedient? And also a smarter long-term business strategy?
Even if she’s not consciously thinking in this vein, I’d argue that on some level, you, me and Kim Kardashian know that the answer to those questions is yes.
Food writer Alicia Kennedy’s excellent feature on how recipe development became a ‘cool’ job.
This retrospective Twitter thread on Y2K-era R&B.
This great radio piece about a new trend in romance novels: food-inspired love stories.
Vulture’s fascinating interview with the team that creates the subtitles on Stranger Things, which tackles accessibility, the ins and outs of crafting captions and why there were so many wet squelches this season.
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