It’s complicated. The phrase, which came into popular usage via Facebook and Zuckerberg, to describe a relationship that can’t be neatly defined, can also be used to describe another Noughties phenomenon, and our understanding of it: the Kardashians.
It’s so complicated. And this week, on International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate and inspire women throughout the world, to remind us all to check our privilege while simultaneously fighting for our rights on home turf, and further afield – the internet, and WhatsApp groups, and gangs of young women in bars and on their commutes, and men with newspaper columns, and pop stars and mums and daughters and friends grappled with the complicated Kardsahians, and the most complicated, most controversial, and let’s be honest, most famous, Kardashian of them all: Kim.
On Monday, Kim Kardashian West, a woman who made herself a millionaire by selling her very self as a brand to be bought via apps and even old-fashioned books, posted a picture of herself to Twitter. Taken 11 months ago, it depicted Kim in all her beauty, a vision of idealised womanhood, with full breasts and curving hips and a tiny, tiny waist, with bleached blonde hair and Armenian olive skin, standing naked in the kind of bathroom you can only own if you are a very wealthy American.
“When you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL,” she captioned the picture, inanely, and then went back about her business, running her multi-million dollar empire and bringing up her two children, and doing whatever it is that the superrich do. I don’t know… getting Hydrocolon therapy and sourcing Italian marble and buying up all the new Gucci…
The picture was retweeted tens of thousands of times but hey that’s not that unusual for a Kardashian West missive, and it was the tweets that came after that really began the conversation. Bette Midler got involved, tweeting, “Kim Kardashian tweeted a nude selfie today. If Kim wants us to see a part of her we've never seen, she's gonna have to swallow the camera.” That joke presumably references the fact that Kim became famous after a former partner made public a private sex tape without her permission. Chloe Grace Moretz waded in too, addressing a tweet directly to Kardashian West: “I truly hope you realize how important setting goals are for young women, teaching them we have so much more to offer than … just our bodies.” And then Piers Morgan, a self-appointed expert on telling women whether their own breasts are “appropriate” or not, piped up. “I know the old man's $50 million in debt, Kim - but this is absurd. Want me to buy you some clothes?”
Keeping up with the Kardashians chat is like the conversation that surrounds sexting or porn or anal sex. It’s something that some women enjoy, and some find heinous
Even at that, the chatter might have died out – it was just some celebrities wittering on, trying to look smart or funny – had Kim not decided to get involved in the conversation. But Kim got right back on Twitter and she answered her critics. She called out Bette Midler for sending her gifts and trying to be a “fake friend”, she pointed out that Chloe Grace Moretz had appeared naked on the cover of Nylon magazine, and she accused Piers Morgan of pulling some “ashley madison type sh*t”. She posted another naked picture of herself with the hashtag #liberated. She was funny and knowing and blunt and a little bit mean and a little bit human, and she was basically saying, I want to stand in my bathroom naked and I want to take a picture of that and I want to post it to social media, so screw you.
Piers Morgan took to the Daily Mail – unsurprisingly he feels now that Kim is a 35-year-old mother, nudeness is “depressing”. It was “fun” earlier, when she was younger, you understand. Miley Cyrus called for an end to the “tacky” internet feuding in an International Women’s Day Instagram post. And then Kim Kardashian West herself dropped an open letter. Published on her website and app (Kim is smart, she understands better than most how to make people pay for content), the letter touched on themes of empowerment and agency. “I am empowered by my body,” Kim wrote. “I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.
“I feel so lucky to have grown up surrounded by strong, driven, independent women. The life lessons I’ve learned from my sisters, my mother and my grandmother, I will pass along to my daughter. I want her to be proud of who she is. I want her to be comfortable in her body. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where she is made to feel less-than for embracing everything it means to be a woman.
“It’s 2016. The body-shaming and slut-shaming – it’s like, enough is enough. I will not live my life dictated by the issues you have with my sexuality. You be you and let me be me.”
It’s that “you be you and let me be me” line that is at the crux of the complicated Kardashians, truthfully. It’s that sense of whether we can agree that taking naked pictures of yourself and making money by selling your wedding photos to gossip magazines is true “empowerment”.
“She doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t have talent,” is an oft-cited criticism of Kim, as if Hollywood actors or pop stars are somehow more evolved and more empowered… Surely though, we must believe Kim when she says that this is how she becomes empowered, by controlling her image, by saying, Yeah I know you’ve seen me naked, now see me naked on my terms.
Of course there is more to life than having perfect breasts and a tiny waist but we are patronising Kim to think that she doesn’t know that too. Keeping up with the Kardashians chat is like the conversation that surrounds sexting or porn or anal sex. It’s something that some women enjoy, and some find heinous. It’s a subject that can pull you both ways, as you enjoy it but find it troubling all at the same time.
It’s complicated. And this week, we learnt that Kim Kardashian West knows that it’s complicated, too.