News & Politics

The Booty Quotient: How Pop Culture Has Played Race in Kim Kardashian's Rise to Fame

What Kim Kardashian's rise to fame and fortune -- predicated mostly on her curves -- tell us about race, ethnicity and beauty in pop culture.

“Kim Kardashian, she’s the closest thing the culture has to Marilyn.”

A colleague of mine said this as we chatted about her rising celebrity and growing brand, which has most recently manifested in the upcoming Kardashian Kollection, an apparel line set to launch in August at Sears.

The idea of Kardashian being a kind of quasi Marilyn Monroe for the 21st century is debatable, yet plausible -- both women are celebrated primarily for their beauty, voluptuousness, sexuality, and sex symbol status. However, women like Monroe -- or Farrah Fawcett, Raquel Welch or Pam Grier -- built long-lasting legacies first as actresses, eventually rising to iconic status. Kardashian’s legacy is somewhere between a sex tape and reality TV stardom. Certainly part of her appeal to her audience is how she is exoticized within the culture -- she's a white woman in possession of what are traditionally considered to be black female assets. So how does Kim Kardashian’s celebrity complicate the way we talk about whiteness, privilege and sex symbol status?

Kim Kardashian’s formidable brand has evolved directly from the media’s intense interest in her curves -- her booty, in particular. But those very assets that uphold her notoriety are considered standard for black women, who are often marginalized in representations of beauty. In our culture, physical features often associated with black women (full lips, big butts, etc.) are most often celebrated when part of a non-black woman’s physique, e.g. Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian. Professor Patricia Hill Collins writes:

“In order to be marketed, black sexuality need not be associated solely with bodies that have been racially classified as ‘black.’ Western imaginations have long filled in the color… depending on the needs of the situation.”

Kardashian is fascinating as an embodiment of this persona; she exists within whiteness, yet is representative of a different or “exotic” aesthetic that varies from pop culture’s usually singular representation of whiteness (and white audiences). Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious, writes: “Our current limitations on the entire concept of ‘race’ make it hard to come up with a term that would accurately describe the Kardashian sisters.”

Specifically, Kim Kardashian’s ethnic Armenian ancestry (she’s also half Scottish/Dutch) figures prominently into her fame and the media image she invokes, especially when discussing her curves. An interview she did with Harper’s Bazaar illuminates this fact:

"I don't get why everyone is always going on about my butt. I'm Armenian. It's normal." Growing up in Los Angeles surrounded by blonde California girls, the five-foot-two-and-a-half-inch brunette found solace in the vintage images of Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch tacked on her wall. "Those became the healthy bodies to look up to. Then came Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez. I related to them."


Kardashian's fame betrays so much about the way American culture rewards (and exports) notions of female beauty and visibility based on race, color and ethnicity. Recently, Kim's disapproval of her full-frontal cover spread for W Magazine's “Art” issue made headlines, and framed an episode of Kourtney and Kim Take New York. Feeling she had been mislead, Kim expressed anger at her nude body, in particular the presentation of her breasts and nipples, believing they would be more adequately covered come publication. A spokesperson for W replied:

“In keeping in line with the theme of W Magazine’s November Art Issue, Kim Kardashian’s cover was conceived as an artistic collaboration with well-known artist Barbara Kruger, and was a meditation on the influence that reality TV has on contemporary culture. The inside portfolio documented the career and power of Kim Kardashian as a work of art, using the language of artists like Jeff Koons (see Rabbit) and Gilbert & George (see The Singing Sculpture).”

Most notable is the line, “Kardashian as a work of art, using the language of artists like Jeff Koons…” Jeff Koons' aesthetic is especially concentrated in female nudes, where breasts are prominent, mingling both the sacred and profane. Many magazines featuring Kim seem to work out of this idea by also incorporating the idea of the “exotic woman,” i.e. her March 2011 spread in Harper’s Bazaar as Cleopatra.

In December, Kardashian’s stardom reached its most significant mark yet, as she became the world’s highest paid reality star of 2010, earning $6 million. With a bevy of endorsements, reality TV shows, and lucrative public appearances, Kardashian enjoys a ubiquity that few reality TV stars have managed to achieve, despite having no discernible talent. Certainly it helps that the Kardashian brand is maturing into a family brand, that includes her mother Kris, two sisters Kourtney and Khloe, two half sisters Kendall and Kylie, brother Robert and stepfather Bruce Jenner, who are now minor stars in their own right. But Kim is the star. January’s premiere of "Kourtney and Kim Take New York," the third series on the E! Network chronicling Kim and any number of the Kardashian clan, claimed 3 million viewers -- the largest season premiere of the Kardashian franchise thus far.

Since 2007, Kim Kardashian's fame quotient has continued to grow. By many accounts, she was the queen of magazine covers in 2010, many of her covers the best-selling issues of last year. She is paid thousands upon thousands of dollars for each sponsorship tweet she makes to her over 6 million followers on Twitter. Kim Kardashian seems indomitable, and her fame has no foreseeable end. There is no question that she is stunning. But her celebrity is a case study for the ways in which ethnicity, race and color can maintain -- or obscure -- a long-lasting career beyond reality TV.

Courtney Young is a Manhattan-based popular culture writer. She’s written for several publications such as The Huffington Post, The Nation and The Grio. You can follow her on twitter @cocacy.