Asses of Fire: Why Kim Kardashian’s Magazine Shoot Failed to ‘Break the Internet’Paper Magazine
Imagine, just for a moment, that Kim Kardashian West’s carefully oiled tush actually did have the power to “break the Internet.” One twitch of that famous padding, one subconscious clench, and all the smart-asses would be silenced, all the smart homes would turn dumb.
I like to imagine that the Internet’s breakage would unfold slowly and splotchily, like adolescence — each new discovery more frightening and unsettling than the last. First some poor cashier in Wisconsin would raise a quick eyebrow. “Well, gosh, ma’am, I’m sorry, our system seems to be on the fritz,” she would cluck, not particularly worried at first. “Let’s just try this once more and see if we can’t ring you right up.” As she’d swipe the card again, somewhere in Florida a whole county library would go dark. Good thing the place never had gotten around to ripping out all those paper cards from back in the day. “Just the way I used to do it!” an elderly patron would proclaim joyfully upon checking out a book analog-style, with nary a keystroke involved in the transaction.
Within the hour, reports of Wi-Fi not working and cable being kaput would be streaming in from all over the country, and even the world. Planes would fall from the skies. Seamless orders would go cold. Shaky governments would topple and Wall Street traders amped to bail early would be utterly unsure of how to proceed in a world sans iMessage. Ulysses? Dorrian’s? Thoughts? they would text, again and again, scoffing each time that it failed.
Chaos everywhere, and all of it hinging upon the controversial beauty of one glistening, zaftig derrière.
“I remember a time when big butts weren’t in any way sexy,” Kardashian West told the British version of GQ this fall. “I spent my college years getting my butt spanked in corridors and stuffing myself into tiny jeans, wearing floaty tops to hide my muffin top.”
The interview was part of a cover package that declared Kim the magazine’s Woman of the Year and featured a photo spread familiar to anyone who has ever thumbed through a lad mag. Kardashian is nude, dead-eyed, strategically splayed on a set of silver satin sheets, her facial features contorting almost imperceptibly from fully blank to faux-orgasmic and back again. She looked bored and boring, and there was such a backlash that the American version of the publication, which was not involved with any of this, was moved to issue a clarifying tweet: “Good morning, citizens of the UK. We’re still GQ US, and we still give no awards. Congratulations on the new royal baby, though.”
What is it about the Kardashians that causes so many people to trip all over themselves to offer snide remarks about the family’s past and Kim’s ass and everyone’s (lack of) class? As reality TV goes, Keeping Up With the Kardashians can be deeply uneventful. A whole hour might pass by without any of the characters ever leaving their bedrooms, much less the house. When they do sally past the McMansion gates, it’s usually in the detached safety of a fleet of black SUVs, and typically to make a paid appearance. Sometimes they go all out and take grand vacations during which they mostly pout and fight and talk extra slowly to the locals.
I have zero misconceptions about what one of my favorite shows is really about. I know that it’s staged, and I know that it’s the brainchild of a demon capitalist mombeast,1 and I know that the whole family’s lives are lived inside a silly bubble of such rarefied air that mere mortals would suffocate if we tried to poke our heads in. But I’ve also seen plenty of other reality shows that check all of these boxes, and few of them are bolstered by the genuine humanity present in the Kardashians. Sisters gang up on sisters, sisters gang up on mom, spoiled younger siblings take advantage of the hard-fought paths their elders have paved, half-brothers advocate for their browbeaten father, significant others learn quickly to fall in line or pay the price, feelings are hurt, drinking problems are addressed, dog poop is shrieked over, messes are made — and eventually cleaned up, resentfully, by those who did not make them.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
But there’s also something strangely Victorian about all of it. In the way an old family’s hopes might rest on their most marriageable daughter, the Kardashians all exude the understanding that Kim is their true meal ticket, their most valuable prize. Kourtney is gorgeous and tiny and chill; Khloe is a hilarious homebody who loves to hang with li’l Kylie and Kendall when she’s not baby-talking a boyfriend. (And Rob … we don’t speak of Rob.) But Kim is the family’s working girl, “the famous one,” the one who keeps this whole venture not just on the rails, but gaining steam. Doing so involves an endless stream of appearances and hairdressers arriving at hotel suites at 5 a.m. and promotional Twitter hashtags and magazine shoots.
So many magazine shoots.
Paper is the kind of hip, pretty magazine that shows up on the coffee tables in chic hotel rooms and tells you, in a down-to-earth yet aspirational way, whom you should be reading and wearing and seeing and hating. “We’re distributed in hotels, like the Chateau [Marmont] or the Standard,” editorial director Mickey Boardman told New York Magazine. His publication had worked with Kim and Khloe once before, he said, for a social media issue, “and literally, they were the nicest, easiest people to work with, shockingly enough … on time, nice to everybody, tweeted out a link.”
Later in the interview, Boardman mentions the Kardashians’ punctuality once again; it clearly made an impression on him, probably because it was the opposite of what he was expecting. You’d think — given the strange netherworld that the family lives in — that they’d be a bunch of monsters. But while many celebrities see a magazine shoot as something they do to, say, promote a new movie, the Kardashians are the movie, and these sorts of appearances are as integral and important to their own brand of showbiz as, say, reading a script. Their work may be more like gork, as Alex Pappademas explained it, but to them, that gork is no joke.
Kim agreed to do the session (for bubkes, supposedly) thanks to the lure of Jean-Paul Goude, a famous photographer known variously for formerly being Esquire’s art director, creating Chanel advertisements, and having a professional and personal relationship with the model and singer Grace Jones. “Jean-Paul and Kim hit it off and they asked everyone to leave and they both got creative,” reported E! Online. “No publicist, no magazine execs.” Whether or not this is true, it’s clear that the shoot wasn’t your usual bend-’n’-snap in front of a white screen. “This is going to break the Internet,” Paper’s chief creative officer reportedly said as he planned the cover in Paris this spring.
It’s not hard to see why he would feel that way. In one of the photos, Kardashian West is wearing pearls and a black sequiny evening dress — and balancing a champagne coupe on her ample rear end. (It’s an updated version of one of Goude’s old photos, featuring the model Carolina Beaumont [NSFW].)2 In another, Kim’s tearing that dress right off. In a third, she’s Lady Got Back. In a final shot she’s facing front, fully naked, the dress mostly in tatters in her hands.
In all of the photos, she’s smizing — and smiling! — in a way she never did for British GQ. After having been “met with a cool shoulder” by the high-fashion crowd a couple of years ago, working with someone like Goude must have felt to her like high art.
To many observers, though, the resulting pictures looked less like art and more like Photoshop. (Never mind that Goude was proto-Photoshopping before computers were even mainstream; to create the cover image for Grace Jones’s album Island Life, he literally cut and pasted.)3 All the familiar Kim reactions were invoked: What has she done to deserve this? Fake fake fake! Consult the Book of Revelation! Isn’t she supposed to be a mother and wife?
Added to these were some legitimate critiques, the kind this sort of photo shoot is supposed to provoke, most importantly the idea that Goude’s work contained problematic racial overtones that weren’t being examined closely enough. The original Champagne Incident photo, for example, was posed in a manner that made it reminiscent of Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. the “Hottentot Venus.” Grace Jones was clearly Goude’s muse, and much of his work was groundbreaking, but it’s impossible not to flinch when you read his quotes about his own “jungle fever.” And Khloe didn’t help by making a racially insensitive Instagram joke on Wednesday that prompted the following CNN headline: “More Kardashian controversy: from butts to the ‘KKK.’”
Khloe was far from the only one. Almost as soon as Kim’s photos were up on the Internet, they were being modded in one way or another. Dane Cook melted her hard ass into cellulite. Someone pointed out her resemblance to a centaur. BuzzFeed wrote post upon post about the pics. (And all this was before the full-frontal ones hit the web.) Twitter comedians tried their best to weave Kim and her posterior into any and all current material — I saw a lot of bad jokes that somehow involved her and that comet we just landed on. Even Hamburger Helper’s Twitter presence, inexplicably, weighed in. (Speaking of Twitter, if you want to find the dumbest thing to be posted there all day, it had nothing to do with Kardashian West — it was Twitter’s own “trash heap of jargon.”)
Just another day on the Internet, same as it ever was.
And so we come to the inevitable conclusion: A magazine with a name referencing the very dead trees it is printed on watches as its cover does nothing more than demonstrate what a ruthlessly efficient machine the Internet has become. Paper Magazine didn’t break the Internet, and neither did Kim Kardashian West. If anything, they just fueled it — poured some accelerant on its eternal flame, lit a match, then stepped back to watch the world burn. At least they had a great view.