Recently, I attended an excellent conference on the theme of excess and desire in contemporary women’s writing. One of the papers I attended included an analysis of Kim Kardashian’s nude IWD (International Women’s Day) selfie of 2016, using Sartre’s model of the three beings. The paper was delivered by Elese B Dowden, who is a doctoral candidate at UQ, and was titled ‘Keeping Up With Public Discourse: A Sartrean Reading of “Obscene” and Othered Bodies’.
What follows was inspired by that excellent and stimulating paper, but in no way reproduces any of its lucid arguments. Although I found the paper provocative and engaging, I didn’t altogether agree with the author/presenter’s argument, and indeed, during the discussion after she presented, the author stated that she wasn’t ‘altogether’ (if I remember rightly) convinced by it. This is the problem with us academics sometimes: we understand how arguments are constructed well enough to construct robust arguments even where we aren’t sure they’re right. This might also be true of what follows. I’m not at all sure how I feel about this image, or convinced that I have reached any clear or convincing conclusions about what it means or how to read it, or the ensuing online discussions, analysis, etc. I’m simply … messing about with some ideas and personal responses.
What follows, then, is a rambling, ruminative, exploratory bit of blogging that leaps off from the presentation and discussion at the conference, but is in no way Elese’s fault. Whatever is good here was stimulated by her excellent work; whatever is cheap, lazy or otherwise inferior is entirely my own.
I’d love to hear what you think about this image, too. And/or about my ruminations on it.
On March 7, 2016, Kim Kardashian posted yet another selfie of herself in the bathroom. This time naked, albeit with her nipples and pubis hidden behind solid black bars. The pose includes many aspects familiar from Kim’s longstanding habit of selfie-taking and posting. She stands before a mirror, at a sufficient distance that the mirror reflects an image of most of her body. The mirror frame is included in the image, revealing the way in which the image has been produced.
At the focal centre of the famous painting, Las Meninas is a young girl. She is the lightest, brightest part of the painting. Her fair skin and dress are almost luminescent, pearl-white. Her gaze is fixed knowingly on her audience. On you. This type of gaze, although it predates Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze by several centuries, is quite similar to the gaze we (feminists, especially white feminists) might describe as disruptive of the male gaze. The classic female subject of the male gaze–aestheticised as object–does not insist on her status as a subject by looking back. By having eyes that see, a heart that beats, a mind that mourns.
She lounges or leans or primps. She is arranged for his viewing pleasure.
But the Infanta Margaret Teresa is aware of being watched, of having her image (re)produced by the artist, and she challenges her position as a passive subject, or unconscious object. She meets your gaze, and returns it. (She is not the only one whose gaze looks out at you, looking in: the artist on the Infanta’s right, and the dwarf on her left are also watching you. Looking at you looking. Watching you watch).
Hanging on the wall behind the artist and the infanta in this famous image is a mirror. And reflected in the mirror are two figures: Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, the king and his queen. Critics cannot quite agree on who is looking at whom, in this image. Or, to be more precise, whose image is being produced. There are various theories, the major ones are:
- The king and queen are posing for a portrait, which the artist in the painting is working on. We see them facing the artist, and see also the back of the stretched canvas on which their portrait is being produced. Their daughter and her attendants are there … well, they are simply there.
- The mirror image is of a canvas–a painting of the royal couple.
- The painting represents a scene in which the artist is painting a portrait of the Infanta. [I find this the least convincing, perhaps because I find it too difficult to understand why the artist is standing behind his subject.]
Perhaps you’re familiar with this painting, or with one of the other well-known and much discussed paintings featuring a mirror and–perhaps–an artist, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait (1434). Both paintings, in inserting a mirror into the image, create an illusion of something like three-dimensionality. Of the painting looking back–reflecting–a/the viewer, and also breaking the ‘fourth wall’, projecting out of the frame of the painting towards the viewer.
In Las Meninas, as in Kardashian’s image, the image is both an image of a person/people, and an image that shows the means by which the image was produced.
In Las Meninas, several of the subjects of the painting–the infanta, the artist, one of the dwarfs and Nieto (the man in the doorway)–look back at the viewer of the painting. We are watchers, being watched. They gaze back at us out of a moment (a series of moments) that has passed centuries ago. Kardashian, in contrast, is not looking at us. She is not looking into the mirror, either, though (as I’ll come back to) she is instead looking at an image of herself, reproduced on the screen of her phone.
The mirror as (re)produced in Kardashian’s image does something interesting, I think. Something quite particular to the selfie. It makes explicit that Kardashian is the producer of the image, its subject, and (at least one of) its viewer/s. While Las Meninas reveals the artist at work–the back of the stretched canvas tilted on its easel, the brush and palette in his hand–and makes of him a secondary subject within the image, there is little if any suggestion that he is, within the conceit of the painting at least, looking at himself. He is an incidental inclusion, positioned off to the side, leaning backwards into the image to peer around the canvas at the viewer/his subject. In Kardashian’s image, subject/image/artist are all one and the same. In this sense, Kardashian’s image evokes other self-portraits in which the artist makes explicit the use of a mirror in creating the self-image (Parmigianino’s ‘Self-Portrait in a convex mirror’, or more modern works such as Escher’s ‘Hand with Reflecting Sphere’).
Both Las Meninas and Kardashian’s selfie feature an opened door behind the ostensible subject. In Las Meninas, the opened door is inhabited by yet another subject: the queen’s chamberlain, Don José Nieto Velázquez. He appears to hesitate, having pulled back the curtain that hangs over the door, looking back as he leaves the scene of the painting, or pausing before entering into the scene. He, too, appears to look towards the viewer. Towards you.
In the background of Kim Kardashian’s selfie we see a partially-opened door. As in the view beyond the door in Las Meninas, this view is of a blank space, perhaps a corridor or passageway. It has its own light source. There is no figure standing in the doorway in Kardashian’s photograph, but I am struck by its being open. By the added brazenness/boldness suggested by standing naked with one’s back to an open door, focusing not on it, or on who might come through it, but on the mirror before her. The open door suggests something less private than the same scene would suggest were the door closed. It suggests, perhaps, that the artist/subject could not care less who passes by, who sees her, who watches. It suggests that she has nothing to hide. That there is no shame, for her, in either being naked, or in being the producer of an image of her own naked body.
The mirror and its frame might also suggest a window. A window through which we are peeping. We are peeping Toms. Not, however, the classic peeping Tom. Furtive, uninvited. There is no sense, here, that the woman being peeped at does not want to be seen, or is caught unawares. She is, as I’ll come back to, curating herself for you. She is, like Arbus, (and also deeply unlike Arbus) making of herself a subject.
In the section above, I’ve reflected on the ways in which the mirror is used within the painting Las Meninas, and within Kardashian’s selfie. How, in both, they provoke interesting ways of making explicit and complicating the looking/looking back nature of representations of the self and others. I noted the presence of mirrors in many self-portraits. They are often there as props, but also used in ways that make explicit that the artist is looking at themselves in order to produce the image. Kardashian’s image is interesting in the ways it reproduces the intriguing, disruptive, practical or necessary presence of the mirror within the image (rather than attempting to ‘hide’ the use of the mirror in the production of the image), but here I want to ruminate, also, on the use of the camera (in Kardashian, the phone-as-camera) in her selfie.
When I first saw Kardashian’s image, I was struck by how it evoked for me (perhaps not immediately, but quickly) the many other images in which a female artist uses both a mirror and a camera to create a self-portrait.
The image that immediately came to my mind was a particular work by Diane Arbus, an iconic work of hers in which, as in Kardashian’s image, the artist photographs (almost) all of her body, and is (partially) nude.Arbus reproduces here one of the key conceits/features of the self-image with camera and mirror, resulting mostly from the way the tools are used to create the image. Because the artist uses the mirror to see what the camera is seeing, and thereby to ‘pose’ herself, both she and the camera are pointed towards the mirror. The illusion created by this necessity is, more often than not, that of the artist/subject looking (back) at the viewer.
Interestingly, at least in my limited experience, the gaze in these camera/mirror portraits by women is often that of the artist-at-work. It is not the seductive gaze–eroticised, flirtatious–or the assessing or manipulative gaze, or (in the case of that one portrait of a woman at which men have stared for centuries) the mysterious Mona Lisa gaze. It is not the gaze of a woman looking (back) at a man, who is looking at (and either creating or consuming an image of) her. It is not a come-hither stare. (Nor is it a coquettish glance away).
These camera/mirror self-portraits are not of women-looking-back-at-men. These are women looking at art, at themselves-as-art. They seem sometimes, to me, to capture not just images of the self at a particular moment in time, but also images of the artist at work. The artist in conversation with, in relation with, the image.
Curiously, one effect of this, for me at least, as a viewer of these images, is of being the subject of an assessing, curious, evaluative gaze. Not quite critical. Rarely cruel. Not even remotely rapacious or (in the popular sense) desiring. In capturing themselves looking at themselves as art, the artists often offer me the experience of being the subject of an artist’s gaze, rather than a patriarchal male gaze.
The curious nature of the phone-camera, however, results in a slightly different effect.
While the artists in the various mirror/camera self-portraits above fix their gaze on the mirror, literally, and figuratively thereby often on the viewer, the structure of Kardashian’s phone camera is such that she looks not at the mirror, but at the screen of her phone.
Her gaze, like those of these other women photographers, is directed at herself, but the resulting image does not conflate the one-who-is-looked-at with the viewer. Her gaze is not that of the artist evaluating, assessing, considering, and somewhat removed. It is more akin to that of the classic reclining nude (at least, when said nude is not turned away, or lying with her head thrown back over the settee), and even more tellingly of the soft-porn selfie: sleepy eyes, pouty lips, hair down/untied in artful disarray, or descending like a revealing/concealing curtain over part of her face. This is the self arranged/curated by the self for the consumption of the male gaze/Other. The self consciously constructing the self as eroticised object.
But perhaps, also, in that odd way that is rarely discussed, and which I find hard to put into words, the eroticised self curated/arranged/primped for the gaze of other women, too. The self as object in competition with other objects. The self as Ideal Object in competition with other objects, both ideal and … ordinary. The woman, presenting her body as an object for the consumption of the male gaze, and as a model of Ideal Female Body for other women to idealise, compare themselves to. The proud Object which, flattered and ennobled by her achievement of the patriarchal ideal, mistakes her form for an achievement, her body for her self, her self-as-desired-object as empowered and powerful.
The female self who is so attuned to the male gaze, so immersed in and inured to the implied violence of its way of looking, that she looks at herself not with the artist’s gaze–which looks for beauty, grace, the ideal and the ordinary, the strange, the surreal, the subversive and/or the original, the monstrous and the adventurous and the queer–but with the internalised male gaze, which looks at/for that which it desires, that which it can possess.
Finally, just a few little comments about the phone thing. Kardashian’s selfie was taken using a phone camera, probably edited on that phone (i.e.: those black modesty bars were added, perhaps a pre-packaged ‘lens’ effect was selected), and the image was then posted on Instagram, receiving immediate, voluminous responses, both supportive and derisive.
While Velazquez’s painting suggests the production of an artwork, and the various female photographers shown above produce both artworks, and images of artwork being produced, the use of the phone-camera results in the wonder of the selfie. Self-portraits, like Kim Kardashian’s, that are imagined, staged, performed, produced, edited and distributed almost instantaneously, and by the same person. And which duplicate/show many of the instruments and processes of this production of an image, within the image.
In looking at this image (oh, I’ve been looking at it so long!), I’m struck by how the presence of the phone within the image plays a little game with us that is, in some ways, similar to that of Las Meninas, and those self-portraits with cameras and mirrors. It plays tricks with time. It collapses for us, within the image, the moment of creation, and those of editing and distribution. She is taking a photograph of herself taking a photograph.
And where are we, her audience, while she poses for us? Kim is looking at us in her camera, because, for her, that is where we are.
We are not in the mirror. We are in her phone. Waiting not just to look at her, but to comment, hashtag, blog and reblog. The gaze she shares with the phone recreates the false intimacy of the reclining nude in what seems to me an unusual way. The relation reproduced in the image is not between the viewer outside the image and the subject, but between the subject and the viewer inside the image. In looking at her phone, she approximates an image of herself communicating with me.
It is as though the image, in one sense, is of her engaging in a nude FaceTime chat with … well, with you. With me. With Kanye? The image suggests both intimacy (I am looking into you/you-in-my-phone) and surveillance/perversion (You are perving on me while I chat, naked, on my phone). Could you, presuming you were in possession of a suitable phallus, reply with a black-barred dick pic? Is that part of the illusion of this mass-reproduced/shared portrait: that it has escaped the closed circle of art, which invites only critical and evaluative commentary that takes place at a suitably formal distance, and become part of a more truly democratic art-in-dialogue-with-audience-in-real-time.
The image, taken at home, ostensibly ‘candid’, unedited (except for those black bars), is, like reality TV, a simulation of reality, of honesty, of raw, unedited, unexpurgated life. Of a real body, as it really is.
Here the artist brings you into her home. You are in her bathroom, with her. This is just who she really is. And she wants to share it with you. And you. And you.
But this immediacy and spontaneity are both true, and an illusion. Both real and surreal. Which is … confusing. Strange. Interesting.
What I’m clearer about than where the viewer is located in this image, is that the presence of the phone in Kim’s hand makes explicit that in producing the image Kim is aware of her audience, of the male gaze as the ‘audience’ for her work. While the photograph taken with traditional camera/mirror might be lost, unpublished, hidden, the film destroyed, etc, this image, taken on a device not just used for producing but for disseminating images, is only a click away from being shared.
The camera-phone presumes a world in which all images of the self (or, at least, all those taken on it) are not produced merely for private or limited consumption, but for a potentially global audience. An audience of thousands. Millions. Even my own selfies, shared on Insta or FB, are liked, commented on and even sometimes shared not just by friends and family, but by virtual strangers (or, should that be, virtual friends who are RL strangers). The camera-phone is not just an instrument for taking photographs, but for sharing those photographs with a public audience.
And Kardashian, of course, knows this. Implicit in this image is the process of producing an image that is part of the process of producing an Image. An alternative, digitised, shared, distributed, celebrity Self. A desired Self-as-Object.
In the end, I think, one of the things that this image most reminds me of is that public/private place, the dressing room in a women’s clothing store. Yesterday, I went into one of these dressing rooms to try on a pair of pants. There were two women in the cubicle next to mine, trying on various items of clothing. Talking. Giggling. Taking selfies including mirror/camera/phone selfies. And then discussing how they looked in the selfies that they had taken in these new clothes. Did they look hot? Did they look fuckable? Was this image (a new noun for me) a shareable?
These women, less confident perhaps than Kim (though who knows who is outside the door, or around the corner, who is invisibly with Kim Kardashian as she works to choose, edit, frame and share her images), used the mirror/camera/phone nexus to produce images of themselves that they deemed attractive to the male gaze, and then share them online. By the time I had finished trying on my pants–I did not take a selfie, perhaps because the pants were a poor fit and I did not look hot in them, except in the literal sense–they were reading out to each other, and giggling at, the comments they had received on these images.
One girl received a negative comment. I won’t repeat it here. But she responded with a brief but eloquent emoji of some kind, after considerable consultation with her dressing room friend. Girl A (the girl in the photograph) said to her friend, ‘haters gonna hate’, and something along the lines of ‘I’m proud of my body and appearance’, appended by a feminist war-cry-in-the-changeroom ‘GIRLS RULE’. Her friend, Girl B, responded that she should be proud of her body, and those commenting negatively were just jealous of her gorgeous. And if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Much giggling ensued, and taking of more selfies for the express purpose of flaunting ‘it’ via ‘Insta’ and ‘showing those beeyatches’. At least one nipple, judging by the conversation I overheard, was exposed, photographed, and shared.
I was struck by the structural similarity to Kim’s experience. And in particular by the post that Kim made on her blog in response to criticism of her posting of her nude selfie. She wrote, in part:
I am empowered by my body. 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 am glad Kim has words. I, in the face of this experience, had none. Was gobsmacked. Was saddened and confused by what feels, to me, like a co-option of the language of empowerment, of feminism and other equal rights movements, to frame an image that appears, to me, to be an image of a woman so enmeshed within and rewarded by the patriarchy for being beautiful in the way that white heterosexual patriarchal society recognises, that she feels empowered by it.
I was saddened by those girls in the change room next to me. Not trying on clothes and looking in the mirror and deciding whether they looked good, felt good, were comfortable or practical or (yes) flattering, but trying on clothes and deciding whether, in a photograph taken in those clothes, they appeared to be fuckable. Those girls were, it seemed to me, aspiring to be the ultimate object of the male gaze. Those girls who, on deciding they did look fuckable, and posting said pics, responded to any criticism with more images of themselves as even more fuckable, more images in which they felt ’empowered’ by their bodies. Their sexuality.
This is feminism, I thought (I think), but not as I know it.
[Oh, and just in case you need one … here’s a handy dandy Nude Selfie Kit]