The photos from Paper magazine's recent shoot with Kim Kardashian have generated a storm of debate online, apparently delivering on their promise to "break the Internet." These photos of the self-made celebrity have been accused of being many things (including both "feminist" and "anti-feminist"), but one of the more interesting debates has centered on race: namely, the dynamics of race and power seen in the translation of an original 1976 photo (featuring model Carolina Beaumont) to its 2014 successor featuring Kardashian. The photograph of Kardashian, writes Hannah Ongley of Stileite, communicates an entirely different message than that of Beaumont, one in which Kardashian implicitly endorses the fetishization of the original model's body by adopting her stance, physique, and actions without sacrificing very obvious status symbols such as her pearls and dress.
Carolina Beaumont, pictured left; Kim Kardashian, pictured right. Image courtesy Stileite.
This incident of fetishization—intentional or otherwise—is the latest in a long history of appropriation and commodification that haunts the body of the racial Other. Specifically, the focus on the naked body of the Other (racial, cultural, sexual, or otherwise) draws attention away from the thinking, feeling selves to whom these bodies belong.
Thankfully, modern communications technology restores speaking power to those whose bodies are Othered, a fact highlighted by an episode in June 2013 when American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer resisted the body narrative placed upon her by British tabloid the Daily Mail. However, social media platforms and equal-opportunity share spaces are a relatively new invention, and this freedom to defend one's personhood through broadcast media is a relatively new one.
A more famous episode of fetishization comes from the early 19th century, when Khoikhoi woman Saartjie Baartman (known internationally as the “Hottentot Venus”) was exhibited in British and French sideshows for the benefit of her managers and wealthy exhibition-goers. Unlike Beaumont and Palmer, the issue of Baartman's consent and agency persists, still debated by those who defend her right to commercialize herself and those who protest she was abused by her managers. Records survive of an interview with Baarman in which she expressed that she participated in these sideshows of her own free will. Her early death (Baartman died at the age of 25) does however suggest that she endured toxic physical and mental conditions. These conditions were evidently ignored in order to better exploit and fetishize her body.
|A 19th century print depicting Baartman, here surrounded by an audience. Image courtesy Wikipedia.|
In all of these cases, money has played a pivotal role in the fetishization of the racial and sexual Other. Whether it be selling magazines or hawking sideshow tickets, the body of the Other is a valuable commodity and one which generates the best profits when stripped naked.
These same trends are seen in the “travelogue” of Sir John Mandeville, a rambling bit of fiction which takes great joy in inventing and detailing monstrous and intensely physical racial Others. Whether describing Indian men whose testicles hang to their thighs, Amazons who cut off their breasts, “hermaphrodite” people on an island in the Indian Ocean, or men with dogs' heads, Mandeville invests significant time describing the appearance of the racial Other and substantially less detailing her personality or pursuits. When he does describe the habits or disposition of these people, they—like their bodily descriptions—are visceral and corporeal, often involving bathing, eating, and other such body-centric activities.
|Some of the types of "people" found in the East, according to Sir John Mandeville. Image courtesy Anatomy of Norbiton.|
Only those Others of great esteem (for instance, the Sultan or the Great Khan and his people) are described primarily by their behaviors and their thoughts; these same Others are saved the embarrassing full-body reveal so often given to the “strange” peoples of the East.
I argue that Mandeville—like a modern magazine editor or 19th century sideshow manager—was invested in the sale of his book and relied upon the body of the racial Other to generate fetish value and to increase his sales. Though it could be argued that Mandeville's appropriation was a victimless one (as most of his “strange peoples” were made up and thus could hardly be maligned), they contributed to a stereotype of Easterners as sexually submissive, violent, and—above all else—limited to their bodies and to physicality. Some of these stereotypes persist in the 21st century, indicating the effectiveness of such fetishization but also its power to have long-term consequences.