Let’s Talk About Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Gender, and Sexuality

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Let’s Talk About Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Gender, and Sexuality

Erin McKelle

If Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go when it comes to smashing gender roles.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

If you aren’t living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the big news that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West got married, following on the heels of being featured on the April cover of Vogue, with Kardashian wearing what seems to resemble a wedding dress.

There is a lot to celebrate about Kimye’s relationship. They are not playing by society’s traditional rules for relationships and don’t seem to care what anyone thinks about it. For example, they not just became pregnant but had a baby before their wedding and yet avoided the stigma that often goes along with premarital pregnancy. Further, they are both successful entrepreneurs in their own right.

I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Kardashian fan. I’ve been following the family, watching their many TV shows, and wishing that I’d been born with a name that starts with a “K” since 2009. So, I’ve closely watched the relationship between Kardashian and West unfold since they became a couple, and I’m interested in how their relationship as viewed through the public eye reveals that society has enduringly negative approaches to gender and sexuality.

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One of the first things I noticed after they started dating was Kardashian’s drastic wardrobe change. You might remember her in the past having worn a lot of body-conscious dresses, belted tops with leggings or jeans, and bright colors and patterns. Soon after she started dating West, she was seen wearing almost all neutral colors, a lot of leather, and different cuts and fits. Her makeup also became subtler, as her previously signature smoky eye all but disappeared from her look. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there was an episode that featured the inner workings of this change, as West and his stylist threw away most of the contents of Kardashian’s closet and brought in new, high-fashion designs. She was so upset that at one point she started crying. While I understand that as a television show this was probably staged, it just really didn’t seem like a change that she wanted in her own right. In fact, the way it was staged, it seemed to me like Kanye West was making her his personal Barbie doll.

This is not to say that the clothes she wears (or doesn’t wear) define Kardashian; from what we can gather about her in the media, fashion has always been a huge part of her life and her career. Before her fame, she owned a clothing store with her sisters (that now has expanded to include sister stores) and was a wardrobe stylist for celebrities. Now, she has her own clothing line with her sisters, owns jewelry companies, and recently launched a kid’s collection. Fashion is a massive part of her image and something she’s clearly passionate about. What she wears is a big deal to her, or especially her public persona. The public persona distinction is important because Kardashian is a reality TV star, which means that everything she chooses to put on camera is not necessarily who she is but rather a carefully curated image presented for the consumption of others.

As the relationship has progressed, Kardashian seemed to show less of her pre-Kanye personal identity to the public. She was noticeably not as active in her career, and West was noticeably not on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I almost cringed when his name was brought up on camera, since every other partner she has had appeared on the show, and it seems reasonable to expect she probably wanted West to be a part of it. After she gave birth to their daughter North last year, she took leave from her career (although she had a few brief appearance on the show), later joining West in touring around the country. I saw Kardashian putting West’s career ahead of her own, which is not at all like the Kim Kardashian of a couple of years ago.

While Kardashian was briefly married to Kris Humphries, it was reported that he wanted her to move to Minnesota with him and stay home to raise any children they were going to have. She vehemently disagreed and ensured Humphries that she was never going to move to Minnesota and that her career came first. At the very least, this was the perception she chose to present to the public on her reality show. 

Kim Kardashian seems to have changed. Now, if these are things Kardashian wants to do, or are just a part of her personal evolution, more power to her. But there’s something about this that feels … strange.

She has in many ways highlighted (even if not intentionally) the ways in which her relationship with West reflects traditional, sexist ideas about marriage and parenthood. She recently said on Ellen that West “is not a diaper changing kind of guy.” And although she insisted he would in an emergency, she made it very clear on the show that she is the one doing the care-taking. This sort of declared helplessness is a gendered behavior that contributes to sex segregation at work and home, since men are viewed as ignorant and above doing “women’s work.”

During West’s Yeezus tour last year, she joined him for a radio interview he was doing with Angie Martinez. She said she was tagging along to be “wifey for the day,” to which West responded that she was “wifey for the life, now.” That’s fine, but why isn’t West showing up to support Kardashian’s ventures and business dealings? It seems that being “hubby for life” has a different set of rules and criteria—rules that reflect patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality. It also seems like she’s trying to simultaneously appear as a businesswoman who is in control of her brand and image, while also being a loving partner and mother. This metaphorical pull-and-tug comes across as a bit confusing to her audience.

West raps about Kardashian in many of his songs, mostly in sexually explicit and misogynistic ways. A recent example of this is in the remix of “Drunk in Love,” in which West says he knew Kardashian could be his spouse when he “impregnated” her mouth. His valuation of Kardashian as a potential spouse based on sexual performance is an example of objectification.

In his new song that will be featured on Future’s album, he calls her his “number one trophy wife.” He also says about Kardashian’s sisters, “You could look at Kylie, Kendall, Kourtney and Khloe. All your mama ever made was trophies, right?”

You don’t have to read too much into that to see the sexism. West is turning Kardashian into an object, while also erasing all of her and her families’ accomplishments. Let’s not forget all the reality stars that have been discarded by the public. It takes some skill to build a multimillion-dollar reality TV empire. So with this savvy, it’s curious that Kim does not address Kanye’s lyrics about her or other things Kanye-related, beyond him being her partner. Clearly there is more happening than meets the eye.

This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to celebrate when looking at their relationship, however. They are an interracial couple in a nation where only 15 percent of new marriages are interracial (this represents some progress since interracial marriages weren’t even legal in all 50 states until 1967). I think their relationship represents working against what is still considered “the norm”—they’ve faced some public racism against their pairing, with one man harassing Kardashian in a parking lot, allegedly called her a “n- lover.”

It’s also important to note that Kardashian represents a woman using her sexuality for her own gain. Most women who are objectified and praised for their beauty and sexuality (like Kate Upton, for instance) are in industries run by and for men, which is part of a system of exploitation. They are a part of a patriarchal society that treats women as sex objects, that tells them to be sex objects, while simultaneously shaming them for being too sexy. Kardashian has been in control of her own career, and while her sexuality has been a central component of it, she’s always been in the driver’s seat. No one can argue that Kardashian has been a victim of the industry. She’s reinvented it.

West similarly has become one of the most popular rappers of this generation. He clearly has a lot of musical talent and didn’t come from money or prestige. He’s a self-made man who became a household name in music.

They are two people who have made a name for themselves in their respective industries.

This brings me to their recent Vogue spread and cover.

Looking at the photos from that photo shoot critically, a few distinct patterns emerge. For one, in every photo that includes their baby, West is the one holding her, which is a welcome change from the traditionally gendered nature of their relationship. The photos create a transgressive narrative of gender and sexuality, as fathers typically aren’t seen as primary caregivers in society, and pictures tend to act as symbols for wider cultural conditioning. I can’t think of many pictures that feature a heterosexual couple with a baby in which the father is holding the child.

The spread also features Kardashian in a variety of white gowns, seemingly representing wedding dresses. Importantly, the outfits don’t appear particularly sexualized. This is a rarity in a culture of objectification.

The interview itself focused on the dynamics of their relationship. Kardashian was definitely where the interviewer focused though, which was refreshing to see, since the dynamics with heterosexual couples usually place focus on the man, because of our culture’s implicit emphasis on masculinity. Usually the audience is reminded that the woman is feminine—and femininity is devalued in our broader culture even if it is exalted in fashion magazines like Vogue. Interviews that aren’t inherently based in sexism, but reinforce gender, place women in a bind, so that the audience devalues them because of their femininity, and doesn’t respect them. It is, in a word, misogyny.

Kimye’s relationship as represented in the public eye offers fans some possibilities for new models of relationships, but ultimately reenacts many of the traditional dynamics of heterosexual relationships. They are both presented in very gendered ways and they themselves are seen acting out assigned gender roles. For Kardashian, this interacts with misogyny as she is scrutinized in ways West will never be. Gender roles are becoming increasingly destabilized, but if Kimye can show us anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go.