Death jostled our usual holiday traditions, so my family spent last Thanksgiving with friends in Hastings-on-Hudson. I was seated at the kids’ table, millennials edition, which naturally meant an hour-long tangle of a conversation about Kanye West. I announced that I think of Kanye as a musical genius, but added that he struck me as something of a megalomaniac, given his remark to the Times, “I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.” The young man sitting beside me, lanky and exquisite and recently out of Middlebury, took umbrage. Kanye, he insisted, spoke publicly about feeling barred from the highest level of our cultural institutions. Dismissing him as one splinter less than fully sane—failing to grasp or grant his full prowess—made me part of the problem. My comment was “raced,” he said.
On his “Yeezus” Tour, Kanye has denounced, again and again, what he sees as the fashion industry’s racism; his rallying cry is that the industry has stifled the pursuit of his grand ambitions and tried to tell him where he can and cannot go. In Las Vegas, last October, he said:
“They didn’t let us in the fashion shows. That’s what you don’t realize. We were in there like… just like my momma was when she was 6 years old getting arrested at the sit-ins. My momma was raised in the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin. Doing clothes you would’ve thought I had help, but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.”
In a discussion with Bret Easton Ellis last November, Kanye said, “I kind of saw that side of what it was, as a creative, to be free, the parallel to the main character in Twelve Years a Slave. When it was taken away from me, it felt like what it felt like as a creative to be enslaved.”
Considering his anger and his desire to break into traditional, and traditionally white, institutions of cultural prestige—discussion of art-collecting in hip hop has not gone unnoticed—many have wondered about his choice for a partner in Kim Kardashian. Kardashian rose to prominence through a sex tape with the musician Ray J, and used her fame and selfies—where duck lips and derrieres reign—to catapult into reality stardom with the show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The series, now on its ninth season, focuses on Kim and her sisters Kourtney and Khloé, their mother Kris, and other family members. Before the fifth season aired, the fashion personality Tim Gunn articulated the disdain of the crowd currently seeking to keep the show out of the Hamptons when he commented on Kim’s “vulgar” look: “It has a cheapness and a tawdriness.” The Kardashians, Gunn said, “have an absence of taste and I don’t think that that should be perpetuated.”
Kim and Kanye are engaged to be married (in Paris—no, Florence), and have a daughter, North, who was born last June. Whether or not you agree with Gunn’s view, Kanye’s alliance with Kim, weighed against his wish to be seen as a tastemaker on par with the likes of Ralph Lauren, startles. He is glaringly self-serious; she seems like the least serious of all American dreamers. But it just might be possible that her unseriousness is beside the point. Kardashian may have no recognizable talent, at least in our dull and traditional understanding of the word, but her every move makes waves, and money. Whether her wealth or fame came first is a chicken or the egg conundrum; they’re there, and they give her power, which gives her clout. Very quietly—so quietly you may not have noticed, beneath the loud clothes and glamour shots—Kim has deployed her branding savvy to push herself, and Kanye too, toward a seat of cultural prestige. These days, she’s even speaking more like the culturally prestigious. And the institutions—brands—of traditional power are starting to take note. In the age of Instagram, her popularity makes it difficult for certain doors to stay closed to her.
In some ways, Kardashian’s relationship with politics is a case study of what Kanye has faced. When Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, in 2012, Kardashian took to her blog (and her Twitter page, and a press release), to celebrate:
Wow… I just heard that President Obama has officially announced that he supports gay marriage!! This is such a huge step forward in our country’s fight for civil rights and I hope that today this will give hope to so many young people across the country. We’ve never had a president so supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and today I am proud to be an American!! I’m so happy that our country is making history and moving forward. No more living in the past!”
That same year, Kardashian reportedly approached the President repeatedly to campaign for his re-election bid. Each time, she was rebuffed. A source told Radar, echoing Tim Gunn’s earlier remarks, “They wanted nothing to do with her… Kim is political poison. Having her involved in a political event or with a candidate is the last thing people who are serious about getting elected want.” Nonetheless, Kim skipped “the bulk of Fashion Week” that fall to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, where she hosted an official afterparty.
It wasn’t enough to get Obama, the following summer, to avoid a dig at Kimye in an interview with Amazon. While recollecting his childhood, the president said, “I don’t think people went around saying to themselves: ‘I need to have a 10,000 square foot house.’ We weren’t exposed to things we didn’t have in the same way kids these days are. There was not that window into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Kids weren’t monitoring every day what Kim Kardashian was wearing, or where Kanye West was going on vacation, and thinking that somehow that was the mark of success.”
Since then, Kim has come out for another candidate: the independent Marianne Williamson, a New Age guru who also counts Dennis Kucinich and Alanis Morisette on her side in the race for House seat for the California District 33. Four weeks ago, Kim posted on Instagram that she “went to hear @mariannewilliamson speak the other night w @kourtneykardash & @rachel_roy. Very inspiring! To learn more about her go to MarianneForCongress.com #vote #june3rd.” Her participation caused The Daily Mail, New York Magazine, and E! to cover the campaign.
Meanwhile, Kim has been sounding more and more like the enlightened punditry, or at least like the ladies who lunch at Cipriani’s for causes. The other week, days before her first Mother’s Day as a mom, Kardashian took to her blog to note what was “On My Mind.” “I never knew how much being a mom would change me,” she began. “It’s a beautiful thing to feel and experience so much more, but with that beauty comes a flip side – seeing through my daughter’s eyes the side of life that isn’t always so pretty.” She went on:
To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought. It is obviously a topic that Kanye is passionate about, but I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else’s battle. But recently, I’ve read and personally experienced some incidents that have sickened me and made me take notice. I realize that racism and discrimination are still alive, and just as hateful and deadly as they ever have been.
I feel a responsibility as a mother, a public figure, a human being, to do what I can to make sure that not only my child, but all children, don’t have to grow up in a world where they are judged by the color of their skin, or their gender, or their sexual orientation. I want my daughter growing up in a world where love for one another is the most important thing.
So the first step I’m taking is to stop pretending like this isn’t my issue or my problem, because it is, it’s everyone’s… because the California teenager who was harassed and killed by his classmates for being gay, the teenage blogger in Pakistan who was shot on her school bus for speaking out in favor of women’s rights, the boy in Florida who was wrongly accused of committing a crime and ultimately killed because of the color of his skin, they are all someone’s son and someone’s daughter and it is our responsibility to give them a voice and speak out for those who can’t and hopefully in the process, ensure that hate is something our children never have to see.
It does strain credibility, somewhat, that a thirty-three year old woman of color with Kardashian’s exposure and experience could have come this far without taking notice. She is a woman, of an unmistakable klatch (capital K?) of women. She is of Armenian heritage, and aware of the national history that entails. On April 24, she wrote, “April 24,1915 it was 99 years ago today 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a massacre. Let’s not stay in denial because it happened! Let’s recognize it!” She has discussed sexuality on her show, “exploring” whether her close friend Jonathan Cheban might be gay. She has dated men of a number of different races, including a number of high profile African-American men, and faced a particularly ugly kind of “slut shaming” for it. Her late father, Robert Kardashian, was among O.J. Simpson’s closest friends, as well as his defense attorney. (According to the Times, “Mr. Simpson stayed at Mr. Kardashian’s home in the days after Mr. Simpson’s former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman were stabbed to death in 1994.”) Kim’s parents had divorced by then, but she could hardly have avoided knowing about one of the most racially charged criminal cases of all time. It’s difficult to imagine how she could have “never really [given] racism or discrimination a lot of thought,” when gender and race biases have been a part of her life—and, it must be said, class bias. The media, from the fore, have tarred her and her family as hopelessly tacky and nouveau riche; the country of WASP heritage loves to loathe a parvenu.
But it’s clear now that she is ascending in the eyes of the establishment, if only due to her overwhelming popularity: She and Kanye, and all of their millions of followers, had the might and the clout to make them the first interracial couple on the cover of Vogue. Now she’s raising awareness for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, sitting with a one-hundred-year-old survivor of the Armenian genocide at a gala for the USC Shoah foundation and writing of our responsibility to create a world where little baby North won’t be judged by the color of her skin, her gender, or her sexual orientation. Kim has won over the fashion bible and its queen impresario, Anna Wintour—who has herself charmed, even conquered, the Obamas—begging the question: how much longer will the president keep her at bay? Why not, at least, get her to do an Obamacare ad? She’s the most-watched woman in America.
Given Kanye’s wish to access the highbrow demi-monde, Kim may really be The One. Time will tell, but the light of history may be as kind to her as the Instagram filters she uses. Already, I’m thinking my Thanskgiving dinner companion may be right: who am I to mock Kanye’s superlative claim to culture, when he’s tethering himself to a woman who can seemingly will herself anywhere?