Kim Kardashian: A much maligned, buxom figure with a strict control of her image. Sounds familiar?
Kanye West tweeted recently in part that “Kim is our modern day everything.” Considering the furore surrounding Kardashian’s now-infamous nude bathroom selfie replete with ironic censor bars, it’s hard to argue with him. Kardashian is at the epicentre of fashion, music, TV and celebrity culture, with her every move making news and causing controversy somewhere.
Wandering through the Marilyn Monroe exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery in regional Victoria, it becomes clear that West is correct: Kardashian is our modern day everything, including the modern day Monroe.
On the surface the similarities are plain: Monroe and Kardashian are the buxom sexual icons of their respective eras. We’re fascinated by their bodies, their clothes and what they do in their spare time. “Candid” snaps of Monroe reading or relaxing at home were published in LIFE magazine and are featured in exhibitions, while Kardashian’s life can be examined through social media and her reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. According to photojournalist Eve Arnold, who took many famous images of Monroe, she always knew when a camera was present and thus Monroe discerned her best angles to transform herself into the goddess we’re familiar with today. Kardashian, followed by the lenses of the paparazzi, reality TV cameras and her own iPhone, has done the same.
Don’t believe me? All we have to do is look at early photos of the two compared with later shots to understand how well they have each come to master their bodies and faces.
But Monroe and Kardashian are alike in less obvious ways, too. Monroe’s visage has consistently been appropriated and degraded in the years since her death, while Kardashian gets to experience that in real time, most recently with a street art reproduction of her above-mentioned selfie in Melbourne being defaced with paint splotches and graffiti declaring her a “slut.” Meanwhile, a 26ft effigy of Monroe takes centre stage in Bendigo with Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn statue being imported to promote the exhibition. Typing the search terms “Forever Marilyn graffiti” into Google Images indicates that, like the Kardashian mural, the statue has been defaced several times throughout its five-year history. For someone with such a tightly-controlled image, one has to wonder what Monroe would make of tourists peering up her stainless steel skirt.
Furthermore, Monroe’s history of exploitation is well documented: nudes taken of her for a calendar before she hit the big time composed Playboy’s first magazine cover, which launched publisher Hugh Hefner into the big time. Monroe was paid $50 for the original photos. Photographer Bert Stern got Monroe drunk and took compromising photographs of her six weeks before her death that were later published in the 1982 coffee table book The Last Sitting. As evidenced by the pin marks in and red crosses through the original images, Monroe did not want these pictures made available to the public, raising questions of consent, privacy and perhaps, revenge porn. And Andy Warhol capitalised on the feverish response to Monroe’s untimely demise by creating the famous Three Marilyns screenprint, rumoured to be within a week of her death.
Both Monroe and Kardashian have been demonised and maligned for deigning to express their sexuality on their own terms, yet we still want to consume their bodies on our terms. So, when Monroe is compromised and vulnerable, it’s somehow preferable to seeing her confident in her body and sexuality. (The same can be said for the celebrities targeted as part of #TheFappening nude photo hack.)
Though the circumstances are different, this exploitation calls to mind our first introduction to Kardashian through the distribution of her sex tape with then-partner Ray J. (Californian privacy laws actually prevent the distribution and profit from celebrity sex tapes without the consent of all parties portrayed in them. Kardashian sued both Ray J and the distributor of the tape, Vivid Entertainment, in 2007 and settled for $5 million that same year.) Monroe and Kardashian are both products of their time, with Monroe having to placate censors and maintain an illusion of innocence despite being the world’s most famous sex symbol, and Kardashian using her otherwise five minutes of infamy to catapult her career to an equivalent and arguably superseding level of fame.
“But what is it that Kardashian actually does?”, you might ask. Critics love to slam Monroe for being a one-trick blonde bombshell as much as they enjoy dressing Kardashian down, so to speak, for “being famous for being famous.” But whereas Monroe’s image was largely manipulated at the behest of the studios and society, Kardashian dictates the consumption of her likeness – a stark contrast to even five years ago when paparazzi and “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” features in gossip magazines were the bread and butter of the celebrity machine.
Kardashian’s trade is her personal life: accessible through her reality show, her social media channels, and her paywalled app. With tools such as these at hand, coupled with more relaxed attitudes to sexuality and womanhood today than in Monroe’s era, it’s not hard to see why Kardashian is perhaps the only woman up to now to reach unparalleled levels of fame and cultural cachet from a sex tape.
But the correlation between Monroe and Kardashian also spawns another question: what if Monroe had an iPhone?
Dr Sue Gillett, a lecturer in humanities from La Trobe University, who posed the question during an address at the La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre in Bendigo in conjunction with the exhibition, elaborated on the idea in an email. “It’s really interesting to speculate, isn’t it!” Gillett wrote. “I actually think she would have shunned it. I think what drove Marilyn was the dynamic between herself and the photographer. I doubt that the seductive way she related to the camera would be achievable via the more narcissistic selfie. What is mesmerising in Marilyn’s photos is the feeling that she is looking right at us. I think she would have hated the intrusiveness of the iPhone, with everyone on the street being able to snap pics of her. It would have exhausted her, because she was always so giving to the public.”
So, those exhibiting moral panic about equating Monroe with Kardashian can rest easy: it’s unlikely Monroe would have published a selfie-esque tome of her own. But, say what you want about Kardashian’s exhaustive selection of selfies: she’s the one disseminating the images. When we see the inevitable exhibitions examining the famous booty and the arguable booty-end of fame that converge in Kardashian fifty years from now, images taken by Eve Arnold and Richard Avedon won’t be displayed in frames on the walls: it’ll be those taken by Kim herself.
Maybe that’s where we can see Marilyn start to end and Kim begin.