While Kim Kardashian's instantly infamous Paper shoot almost #broketheinternet yesterday, many viewers simply took peeked, groaned, and moved on. (We don't blame them.) But, though this shoot appeared to be just another instance of Kim flaunting her signature asset, the story behind it — and the story behind the story — is one rooted in exploitation and ugly racial stereotypes.
The shoot’s photographer, Jean-Paul Goude, used his 1976 photo, "Carolina Beaumont, New York" (which is more commonly known as "The Champagne Incident"), as the inspiration for the shot in which Kardashian balances a glass on her extended rear. Just as this new photo was clearly altered, so was the original. In the days before Photoshop, Goude often assembled several shots of a model in different positions so as to create a hyperbolized version of her body. It's a method he did frequently with other models, particularly his muse and sometimes-girlfriend, Grace Jones. For example, for her famous Island Life album cover in 1985, Goude explained how he used dozens of photos to create her final "arabesque" pose. "That’s the basis of my entire work," Goude said. "Creating a credible illusion."
It's the "credible illusion" part that raised hackles among viewers and critics of Goude's studies on black female bodies, and Jones in particular. From an early age, "I had jungle fever," the photographer told People in 1979, explaining his habit of exaggerating and eroticizing the features of black women. In "Carolina Beaumont," for example, her ass is not the only standout. Styleite quotes cultural critic Janell Hobson’s take: "The subject wears an 'exotic' hairstyle and ‘smiles’ for the camera in the pose of a 'happy savage pleased to serve.'" Jones became the primary subject of Goude's Jungle Fever book, featuring her in various athletic or exotic scenarios, including the legendary cover shot over her growling like an animal inside a steel cage.
Unsettling as the photos may be to some viewers, Jones was an active artistic collaborator in their creation. However, photos like these clearly reflect the historic fetishizing of the black female body. Yesterday's piece on The Grio brought up the story of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman, an African woman who became a famous "exhibit" in 19th century freak shows. Baartman's body and protuberant buttocks in particular were highlighted as "wild and savage," often illustrated as even larger than they were in reality. Baartman was promoted as a sub-human specimen, and for an extra fee, viewers could even prod her famous rear with a stick. When she died, her genitals were put on display alongside a cast of her body, positioned so as to highlight her extended buttocks.
Paper was explicit in its intentions with the Kim Kardashian photo ("We gave ourselves one assignment: Break The Internet"). So, it’s not entirely fair to assume the champagne shot is a commentary on the complex history of racial exploitation and fetishization of the female form. But, it's also not as simple as "Kim Kardashian Shows Off Her Ass." When looking at a photo like this, it's worth examining the influences behind it and the history therein — much as we'd like to look away.