What, exactly, is wrong with Kim Kardashian being on the cover of Vogue?
People are furious over the star of the reality series “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” getting onto the cover of the fashion magazine in a clinch with her fiancé, Kanye West, and they’re wrong -- both about Vogue, and about Kardashian.
Take, for example, the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, currently the star of CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” who got disproportionate media attention for tweeting, “Well......I guess I'm canceling my Vogue subscription. Who is with me???” Certainly it is beyond Gellar’s capacious imagination to fantasize a universe in which a public figure might appear with her significant other on the cover of a magazine in order to promote their ongoing projects and boost their shared profile. She'd never do that.
But the general response, within and without Hollywood, to Kardashian’s Vogue cover, has been dispiritingly clueless. You don’t have to think Kardashian is admirable. But to deplore her appearance on the cover of a magazine designed to be bought by consumers is to deeply misunderstand where the culture is.
Let’s start with Vogue: In the years since the fashion bible has moved on from consistently featuring models on its cover, there’s been a growing perception that a Vogue cover means more than itself. It means that the actress or musician on the cover is a standard-bearer not merely for the ability to wear clothes well but for the ability to convey a general sense of classiness and good bearing. The usual suspects include Sandra Bullock (five Vogue covers so far), Charlize Theron (five, too), Sarah Jessica Parker (six) and Nicole Kidman (seven). Among younger actresses, since her rise to fame, the willowy Rooney Mara has been on the cover twice; Sienna Miller, at no point anyone’s idea of a star, three times, including once on the much-coveted September issue that made her effectively the subject of the Vogue documentary “The September Issue.”
There’s no denying that Vogue has a predilection toward the sort of cover model who fits a mold: Merely look at the reaction toward "Girls" creator Lena Dunham’s making the cover, from those who sought to find out the degree to which Dunham had been airbrushed to fit a perceived Vogue mold to those who thought Dunham ought to lean into her uniqueness in a sea of generic starlets. Kardashian's physical shape is unlike the willowy starlets who usually occupy the cover -- it's the reason, indeed, she's famous, unlike usual cover models who appear in tasteful movies.
Doubters aside, Kardashian should have been on the cover of Vogue months before. The world’s Sienna Millers are the women who are “supposed” to be on Vogue, and any time that mold is broken, it should be cause for celebration. Who would you rather read about, a character actress from a movie you half-remember or a woman at the very center of the culture? Vogue generally gets representation wrong. They airbrushed Adele and Kate Winslet beyond recognition in recent memory, and the last time a black man and white woman appeared together on the cover was a (perhaps subconscious) visual nod to King Kong. To see Kardashian looking like herself, and looking happy and in love, on this cover is refreshing.
Moving on to Kardashian herself: Why is Vogue a sacred space, removed from the likes of one of the world’s biggest stars? People may differ about their appreciation, or lack thereof, for Kardashian, but she has been making a go of global fame for seven years (three years longer than Jennifer Lawrence). Something’s connecting. Kim Kardashian has widely been perceived as fame-thirsty both generally, for the unsavory manner in which she first caught the public eye and her subsequent capitalization on it, and specifically, for the manner in which West, her fiancé, advocated for her appearance on a Vogue cover. West made an ill-considered analogy between Kardashian and Michelle Obama, a two-time Vogue cover subject. But he wasn't wrong. Kardashian really is moving the culture. A human being who isn't shaped like a traditional cover model has been treated as a cover-worthy star by magazines including W, Allure, New York and Marie Claire.
What, exactly, is Vogue meant to protect? Is it the same sacred concept that was so violated by Lena Dunham’s cover appearance? Or is something else at work here, the phenomenon that sees West treated as going on "crazy rants" every time he expresses himself in public? He was effectively correct about Kardashian deserving a Vogue cover, because they got one. If you think he was going too far out on a limb -- if, like Jimmy Kimmel, you think West's opinions about fashion are equivalent to those of a child -- then you're out of luck, because fashion's gatekeepers disagree. How uncomfortable a position to be in, to try to keep the gates closed against an interracial couple whose impact keeps getting proven again and again!
Vogue is in the business of selling magazines. Thank heavens it's woken up to the notion that the world’s Kate Bosworths and Jessica Biels are not nearly as appealing as women at the center of the culture, a culture that, without an editor’s eye, chooses its own stars. West and Kardashian are stars of social media, a culture that pushes to the front both the self-promotional and those truly gifted at self-promotion. In 2014, whatever are Kardashian’s gifts are the coin of the realm. Why shouldn’t they be documented in a magazine that purports itself to document what's on-trend? It is just a magazine, not a knighthood.
The James Francos and Seth Rogens of the world will always disagree. Franco and Rogen, two actors who perpetually seem to be promoting something (in Rogen’s case, the upcoming feature film “Neighbors”), have evidently been mad at West and Kardashian for some time: They filmed a parody of a music video West made to celebrate his love of Kardashian, with an evident dual joke. It was gross for Franco and Rogen, who’ve appeared together many times in homosocial scenes, to be worshipping one another’s bodies. It was equally gross for West to be worshipping Kardashian’s body on film because … They left that conundrum for the viewer to fill in.
The implicit racism, or race-cluelessness, of the Franco-Rogen “Bound 2” parody, became text with their parody of the current Vogue cover: Franco’s face was superimposed onto West’s, and Rogen’s onto Kardashian’s. As a general rule, Photoshop jobs in which a white person’s face replaces a black person’s but the black person’s limbs remain intact ought to be avoided for reasons of taste. But there's no joke here besides how absurd it is that West and Kardashian, an engaged couple with a child, might be happy to show off their love and to appear on a magazine cover looking good. Shame on them, I guess. Certainly James Franco would never appear in an exhibitionist shoot in a fashion magazine. Just kidding -- he and Rogen are playing the same game West and Kardashian are. West and Kardashian are just really, really good at it.
Finally, fashion magazines have woken up to the idea that a generic willowy woman who’s been in an indie movie or two is no one’s idea of a star, that fame and legitimate influence can come from many sources. Those who object are only making Kardashian more famous.