Katie Glass salutes the corps of women, led by Kim Kardashian, who are using their ‘erotic capital’ to gain power, money and status
Kim Kardashian solved the problem of what to wear to the Vogue 100 gala last week by turning up in nothing, save a wisp of embroidery smoking around her breasts. She also earned a surprising new fan. Harriet Harman, former deputy leader of the Labour party, declared she found Kardashian’s passion for baring her body empowering.
“The overall message that comes out of the Kardashians is that they are going to make their own decisions . . . They’re not going to be told by anybody what to do . . . there’s a kind of bravery and a pioneering spirit in them,” Harman cheered on Good Morning Britain. Across the couch Piers Morgan — who has claimed Kim’s topless selfies prove “feminism is dead” — guffawed.
To strip or not to strip? Whether flashing flesh is empowering or degrading is a debate ever more urgent as celebrities frantically undress. The long-standing rule that a girl should show either legs or cleavage seems redundant in an age when every red carpet features a nip slip, a side boob or crotch. By the time Kardashian showed her nether regions twinkling beneath a suggestion of sequins, we’d already seen enough female body parts for an issue of Penthouse. Amanda Holden had gone pantless on prime-time TV.
She was rocking a Daz-white gown for the semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent that was floor-length on the right side and non-existent on the left. Clinched at her pelvis, it showed enough skin to make Liz Hurley’s safety-pin dress look like a nun’s habit. Meanwhile, model Bella Hadid, supermodel Gigi’s 19-year-old little sister, dominated the Cannes film festival by walking the red carpet in a slither of silk cut to the thigh and slashed almost to the waist. Was she wearing a C-string? Her stylist felt obliged to clarify Hadid had not gone commando, but was wearing a built-in bodysuit.
Pandora Sykes, Style magazine’s Wardrobe Mistress, says: “There is a trope of dressing among the younger guard of Hollywood I like to call Victoria’s secret style . . . your lithe and sinewy body is showcased in the briefest of fabrics. Torso cut-outs, plunging titty holsters, pelvic peekaboo panels.”
But if flashing flesh is fashionable, are Kardashian, Holden, Hadid et al proving they are in control? Have women finally won the battle to be taken seriously in next to nothing? As the weather heats up and we strip off for summer, it is a debate that concerns all of us.
Catherine Hakim, professional research fellow at the think tank Civitas and author of Honey Money, loves the red carpet flesh show. She thinks it is evidence women are finally capitalising, unashamedly, on their “erotic capital”.
“In the past women who dressed in barely-there clothes were called prostitutes. Now stylistically you can wear sexy clothes and it’s considered socially acceptable. You can also use your physical appearance to become successful. Rihanna may be a singer, but if it weren’t for the outfits she wears, I would never have heard of her. ”
The big change here, Hakim notes, is not so much that women are dressing more revealingly, but that it is finally OK for them to exploit their sexuality for their own ends. “Men have never wanted women to gain power, money or status at men’s expense,” Hakim says. “What is new is that it’s become more acceptable for women to use their erotic capital .”
In the past women who took advantage of their sex appeal weren’t just shamed but ruined by it. Once, a few raunchy pictures could crush a girl’s dreams. In the 1980s actress Koo Stark’s relationship with Prince Andrew ended when it emerged she had been in a “racy film”. That same decade actress Vanessa Williams lost her Miss America title after Penthouse published her naked pictures.
Modern women are reversing this trend. None more so than Kim Kardashian, who turned her leaked sex tape into a multimillion-dollar fortune. Showing off her body did not end her career, it launched it.
As Hakim notes: “[The musician] Prince playing these sorts of games. [The photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe claimed he ‘slept his way to the top’. It’s just that when women do it they get criticised, whereas men don’t.” Nobody bemoans Brad Pitt getting his acting break playing a hot topless hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise nor the model David Gandy for finding fame in his pants. We think nothing of Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik whipping off their tops to publicise a project. Why shouldn’t women take advantage of their assets?
It seems Hakim is right: attitudes to women’s sex appeal are changing. A study by the University of Bedfordshire showed that when undergraduates (with an average age of 21) were asked to judge a woman on her appearance, they ranked her higher for intelligence when she was wearing a more provocative outfit.
It is interesting to consider which females don’t get criticised for undressing. When the comedian Amy Schumer stripped to her pants for the latest Pirelli calendar — slouching, sipping coffee and out of shape — she was applauded for the “empowering” image. Likewise we praise the awkward nudity on Lena Dunham’s television programme Girls. Yet to me, this kind of nudity is problematic. It implies women should show off their bodies only when they are uncomfortable with them. The reason I admire Holden, Kardashian and Hadid is they are confident women relishing their sexual image. This is full frontal feminism. They don’t toy with girlish sexuality.