Perhaps you have before heard of the promotional strategy “Kim Kardashian”. If this is the case, then it is very likely you have no wish to learn anything more about this human product. I undertake, now, to spend no more than 10 sentences describing her historic role as ambassador for the sale of the self. These might hurt, but they will be useful in helping you understand a central concern of the week, and of the present era.

If you ever care to read it (you won’t) the Kardashian biography unfolds as predictably as a new pair of palazzo pants. This pretty daughter of a lawyer on the OJ defence team, this personal assistant of Paris Hilton, this step-child of a motivational athlete was always going to find a function within the popular culture. She was always going to marry the world’s most talented rapper, find fame on a reality TV show and doom her children to the same. She was always going to lend her name to a fragrance, a weight-loss powder, a discount clothing line. She was always going to publish the most widely shared “nude selfies”.

Kardashian is admired by many young women, who also take nude selfies. And that’s OK. After all, Mark Zuckerberg is admired by many young men, and what special thing did he do but write one version of the inevitable code that would make it possible for billions of people to share pictures of Kim Kardashian? And they do. Especially the nudes, so long as these include the little black modesty rectangles that Facebook, such an upright enterprise, demands.

Kardashian should trouble us no more than any other entrepreneur. She is no more “bad for women” than Zuckerberg is bad for men. Which is to say, she is clearly a toxic effect of late capitalism and should probably trouble us a bit. But maybe not in the way she is troubling the two dominant kinds of feminism.

Now, even if you are not especially interested in either Kardashian or feminist disputes, stay with me here. Because you might, I suggest, find enough material to help you think about the very limited space in which many public arguments on ethics play out these days.

[Razer: Bowie, ‘rape culture’, and how feminism became the Westboro Baptist Church]

Both Kardashian and her extraordinary rear are often in the news. The actual, serious news. Why? Yes, because our journalism is largely in the toilet, but also because she takes naked portraits of herself. This apparent autonomy gives newsmakers moral licence to reproduce titillating pictures of a gorgeous naked lady. And then it does something even more underhanded: it gives female consumers the delusion of freedom.

Kardashian, say some influential feminists, is posting pictures voluntarily. They say she is doing “as a woman” and “on her own terms” and other banalities that recall Dustin Hoffman’s skewering of same in Tootsie. Of course, this work, so crucial to the Kardashian brand, is as “voluntary” as any other kind of labour. If you don’t do it, you don’t get paid.

But more interesting than our time’s popular failure to completely ignore the matter of money — we’re all free to do as we want, don’t ya know — is the claim that what Kardashian, and any woman who publishes a photograph of herself nude or otherwise, is doing is moral. It’s good for her. It’s great for her self-esteem and publications of reasonable note agree that it is good not only for her self-esteem, but the self-esteem of all women, and, look, here are some statistics on how men and women aren’t equal.

Just how Kardashian, or any other nude self-portrait taking woman, is going to liberate my gender from a range of awful statistics is never made clear. It’s just presumed that this is the case, because, well, Kardashian is doing things on her terms, as a woman, etc. And, as we know well, such emotional and actual wealth, as Kardashian has, always trickles down.

So that’s the sunny side of the Kardashian/nude selfie reaction. Then there’s the dark disapproval. Persons such as Mamamia’s founder Mia Freedman publicly worry that such practice is bad for young women.

To be fair to Mia, which no one ever is, she doesn’t quite say that the Kardashian-style nude selfie is morally bad. Rather, she says, it’s a health risk. There are plenty of people — among them Melinda Tankard Reist — who fear the “objectification” and “rapification” of just about everything, who say similar things about the harm that can come of nude selfies. Reist, a Christian, is likely doing so quite cynically. Freedman, a person long convinced of the power of media to negatively and positively impact people’s lives, is doing so genuinely. Either way, I think, the argument is unsound.

To say that young women, the specific subject of Mia’s much-discussed column, “don’t know the risks” of taking a nude selfie is bunkum. They have seen the harsh critique that even a nude superstar like Kim Kardashian receives. They are quite likely to know someone whose nude selfie was shared without her consent. They have seen the consequences, and they don’t care.

What kids might not know is how to protect their privacy online, and we should certainly advocate for programs of education that show them, for example, how to remove their GPS data from a photo file. (You should do this as well: look how easy it is for strangers to see where you live!) But telling them that getting their boobs out involves a risk of someone seeing their boobs? They know that already.

So, ultimately, however well-intended, the latter argument about nude selfies — and, believe me, it’s one that has enjoyed a wide and non-stop airing for more than two of our human years — is deeply moral. I mean, of course, I know that I would personally be aghast if my fictional teen daughter delivered her breasts to the world. But I also know that my head is full of irrational fears; among them, that women can be badly damaged by a gaze or that teen girls are not inviolable.

That’s a moral argument; one that says that it’s selfish at best, and risky at worst, to display yourself. But so is the “self-esteem” argument; one advanced by many women well out of their teens. It feels good, they say. It’s fun. And, more than that, it “subverts (the) mode of production”.

[Gloria Steinem’s ideas are feminism’s Paleo diet]

Oh, come on. Taking nude pictures of yourself is akin to seizing the factory machinery, I don’t think. If what you are producing remains a commodity for exchange, then, in the terms of the economics you are arguing, you’ve subverted the marketplace about as much as Uber has. These are still pictures of women. We are still using the image, as we so long have, of a woman to assess her value. That the woman’s own labour (about five seconds on a phone) was used to produce the value of that image means little. That the woman claims to assess her own value means nothing, so long as she places that item in a marketplace of other images. Why put it there, if you’ve already determined its value?

In short, you can use a quasi-economic argument to “prove” that nude selfies are liberating. Or, you could ‘fess up and say that this whole “self-esteem” argument is as fundamentally moralising as the “medical risk” one. This is not about economics any more than it’s about health, and to claim the language of rationalism to explain why some chicks like getting their boobs out is absurd.

It’s good for you. It’s bad for you. Women should keep something for themselves. Women should not think that they are not keeping something for themselves. Jesus, Mary and Jamiroquai, it’s millions of words moralising about tits.

What is rarely spoken about in such a conversation is just how impossibly delusional it is to apply moral arguments to the act of being seen. It’s something that happens at a level much deeper than morality and, while it’s true that online safety and “slut shaming” are important issues, it is also true that neither of these things can even begin to explain, let alone remediate, a very complex phenomenon such as being a woman being looked at.

The point being, we increasingly delude ourselves that there are simple moral positions to take even on human matters that the best psychoanalysts have failed to explain. The narrow morality — it’s good or it’s bad — claims all intellectual territory, and this is why one feminist is able to say something manifestly absurd like “young women just don’t understand that if they show their tits, someone might see them” and another is able to ignore the brutal morality of a statement like “Kim Kardashian is good for women”.

What just might be “good for women” — and I really can’t claim to know — is if they organised a month-long selfie strike. Just to see what happens. And what might be good for all public speech is if it owned up, at the very least, to the tiny range of moral statements it permits itself.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey