Throughout history, women have been regarded as housekeepers, sex symbols, and more recently as equals in intellect and appearance. From Helen of Troy to Kim Kardashian, women have been constantly defining their roles and powers in a patriarchal society. Yet what exactly has given them the power? What exactly has given Helen and Kim the power to decide or make decisions for themselves? My answer: the Gaultier concept.
Two years ago, Gaultier came to our city to exhibit his runway collections at our local museum. Rather than remembering his journey from the “Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” what I remember was written in small cursive print hidden from the stark white lights behind the models. Although I cannot remember the exact words, I can still recall he defined the corset as a device for freedom from oppression. Liberation. A device that was envisioned by many as a symbol of a constricted past, he viewed as a contraption that freed the boundaries and limitations of a prior era.
This concept has bothered me continuously. How can a device that hurt women be seen as a sign of liberation? It seemed to be a paradox, a contradiction that continuously reminded us of inequality and repression. And then I saw this picture:
At the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, Kim Kardashian was strutting her voluptuous curves in an effort to make an impact on the audience. And she did make an impact. In fact, she has impressed and confounded us. Sex symbol. Feminist. What exactly has she become in our eyes? Glorifying sex and scandals, Kim Kardashian has not been one to shy away from the camera. We laugh and insult her. Insult her for her camera readiness, her overly done face, her propensity to fall under the public’s eye, and her sexiness.
Her dedication to marketing her body and gaining thousands of endorsements confuse our interpretation of equality in America. How can a woman that uses her “stupidity” and a negatively perceived show earn one of the highest salaries of the year? How can our culture and media be addicted to following her every move, laughing at her trivial concerns? We blame America’s lack of interest in intelligent media these days, but I think it is more complicated than that. She has become our modern day Helen. Our modern day retelling of the “face that launched a thousand” cameras.
Before I can discuss her power in greater detail, let us look at Helen. The Greek sex symbol. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, a demi-god in the world of the Greeks. The name itself brings a sense of disdain for those who have read The Odyssey and The Illiad. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, she was seen as the desperate woman who Menelaus eventually does not kill despite the protests of the angered populace.Through her begging for mercy and promises of sexual favors, she convinced Menelaus she was worth the trouble she had apparently brought through the Trojan War. In The Odyssey, she is remarked on for being lofty and apathetic towards the troubles of others. When Telemachus, the son of the revered voyageur, visits Sparta, he comments about the blissful selfish life that Helen leads, and her superficial regret toward her involvement in the Trojan War.
Before you ask me the relevance of Helen and her supposed inferiority toward the men who rule her life, I ask you two questions: First, who are the authors of these plays? And second, is she not powerful indeed? The first question can be answered very simply. Men. Euripides and Homer have been depicted through various historical records and statues as men. Thus, their interpretation of a woman who has the capability to direct their lives is highly biased. In Greek society, women were meant to stabilize the household rather than disrupt it. Yet that does not mean their opinions are not valid. If we dig deeper, we can understand the power that Helen truly held.
If power was determined by survival, is she not powerful? Although she falls under the mercy of a man at all times (her father, Menelaus, Paris), her power to constantly control the situation truly shows how much strength she possessed. She created an illusion of weakness as a method to make her own decisions, or lead others to the same conclusions. It is the ultimate deception and she is the perfect example of the Gaultier concept – the corset. Seen as constantly weak, Helen’s beauty ultimately led her to command the environment and patriarchal society she lived in. Who exactly is in power in this situation? Is it the man who outwardly voices his decisions, or the woman who secretly makes the decision for him? Would that not be considered feminism?
In our eyes, Kim Kardashian has become Helen. From her choice to publicize a sex scandal to her display as a sex symbol, she has exemplified the Gaultier corset. Her intellect, similar to Helen’s, is exemplified through the multitudes of endorsements and the success of her reality television show. Although we constantly disregard her intelligence and blame the American consumer society as reason for her rise to fame, she does play a role in this scenario. She marketed herself to fit the needs of the consumer society.
She made the decisions to endorse herself in such a way that we do insult her, yet also read about her newest “fiasco.” Her need to be in the spotlight is not just a one way street. It is a complex relationship, in which she has used the constricting yards of cable television to free herself and survive.
Snooki arguably did not achieve the same viability that Kim achieved in the past four years. Why? It is because of her ability to survive and mold to the environment she lives in. By portraying herself as the bedside fantasy haunting the sleep of mankind, she exemplified the liberties that she can take in this society to achieve her goals and survive. She chose to wear these corsets rather than be forced to wear it. It is the ultimate contradiction and the fundamental example of the Gaultier concept.
Although some might argue Kim is a thwarter to the feminist movement, I believe that she has exemplified a different mode of feminism. A feminism that is not criticized as being an overzealous method of attack by battalions, but rather a feminism that is defined by physical and intellectual presence. It has reinvented feminism to be a complex kaleidoscope rather than the movement brought on by Pankhurst and other militant feminists. Due to the society that has changed its norm of seeing women as symbols as human beings, we are allowed to view these individuals as having different perspectives of feminism. Even though all might not agree with each other, I believe that these differing outlooks have provided a broader context and individuality that feminism in earlier years did not strike.
Without a doubt, Kim Kardashian and Helen of Troy have changed societal perceptions of what power is and what it means to the beholder. Helen saw it as her ability to entice the men of her life, and Kim, the cameras that shined upon her. They used Gaultier’s concept as a modicum of feminism and invented a new ideal. By redefining the meaning of power, they have greyed the meaning of the word feminism. Rather than constraining themselves to the word, I believe they have truly liberated it. An irony that might be more evident in the upcoming future filled with ratings-based television and garish displays of communication.
Written by Suchi Sundaram