It’s hard to describe the symptoms of modernity’s malaise in two words. But if you held a gun to my head and insisted, the two words I’d choose would be ‘Kim Kardashian’.
I’ve nothing against Kim herself. The sun is shining and she’s making hay, bales of it. But I do have something against a time when a girl devoid of any discernible abilities can parlay a genetic deformity into fame and fortune.
Ever since an unretouched photograph of Kim’s misshapen, cellulite-loaded buttocks made the papers, more column inches have been devoted to that anatomical feature than to the likelihood of nuclear war with that other Kim.
In addition, Kim has almost 100 million Instagram followers – I suppose there’s one born every minute. And in 2015 Time magazine named Kim on its list of 100 most influential people, thereby adding a whole new meaning to doing things arse backwards.
I use the words ‘genetic deformity’ advisedly. For, retouching or no retouching, even a rank medical amateur can see that Kim suffers from steatopygia, an abnormal build-up of adipose tissue in the buttocks. This condition is mostly found among women in sub-Saharan Africa, but isolated cases also occur elsewhere.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first case of steatopygia-shaped buttocks becoming a money spinner. The precedent happened in the nineteenth century, involving the sub-Saharan girl Saartjie Baartman, otherwise known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. It’s instructive to see how the stories of Saartjie and Kim are similar but also different.
Saartjie was espied in her native village by two enterprising Frenchmen, who immediately saw money hiding in her cantilevered behind. Saartjie was tricked into signing a contract in a language she didn’t understand and effectively became a slave.
The two Frenchmen took her to London and used Saartjie as a freak sideshow at theatres and fairs. Gentlemen were paying large sums to ogle the ‘Hottentot Venus’ who stood naked on stage, displaying her massive bottom at various angles.
Saartjie’s owners made a lot of money fast, which encouraged them to take the show on the road, first to other English cities, then to Paris, where she became an even greater success.
But protests were mounting in parallel with the Frenchmen’s wealth and Saartjie’s fame. Slavery was a sensitive issue at the time, and abolitionist sentiments were strong, in this case enhanced by inchoate feminism. Eventually the ‘Hottentot Venus’ was sold on, to a dealer who withdrew her from the fairground circuit and hence the public eye.
Instead he organised viewings at private clubs where Saartjie was not only displayed but also pimped out. Anyone with the price of a ticket could have sex with the ‘Hottentot Venus’, not just marvel at her jutting Gargantuan attraction.
After several years that life took its toll on Saartjie, whose health deteriorated rapidly, and she died young, possibly of syphilis. But death didn’t put an end to her performing career.
Saartje’s body was dissected, and her brain, genitals and skeleton were exhibited at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. In 1984, following a petition from Nelson Mandela, her remains were returned to Africa where they were properly buried.
So there you have it, two sufferers from the same genetic disorder, a nineteenth-century slave, whose degrading treatment caused mass protests, and an enterprising modern woman, who became one of the world’s ‘100 most influential people’ with nary a protest to be heard.
Unlike Saartjie, Kim pays her handlers, rather than the other way around. Unlike the African, the genetically challenged American is a free person who doesn’t think she’s being degraded, and neither does anyone else.
That’s why this story isn’t about Kim but about our time. For Kim is exactly the same kind of enslaved sideshow that Saartjie was. The difference is that in the nineteenth century, before progress began to accelerate at Mach 3, everybody knew the naughty spectacle for what it was.
Some gawked at it, some protested against it. Nobody lauded it, nobody saw Saartjie as a social guru or international trendsetter. Saartjie was an aberration of her time. Kim is the distillation of ours, a slave to a morally, spiritually and aesthetically crippled public.
This walking, talking gluteus maximus is a celebrity because she’s celebrated. Her 100,000 million panting followers hang on to every vulgarity she utters, for vulgarity is all she can utter. Cynically catering to their market, formerly serious newspapers see fit to discuss Kim’s buttocks and run photographs of them, while a growing army of masturbators are gagging for more.
Kim obliges by regaling them with PC platitudes interspersed with more pictures of her naked attractions. She’s being degraded all the way to the bank, accompanied by howls of admiration and envious gasps.
Saartjie, meet Kim. Kim, meet Saartjie. You girls have so much in common, even though you’re centuries and civilisations apart.