Minerva winner (1)

Ember Status ItemWe have four winners (4!) of the recent Minerva contest that asked entrants to compare Kim Kardashian and Lena Denham (see the post below). We are not ranking the winners. We found virtue in them all.

Thanks again to everyone who participated, both the entrants and the judges. Hats off once more to Caley Cantrell, Noah Cruickshank, Ruby Karelia, Janet Kestin, Leora Kornfeld, Adrian Ho, and Nancy Vonk for their judging work.

Here is one of the winners. (We will post the remaining three essays over the remainder of the week.)

Ali Tilling, strategy planner at BMF Advertising in Sydney.  @hamsterwish

Once upon a time there were two women wearing two different floral dresses on two different red carpets.

We start at New York’s flashy Met Gala, May 2013. A seven-months pregnant Kim Kardashian fronts the paparazzi in a floral Givenchy number to near-universal horror.

Cut to the Emmys, September 2013. Lena Dunham (nominated in three categories) makes more noise for her teal-green floral Prada creation. Though it makes the Vogue best-dressed list, it’s reviled almost everywhere else.

The sub-text to the outcry against each dress reveals something of the complexity of these two characters.

Kardashian’s dress proved to the masses that while Kanye can get her into the Gala, he can’t buy her class; and Dunham’s that there’s a limit to hipster irony (even with her self-aware tweet of her sister’s snidely-sweet comment the day before the event, that the dress looked “like the Delia’s catalogue made a red carpet dress”).

In other words, neither woman was embracing society’s ideal of how femininity should look. Which is odd because in everyday life, that’s precisely why society embraces them. So what’s going on?

Both Kardashian and Dunham have become caricatures of often opposing cultural movements. There are the obvious clashes: east versus west coast, intellectual versus entrepreneurial, and clashes of social class. Dunham is all hipster, liberal arts graduate, filmmaking, over-mentored whiner who is wondering whether it’s cooler to acknowledge all the ways she’s typical or try to escape them.

Kardashian on the other hand has morphed from 2008’s get-rich-quick endorser of anything to 2013’s slightly classier, hip-hop groupie fashion front-row mom, She is one of Lorde’s “Royals” in money and excess, if not in coolness.

Because they are effects of different cultural milieu, each represents a different way in to ‘feminism’.

Dunham is one of very few successful TV writers, which one might imagine is the strongest of her feminist credentials: actually it’s her non-societally perfect body type that’s grabbing the headlines. Dunham is one cause among many of a key response to the west’s obesity epidemic: becoming increasingly accepting of our increasing average weight. She’s certainly a cause of its accelerating its transition from ‘ok for the rest of us’ to ‘ok for the celebrities’ – even while the equal and opposite response, of ultra-health, gathers pace and flows in the other direction.

Kardashian’s feminism on the other hand feels like an effect of the post-recession focus on entrepreneurialism and the idea that everyone can be a maker. Hers is the American Dream 3.0. Her specific talents (writing, or acting, or singing, or designing) are not obvious; her relentless hard work, self-belief and business focus are. She’s an effect of the way the early 00’s reality TV ‘everyone’s life is interesting’ experiment morphed into post-recession ‘anyone can make a go of anything.’ The Kardashian family started with some material advantages, sure, but not to the extent some celebrities are born into wealth; Kim has made the best of her opportunities, and indeed has displayed what to many is a decidedly unfeminine thirst for success, whatever the cost.

In this she is, with Dunham, an unexpected cause of a trend that’s beginning to emerge: they both encourage our slowly-growing discomfort with the notion that the hard work of feminism has been done, that equality has been achieved. Even in the entrepreneurial, maker trend there’s a decided inequality: only 7.5% of patent-holders worldwide are female , and for every 10 male entrepreneurs there are only 8 female . In Dunham’s sphere, most TV writing is done by men, and celebrated by men – leading to books like “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution”, celebrating male writers of the 2000’s. The world continues to be designed and written by men, but the very different actions taken by Kardashian and Dunham are starting to coax us out of our apparent apathy. Of course there are more extreme examples of this emerging trend, like Pussy Riot: but Kardashian and Dunham are more relatable examples.

Kardashian and Dunham are both effects of post-GFC narcissism. Both mine their own lives and themselves for material, though as Katherine Boyle has pointed out in the Washington Post, one is more upfront about it than the other . Girls, particularly in Series 2, sometimes comes across as an extended-play selfie, and “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is confected reality at its finest. And both Dunham and Kardashian are lucky enough to have an alter ego on whom to blame the worst excesses, though. In Girls, Hannah can explore things on Dunham’s behalf and even in Keeping up with the Kardashians, a ‘purer’ reality show, Kim and family get to decide which side of themselves they present to the camera, and especially how ‘business Kim’ is portrayed.

Dunham, Kardashian and their alter egos have focused more, in the balance of their careers, on the truths behind women’s relationships with other women. That’s then been used that as the prism through which to view women’s relationships with men. Of course with motherhood and her relationship with West, Kardashian’s focus has now shifted somewhat; but her courtship and short-lived marriage to Kris Humphries, for example, was brought to life more effectively through her sisters’ and her mother’s views on it, rather than interaction between the couple themselves. Dunham’s show is at its acerbic best in its brutal honesty about female friendship and, well, girls.

They’ve moved on the work started by Sex and the City: in its TV form, that was a predominantly male-written sisterhood united, while Dunham and Kardashian at their best represent a truer, no-holds-barred look at female friendship. As Hannah writes in Girls 2, “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance” . For all their differences, the most important cultural effect that Kardashian and Dunham might leave behind is this recognition of the power, grandness and lasting interest of female relationships.


Articles referenced above
Lots of copies of OK and Who magazines
Chats with friends and some strangers in a café, to check impressions