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A brief history of public nudity and shame politics in the Kardashian universe

Kanye West Yeezy Season 3 - Front Row Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 3
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Rob Kardashian posted what appeared to be nude photos of his ex-fiancée Blac Chyna on the internet in a petty act of revenge on Wednesday, people were shocked. Not just because revenge porn is illegal in California, Kardashian’s home state, and not just because, illegal or not, it was pretty clearly a dick move and a horrific violation of trust on Kardashian’s part.

It was also shocking because Rob is a Kardashian. He’s part of a clan that knows exactly how damaging and painful it can be to have someone else decide to reveal you to the world at your most vulnerable. Rob’s older sister Kim has spent most of her public career responding to the fact that her ex-boyfriend Ray J tried to make their sex tape public without her permission. (Kim eventually settled a lawsuit against Ray J for a reported $5 million, and the tape was released legally.) How could someone whose sister was almost ruined when her sex tape was leaked do something so terrible?

But Rob’s actions actually fall neatly in line with the ways in which the Kardashian family has talked about nudity for years. From the beginning of their public life, the Kardashians have been obsessed with the question of how to perform nudity in public: when it’s acceptable, when it’s “trashy,” when it’s to be celebrated, and when it’s destructive. That’s the question that began their public life — after Kim’s sex tape was released in 2007 — and that’s the question that the first season of their reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, devoted itself to answering when it debuted the same year.

And what they have concluded again and again ever since is that public nudity is to be celebrated when it is performed with the markings of whiteness and wealth. When nudity is performed without those signifiers, it becomes trashy.

When Rob posted Chyna’s nudes online without her permission, he wasn’t only violating her privacy. He was posting nudes without the signifiers of wealth and whiteness that make public nudity acceptable for his family. He was punishing Chyna by turning the nudes into a weapon to be used against her rather than a publicity tool to be used by her.

A decade ago, Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ first season centered on the question of when and how nudity is okay

Khloe Kardashian Odom And Lamar Odom's 'Unbreakable' Fragrance Launch
(From left) Rob Kardashian, Lamar Odom, Khloé Kardashian Odom, Kourtney Kardashian, and Kim Kardashian in 2011.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Here are some plot lines from the eight-episode first season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which aired on E in 2007.

In the first episode, Kim is preparing for her appearance on The Tyra Banks Show, and she’s trying to figure out how to talk about her sex tape. She role-plays the interview with her older sister Kourtney.

“Why did you make a sex tape?” Kourtney asks as Tyra.

“Because I was horny and I felt like it,” Kim replies, her voice flat and affectless.

“When I first heard about Kim’s tape, as her mother, I wanted to kill her,” Kris Jenner tells the camera. “But as her manager, I knew that I had a job to do, and I really just wanted her to move past it.”

In the second episode, Kris hires a nanny to help out with preteen Kylie and Kendall, but the family is shocked to find the nanny running through the house in a bikini top and miniskirt.

“My mom supposedly called a really reputable agency,” Khloé tells the camera in a confessional, “but it looks to me as though she called Hookers ’R’ Us. This girl is trashy.”

She picks up the phone to call her mother. “There is a whore watching your children, basically topless, around your husband,” she says. “You need to get over here before your husband leaves you for this 12-year-old beeyotch.”

In the third episode, Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney shoot an ad campaign for the Girls Gone Wild swimwear line, but Kris cautions them against telling Caitlyn Jenner, their then-stepfather, that it’s happening, because Caitlyn is “very conservative.” Caitlyn, inevitably, learns about the photo shoot and flies to Mexico to confront them.

“We’re not doing anything wrong or explicit or crazy,” says Kris.

“You know that we would never do anything that would make us not classy,” Kourtney adds. “We’re just not like that.”

In the fourth episode, Kim is considering a photo shoot for Playboy. She frets over the idea of posing nude, but she thinks it will be all right as long as it’s classy. “Do it with class, ’cause you’ve got a big ass,” Kourtney advises.

Kris opines that Kim should do the shoot, to which Kourtney says, “Of course you want her to do it, with your 10 percent manager commission. I know about you!”

In the end, Kim decides to pose nude, but only if she’s draped in pearls and diamonds.

In the seventh episode, Rob muses over dating a stripper, and Kim is horrified. “My brother is not dating a stripper, that’s sick,” she says in a talking head confessional. (Chyna, incidentally, used to be a stripper.) “I’m gonna find him a nice, normal girl.” She sets him up with a former Playboy Playmate of the Year.

In the season finale, a menacing figure threatens to sell nude photos of a teenage Kourtney to magazines. Kourtney refuses to feel guilty. “I feel fine about myself,” she says. “I was 17, I took pictures with my boyfriend.”

Her then-boyfriend Scott Disick is appalled. “You’re saying because you were 17, it’s not a big deal?” he says.

“Everyone has sex with their boyfriend,” Kim reasons. “Everyone takes pictures.”

“Not everyone takes pictures,” says Kris darkly.

What becomes clear over the course of the season is that there is acceptable public nudity, and there is unacceptable public nudity. As far as Keeping Up With the Kardashians is concerned, nudity is acceptable when it is performed with “class”: when it is done for a well-known magazine or famous brand, when there is a lot of money involved, when there are jewels adorning your naked body. When the Kardashians do nudity intentionally — with their wealth, fame, and whiteness — they are de facto “classy.” They can’t do anything “not classy” because they’re “just not like that.”

So when Kim Kardashian “breaks the internet” with the sight of her naked rear in a photo shoot in 2014, she is, under the Kardashian rubric, classy: She’s appearing in a reputable publication, and she’s styled like Audrey Hepburn. Even an Instagram nude selfie, which lacks the arty trappings of a magazine photo shoot, becomes Kardashian classy by virtue of being performed intentionally, by someone wealthy and white and privileged.

But when nudity is performed by a stripper or by someone in a service industry, then it is trashy, sick, and whorish. And private nudity — sex tapes or nude photographs made for private use — is at best regrettable. It’s wrong for someone else to make a sex tape or private nudes public, but the Kardashians suggest that it’s also in poor taste to make them in the first place if you don’t expect them to go public eventually.

The Kim Kardashian sex tape controversy was all about how race, class, and gender interact

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Roaming Inside
Rob and Kim Kardashian in 2011.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images For The Recording Academy

Keeping Up With the Kardashians was so concerned with what nudity is and is not okay in its first season in part because it was a conversation the whole family had just had, very publicly, after Kim’s sex tape with the singer Willie “Ray J” Norwood was released.

Ray J reportedly wanted to release the tape because he thought it would make him famous — but as his savvier friends knew, few men become famous from sex tapes.

“Ray J was Brandy’s brother and everyone always called him Brandy’s brother and no matter what he did, he couldn’t come out from under that shadow,” said Ray J’s ex-girlfriend Karrine Steffans. “And he really, really, really, really believed — really in his heart of hearts believed — that this sex tape was going to finally make him white-girl famous. It’s a different kind of famous. White girls can do anything and be famous; a white girl could slip and fall in the middle of Rodeo Drive and all of a sudden she’s a star. Black women can’t do that, and certainly black men can’t do that, and white men can’t do that.”

Male nudity is rarely scandalous, and the men in heterosexual sex tapes rarely become notorious or infamous. It’s women whose sexuality is fervently policed, and women who are most likely to bear the publicity burden of a famous sex tape. Plus, as Steffans pointed out, that burden is a lot easier to bear for white women than it is for women of color.

“‘You’re a black man, so it’s not going to do for you what it’s going to do for her,’ is what I told him,” Steffans said, “and I said, ‘If she were a black female, I’ll tell her not to [release the tape].’ But she’s not.’”

Even wealthy, well-connected, and white Kim Kardashian wasn’t able to kill her sex tape when someone else wanted to release it. (Reportedly, she cried when she found out that it was being shopped around for sale.) She wasn’t able to avoid the onslaught of slut shaming that the press would aim at her over the next few years. What she was able to do was get it hidden behind a paywall and land $5 million in recompense, and eventually leverage the resulting notoriety into a media empire. And she was able to do that in part because her whiteness and her wealth gave her sex tape a modicum of respectability. According to the Kardashian rubric, having made the tape was still regrettable, but at least its contents were “classy.” It couldn’t be anything else.

The moral system underlying this rubric is one in which women’s bodies are public property and the right to control one’s body must be earned. It’s a system in which whiteness and wealth are signifiers of purity and moral superiority, while blackness and sex work are impure and morally inferior.

The Kardashian rubric doesn’t grant Blac Chyna the same privileges that it granted Kim. Chyna is wealthy and moderately famous, but she is also black, and she used to be a stripper. In the Kardashian hierarchy, that makes her nudity trashy, not classy — and her private nudity becomes even more socially unacceptable.

So when Rob posted Blac Chyna’s nudes on the internet, he was taking a distinctly Kardashian form of revenge: He was rendering her “unclassy” in public, and using her race and her background to turn her body into a weapon against her. What he did was inexcusable and possibly illegal — but it’s entirely consistent with the way the Kardashians have always thought about women’s bodies.