"We're officially in the era of the big booty," announced Vogue in September, two decades and change after Sir Mix-a-Lot first pledged his troth to the juicy double, the rump-o-smooth-skin, the healthy butt. "In music videos, in Instagram photos, and on today's most popular celebrities, the measure of sex appeal is inextricably linked to the prominence of a woman's behind."
The story was published six months after Kim Kardashian appeared on the cover of the April issue of Vogue with her fiancé, Kanye West. The reality TV star's behind, arguably responsible in large part for the recent ascendancy of the posterior in popular culture, didn't feature much in the accompanying shoot, which was styled by Grace Coddington and shot by Annie Leibovitz—two unfathomably brilliant female creative forces. Instead, Kardashian posed in wedding dresses facing the camera: walking hand-in-hand with West alongside a river, sitting on a private jet, clutching her daughter. In the lone image shot from behind, the train of the dress Kardashian wears dominates the picture, shrouding her figure in a cloud of feathers. The bustle disguises the butt. The butt might be in vogue, but it isn’t quite in Vogue, or not yet, anyway.
This week, the butt appears totally unadorned on the cover of Paper magazine, with all the texture and sheen of molten caramel. Obviously, Kardashian is wearing it, although the rest of her body is an afterthought; her face uncomfortably drawn to the camera behind her, her neck completely covered with a multi-strand pearl choker (itself a problematic metaphor, if you like dissecting the hidden subtext of jewelry). Although the eye isn’t exactly pulled toward her face, her eyebrows are slightly raised, and her teeth are visible. Unlike the other, self-captured images of Kardashian's rear end posted on Instagram, her face is totally exposed, as is her body (her hands are oddly covered, with black opera gloves). The words underneath the image read: Break the Internet. Kardashian's husband did his best to comply, tweeting a picture of it along with the accompanying hashtag #ALLDAY—perhaps suggesting that he could look at his wife's naked behind for the duration of a 24-hour-period without getting tired. The tweet has, as of this moment, been retweeted 57,000 times.
The Paper cover is obviously designed to attract public attention through creative manipulation of nudity in a way that renders it artistic rather than gratuitous, although how well it succeeds is open to interpretation. An accompanying image released by the magazine shows Kardashian, fully clothed this time in a Jessica Rabbit-esque sequined cocktail dress, resting a champagne glass on her buttocks and smiling with her mouth open as she grasps an exploding bottle of champagne. (The photo, by Jean Paul Goude, is a recreation of his controversial shot from 1976, in which a fully naked model poses in the same way.) Although Kardashian's backside is covered, it's still the focus of the photo: It's literally the foundation on which the fragile balancing act rests. She's grinning, this time, mouth ajar. Isn't this fun? she seems to say, teetering on a wooden box, bent sideways at a right angle.
Kardashian's advocates have argued that her habitual promotion of her most notorious asset is her right in a free society, and that it's actually a brilliant business strategy, which is almost certainly true (her self-titled app, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, has grossed over $43.4 million in three months). The Paper cover, while having not quite succeeded in breaking the Internet, has drawn criticism for being an obviously provocative stunt; for making a woman’s body resemble various foodstuffs like a peach, a potato, a pair of franks, and a glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut; and for being obviously photoshopped. The manipulation of the image, BuzzFeed argues, is irresponsible: “If you got it already, flaunt it as it is.”
Last week, actress Keira Knightley explained to The Times of London why she posed topless for Interview magazine, telling the paper, “I’ve had my body manipulated so many different times for so many different reasons, whether it’s paparazzi photographers or for film posters. That [shoot] was one of the ones where I said: ‘Okay, I'm fine doing the topless shot so long as you don't make them any bigger or retouch.’ Because it does feel important to say it really doesn't matter what shape you are.”
Knightley’s insistence that a photo of her naked torso not go retouched garnered more attention than the actual image itself. Her stand defies the male gaze as furiously as Kardashian’s Paper cover caters to it: On the one hand, there’s a refusal to make breasts appear larger than they are, while on the other, there’s the almost cartoonlike enhancement of a set of buttocks that are literally used as a prop. If the glorification of the butt once seemed like it was coming from a place of empowerment as it protested against impossible body standards for women, it now feels like the opposite. While no one has yet pioneered a way to remove the butt from the woman entirely and make it its own, dehumanized entity, plenty have tried—see the bottom-shaped float in the video for Robin Thicke’s “Give it 2 U,” or the rich visual landscape of ass-shaped hills in Flo Rida and Pitbull’s “Can’t Believe It.”
For a woman’s rear to truly be fetishized, her face has to be turned away, rendering her slightly less human. It’s a pose that Kardashian does her best to counter, wrenching her neck toward the camera as best she can, but it doesn’t seem wholly comfortable.