The Kardashian-Jenner clan’s social-media savvy is a simple matter of data. All told, they have almost half a billion followers on Instagram alone. (“All told” meaning, of course: Kardashian sisters Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe; matriarch Kris; ex-spouse/step-mapa Caitlyn Jenner; Jenner spawn Kendall and Kylie; and the lone Kardashian male, Rob.) They are the archetypical “influencers,” the people who possess trend- and culture-shaping power based solely on their internet presence. The slightest changes to their online aesthetic garners headlines. Even Rob—the anonymous one of the family, with his relatively meager Instagram following of 9.9 million—lives on a smartphone stage larger than that accorded to virtually every athlete, musician, or otherwise talent-based celebrity in the entire world.
Weird, right? But that’s exactly why it bears mentioning that earlier this week, Rob posted a series of Instagram nudes of his on-again-off-again partner, Angela Renée White—better known as Blac Chyna—after becoming aware of Chyna’s alleged infidelity. When Instagram disabled his account, he instructed his more than 7 million Twitter followers to “peep” the images there. (The ensuing explicit tweets have since been deleted.) The conflict didn’t stop at those two platforms: in retaliation, Blac Chyna took to Snapchat to accuse Kardashian of domestic abuse.
This was not an isolated breakup fight, though, as much as it was the pyrotechnic finale to a major arc of the Kardashians’ sweeping, 21st-century soap-opera. (Without getting too deep into it, Kardashian-watchers had long been convinced that Blac Chyna, who rose to prominence as a stripper, had gotten involved with Rob Kardashian as payback after her own ex-boyfriend, rapper Tyga, took up with Kylie Jenner. [Don’t worry, Tyga and Kylie broke up earlier this year as well.]) The whole affair was sordid, miserable, and completely entranced giant swaths of the internet. It also underscored just how slipshod and ineffective current revenge-porn laws are—and how even better laws might not be enough to level some playing fields.
According to California law Penal Code 647(j)(4), Kardashian’s act may well have constituted revenge porn: Intentionally distributing an image of the intimate body part of another identifiable person, knowing that said distribution would cause that person serious emotional distress. (California is one of 38 states with laws specifically banning revenge porn.) Kardashian could conceivably face six months in jail—if Chyna could even bring a successful case against him, given the law’s limited scope and tricky layers of legalese. Even then, according to Mary Anne Franks, a lawyer at the University of Miami who helps states craft their revenge porn laws, first offenders rarely serve time, so the upshot would most likely be a fine.
Yet, those fighting to criminalize nonconsensual porn at an national level worry about the detrimental effects of a Kardashian revenge porn battle. “We’ve had momentum over the last couple years,” says Danielle Citron, who teaches law at the University of Maryland. “Big celebrity moments like Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo leak have played a important educative role. But this moment could take us backward.”
Why? Because the unofficial courtroom of the internet seems not to be treating this like revenge porn at all. “[Kardashian] knew what he was getting into when he got her,” Snoop said in a video reaction. “She is what she is … Go buy you another one.” That statement highlights Chyna’s extra-legal struggle: because she was (and thus, according to Snoop-logic, will always be) a stripper, leaking nude photos of her doesn’t matter. “This is a really common argument applied to sex workers, but women more broadly,” says Catherine Knight Steele, who teaches gender, race, and digital media at the University of Maryland. “Any way you use of your own body in the past is something you can’t object to in the future.”
That matters especially for a woman like Blac Chyna, who has built a successful business by carefully controlling access to her image—even when she was stripping, she fought to keep her work offline, and therefore exclusive.”It mirrors how we reduce women to what they do rather than what they are,” says Trimiko Melancon, who teaches courses on race, gender, and sexuality at Loyola University.
More Than Just Malice
There’s more at play here, though. The paparazzi system, and later, social media, have trained the public to regard every aspect of a celebrity’s life as appropriate and even necessary to share. (The Kardashian family helped create this expectation, though they’ve felt the sting of it, too.) And while any celebrity’s claim to privacy seems tenuous, Chyna’s brand of celebrity is afforded less than the nonconsensual porn victims who have gone before her. “We have to think about class,” says Ariane Cruz, who teaches courses on gender and sexuality at Penn State. “Lawrence representing the ‘class’ of Hollywood film, and Chyna, the ‘class’ of reality television.”
And that class isn’t without its racial element. “Society views Jennifer Lawrence and white womanhood as deserving a certain level of protection, while black women have been deemed incapable of being violated,” says Melancon. “And there’s a long history of seeing black women’s bodies as pathologized and promiscuous.” The disparate reaction to Chyna’s and JLaw’s images couldn’t be more obvious: the same gross corners of the internet that saw nude photos of Lawrence as a blessing, are now body shaming Chyna and talking about why she deserved it. And while this issue isn’t unique to nonconsensual porn, it is rampant within it: Franks points out that the leaked nude photos of black celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Jill Scott, and Leslie Jones garnered far less righteous outrage than their white counterparts’.
Nonconsensual porn is toxic on its own. When it comes from someone with as high a profile as Rob Kardashian, it sends the message that this is an acceptable way to publicly punish a woman who has displeased you—and even that strippers and women of color don’t warrant the same basic civility afforded to others. So while the social media maelstrom around the fracas seems frivolous, it’s really anything but. It turns out there are some pretty good reasons to keep up with Rob Kardashian.