Recently, we witnessed Kim Kardashian self-flagellating around her impending divorce from Kanye West on the final season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “[West] should have a wife that supports his every move and travels with him and moves to Wyoming, and I can’t,” she told her sisters in tears, going on to say that she feels like a “failure” and a “loser” for not being able to save her third marriage. (Kardashian was previously married to music producer Damon Thomas and professional basketball player Kris Humphries.) Since then, there has been a slew of speculation about what she (and only she) is doing: Why did she post a throwback photo of her and Kanye? Why has she seemingly had a new family portrait done? Why did she include “West” when she signed her name recently?
Now, whether West “should” have a partner who fits these qualifications is beside the point (though, let me state for the record: no married person should have to bend to the every will and whim of their partner). The fact that Kardashian is so quick to cast blame on herself, however, is worth examining. When it comes to making a marriage work, women, already assigned caretaker roles in society, tend to be tasked with the “trying”: booking marriage counselor appointments, organizing date nights, taking the lead in facilitating open communication with their partners. And if she doesn’t want to try anymore? Woven into the relief will inevitably be a nagging sense that they could have done more.
In Kardashian’s case, self-flagellation also makes for compelling reality television, most of which tends to skew conservative in how it lays out patriarchal values (just look to every single season of The Bachelor franchise, which is also one of the most heteronormative examples out there). If she didn’t cast blame on herself on television, she might risk appearing cold and unsympathetic to audiences. But she likely didn’t need producers to script anything; society already does a pretty solid job of asking women to self-criticize, even if they’re rich, even if they’re famous, even if they’re in law school and raising four children, and even if they’re Kim Kardashian.
When my marriage of nearly two years crumbled, one of the questions I got from a number of people was, “Did you see a therapist together?” Yes, we did see a therapist — one time — but I was already clear on the path forward. Instead of continuing to fork out over $150 per week to save a marriage I already knew was over, I opted out. While my decisiveness had always been an asset, especially in the working world, suddenly it seemed like a liability. Now I felt like I must be an evil, cold-blooded B-word, all because I knew I couldn’t spend the next year or two of my life trying to save a relationship that had run its course. Though I didn’t exactly blame myself for the dissolution of my marriage, I absolutely spent the next year or so paying the same therapist to tell me that I wasn’t a monster.
In an essay for PerformInk Chicago, psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison breaks down the ways society nudges women to blame themselves. “Patriarchy is alive and well in the 21st Century and it continues to guarantee the political, economic and social hegemony of the male portion of our species,” Harrison writes. “Girls are too often brought up to be submissive, polite and non-confrontational. They are socialized to put a far higher value on physical attractiveness than autonomy or assertiveness. They are brainwashed into believing that they have to ‘redeem themselves’ by putting others’ needs above their own (via caretaking, being quiet, sexual availability, etc). The culturally sanctioned denigration of girls and young women all but guarantees that they will hold themselves accountable for anything and everything that happens to them.”
How different would life be if society didn’t raise women to apologize for everything? It’s too big of a question for one writer to answer here, but it’s still worth asking — and not being sorry for asking.