July 4, 2013

Nabilla Benattia, the "French Kim Kardashian": Power Behind Popularity

It was a simple expression:

“Euh, allô! non, mais allô, quoi. T'es une fille et t'as pas de shampooing? Allô. Allô! Je ne sais pas, vous me recevez? T'es une fille, t'as pas de shampooing? C'est comme si je dis: t'es une fille, t'as pas de cheveux.”

"Um, hello! No, seriously, hello. You’re a girl and you don’t have shampoo? Hello. Hello! Can you hear me? You’re a girl and you don’t have shampoo? It’s as if I say: you’re a girl and you don’t have hair.”

Never mind her problematic assumption that the amount of hair a person has determines their gender, or the now renowned phrase that is splashed over French billboards and advertisements. Nabilla Benattia, a popular French reality star, has even gone so far as to trademark the whole phrase over its popularity. The perception of her character, which may or not be scripted, along with her physical appearance, gender, and ethnicity formulate a package that merit a critique of the nature of her popularity. Were she not "exotic" looking (she is often referred to as the "French Kim Kardashian"), with a name from the "bled," the conditions of her popularity may have been different. Being a daughter of an Algerian father, by default, she is subject to a set of imposed norms that are framed by questions such as "What does an Algerian woman look like?," "What does an Algerian woman act like?," "What does an Algerian woman believe?," and other rigid notions whose scopes are limited to old binaries. These questions shape dominate perceptions, as is evident through the highest searched terms in reference to Nabilla.

Reality Television and (Mis)Representation

The role of popular reality stars in the broader discourse of identity and perception, and how power plays into the popularity of these shows and characters is significant. Their popularity reflects widely held beliefs among a general audience that spans several demographics and generations. It becomes even more important to address their popularity when these characters begin to hold a position in serious questions relating to identity. The same discussions came up when reality shows like the Jersey Shore and the Shahs of Sunset aired; both shows respectively stood in places of serious discussions regarding Italian and Persian identities. When the stars that emerge from these shows as popular celebrities begin to act as representatives of a marginalized demographic, it becomes important to question the conditions and context of both their popularity as well as reception. Take for example Kim Kardashian, who Nabilla is often compared to, when she stated on Oprah that she was "proud" to "represent Middle Eastern women in US society." Kim’s statement sparked a widespread response that raised questions about who exactly is a Middle Eastern woman in US society and whether Kim herself rightfully falls into that demographic. Likewise, by default of her appearance, name, and father’s ethnicity, Nabilla is tied to a community that faces marginalization along multiple lines.

Power is a major factor that plays into the perception and popularity of Nabilla in France. There are already sets of ideas associated with her character in reality television given her nickname as the "French Kim Kardashian." Those set of ideas are not simply related to her physical appearance, which aside from the hair and skin tone, is really not that similar. More specifically, those set of ideas relate to how Nabilla, like Kim Kardashian, has used her body as a source of personal capital, which in turn, prompts public interest. For example, Nabilla appears on the French reality show, Les Anges de la téléréalité 5, in which each participant chooses a "goal" to accomplish in the United States. Appointments and meetings are then scheduled for them in order to bring them closer to their careers or goals. Nabilla's career goal in the show is to be a "glamour model." Her professional appointments are all centered on the public display of her body in photo shoots and music videos. During the show, participants are also given opportunities to meet popular American celebrities who provide them with advice on "making it." It was no surprise then that Kim Kardashian was one of the first celebrities the participants encountered, and Nabilla's reaction to meeting Kim Kardashian was even less surprising. During their encounter, Nabilla broke down in tears and repeated how Kim Kardashian was "her role model" and how she "wants to be just like her."

Footage from the episode when Nabilla met Kim Kardashian.
A glimpse into Nabilla's reaction to meeting Kim Kardashian.

Despite her Wikipedia page identifying her as a Swiss model, the most popular search terms that come up when looking Nabilla up are inquiries about her origins and religion. In multiple media appearances, she has explained how she essentially has no relationship with her estranged Algerian father, yet it is her "Algerian-ness" that is one of the most commonly brought up topics. During an interview with French paper, Libération, she addresses the relationship with her father and the impact it had on her. She also speculates as to what her life would have been had she been closer with her father. She, like so many others before her, acknowledges the struggle in identity. She explains, "With a Muslim father, a Christian mother, and a Jewish grand-mother, it was complicated. Especially since all three are really into their own thing. On Friday, my father eats couscous, there was no electricity at my grand-mother's, and my mother goes to mass every Sunday." Her categorization of the three adheres to dominant French perceptions and roles. The automatic association with a Muslim being of Maghrebi descent, with the mention of eating couscous on Fridays, reflects this perception. She further reinforces perceptions and roles as defined by dominate narratives in France: "If I stayed with my father, I have no idea where I'd be today. Making a tajine or even married?" Her comments, while problematic, fit a set of ideas the multicultural discourse shapes through notions of rigid identity. It would also serve well to question the context in which her comments were made, whether they are simply a media ploy for more attention or whether they are an indication of her detachment from her Algerian identity embodied in a self-orientalization. And while she raises points that have long been a topic of literature and knowledge production in the francophone world, she brings these questions to the realm of pop culture, where dissemination is far more widespread than in academia, making these ideas more pervasive.

Nabilla and another one of her one-liners: "Honestly, I swagged myself out."

It is similar to the ideas that are behind the age-old question: “Where are you from?” When the respondent replies with a “Here,” there is a follow up question: “No, I mean, where are you really from?” The act of inquiry projects definitions of what is or is not considered “being from here,” wherever that may be. Moreover, the weight of privilege is usually tilted in favor of the question’s poser. The ambiguity of Nabilla’s identity, namely her “Algerian-ness” does not conform to dominant societal perceptions, drawing further questioning as a basic Google search will demonstrate. When searching her name in Google, the top results of terms already searched all pertain to her origins, with one term inquiring about whether or not she is Moroccan.

An example of the top search results when googling Nabilla.

It is difficult to know where these questions are being searched the most, however, it is an indication of how despite her detachment from her Algerian identity, as well as her identification as a “Swiss model,” there is a desire to question her identity even further. This desire could be rooted in an inherent curiosity due to her racial ambiguity. This desire could also be rooted in a marginalized Algerian, or more broadly speaking, a Maghrebi community, based in France or Europe in general, seeking to recognize ethnic ties with a heavily mediatized figure. That recognition can be two-fold: a rejection or acceptance of that person’s ties to a certain community. There is a sort of embedded nationalism that arises when a person of a marginalized community gains notoriety in mainstream media. An example is the constant evocation of French football star Zinedine Zidane’s Algerian heritage. His 2006 visit to Algeria illustrates that nationalism and how, in Zidane’s case, became a political opportunity for the Algerian regime. Contrarily, if the figure’s popularity is rooted in venues deemed problematic, there emerges a sense of rejection and ridicule. Such was the case, for example, of Karima El-Mahroug, the prostitute at the center of the scandal that engulfed former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. In nearly every report or article detailing the scandal, Karima El-Mahroug was always identified as being “Moroccan.” The rejection and disassociation among Moroccans was almost immediate, with major news agencies even going to Karima’s hometown in Morocco to report on the communal backlash. While Nabilla is neither a football star nor a prostitute at the center of a political scandal, she wields a public presence that receives widespread media coverage. And by virtue of her mixed background and the nature of her popularity, the reception of her character is polarized, spanning from adherents to detractors. The fact that her father is Algerian, her popularity plays a role into the perception of what it means to be Algerian, whether or not she self-identifies as such.

At the same time, this desire to automatically tie her to a certain demographic is, in certain terms, a violation of her own agency. As she has previously mentioned, being raised with her Italian mother, her connection with "being Algerian" and "being Muslim" are minimal at best. Regardless of whether those desires to tie her to a demographic come from within the community or outside of it, central to that desire is a certain rigid representation that carries its own objectives. 

Objectification or Appropriation?

Nabilla's ideas of what an Algerian woman is, acts, and believes merit their own critique. However, the main issue is how French media uses her character and comments to impose a certain image. More importantly, central to this image is the public display of her body, which has been a source of forced objectification beyond her consent. The most recent example of this is her appearance on Canal + with Belgian comedian, Stéphane De Groodt. During the initial minutes of the show, De Groodt finds no qualms in fixating on her breasts, making inappropriate puns about their appearance, while an uncomfortable Nabilla shakes her head disapprovingly. Moreover, noting his privileged position as a white male tilts the power dynamics considerably in this instance.

Double telephone this time. Allo.

The fixation on her body evokes a popular theme in francophone Maghrebi literature: the female body as a host of identity struggles. Few have covered this theme as extensively as Algerian francophone novelist, Assia Djebar. Djebar's most popular works often placed a female character as the central protagonist, pitting her against colonial hegemonic forces and patriarchal norms. Djebar appropriates the orientalist obsession with the female personage but counters that obsession with a focus on the nuanced narratives of Algerian women--some of whom are real historical figures. Specifically, Djebar's focus on the female body is a direct critique of both imperialist narratives from abroad and patriarchal norms at home. One of the best examples of how Djebar faces these powerful forces is in La femme sans sépulture, where she characterizes herself as a journalist returning to her hometown in Algeria in search of the remains of Algerian revolutionary, Zoulikha Oudai. Central to the book's theme is bringing together the brutal death and disappearance of Zoulikha's body with her existing memory that lives on. The fixation on her body ends up being obsolete, as her remains are never found.

In a way, the public display of Nabilla's body involves the confrontation of the same forces Djebar faces in her literature. One could argue that Nabilla's pursuit of fame through the public display of her body is an appropriation of society's fixation on the female form, especially in the context of the power dynamics as a woman of Algerian descent gaining fame and notoriety in France. Contrarily, the fixation on her physical appearance can also be seen as sustaining the orientalist obsession with women from the colonized world. Much literature has been produced examining the gender dynamics between the colonizing power toward the colonized woman as an attempt to "save" from seclusion and "empower" through pushing her into the public sphere. Through this framework, Nabilla's popularity can be interpreted as sustaining the status quo.

Bah ouais.

Additionally, the media’s fixation on Nabilla’s body also fits into a more general discourse in France that has centered on the bodies of female Muslims. While I'm fully aware that Nabilla does not identify as Muslim, there is still a desire among general spectators to automatically tie her to being a Muslim by default of the aforementioned associations. Within this context, it is useful to bring up Maya Mikdashi's point that she reminded us from a couple years ago: “The female body is […] a site of political control and the regulation of patriarchal public morality.” The French government made it a point that the policing of female Muslims’ body was a national priority when it banned the niqab in September 2010. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy crusaded on the matter, referring to the niqab as a “walking coffin,” essentially reducing its wearers to nonexistent corpses. The mainstream debate on both sides of the argument simultaneously capitalized on the bodies of these women as well as reducing them to tools for political gain. Because of the dominant perception that ties Muslim women to Arab women and France’s colonial history in North Africa and the Middle East, the nature of the debates that unfolded over this matter revived an imperial hierarchy that placed the white European man above the Muslim and/or Arab woman. And in order to legitimize the implementation of this law, French lawmakers sought counsel from prominent Muslim men on the matter, revealing the closeness in which the aforementioned imperial hierarchy operates with “patriarchal morality” at the expense of Muslim women. Muslim men, such as Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris Mosque, and Hassen Chalghoumi, an imam at a mosque in a Parisian suburb publicly expressed support of the niqab ban.

Nabilla has gained a certain notoriety that has transcended French mainstream media and is present in francophone media in general. She appears to attract an instant desire to critique, yet the critique is usually centered on the superficiality of her character as a reality star. Nabilla, like Kim Kardashian, has injected herself in discussions centered on identity. And the demographic they have come to speak on behalf of in mainstream media is a demographic that is increasingly marginalized by the same forces that have made way for their respective popularities. Both Nabilla and Kim, however, do not engage dominant narratives critically, and perhaps that explains their popularity in mainstream media. Yet, at the same time, their inclusion within the demographic should not be discounted. Kim Kardashian, having an Armenian background and ties to a community that faced a brutal genocide under the Ottomans, and Nabilla Benattia, having an Algerian background that has also had to deal with a violent history as a result of French colonialism, hold a place in pop culture. Their popularity offers an opportunity to raise questions and draw critiques of identity, power, and media, even if they are not the ones to initiate these discussions. The fact that they have been able to penetrate the popular circles of mainstream media in both their respective countries indicates there is a venue and potential interest for having these discussions. 

Or in other words:


  1. No credit for the GIFs ? #NotCool

  2. I loved the article, it's written very eloquently. Keep up the good work

  3. Such a good article ! I enjoyed reading it though I despise Nabilla