It is hard to know how to respond to Robin Givhan's rapturous account
of women's supposed love affair with their shoes--especially scandalously
sexy high heels ("Heart and Sole", Sunday Oregonian, Jan. 12,
2003). But then it wasn't written with response in mind. It's written
in that flippant, we-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident, universalizing
language of most such fare stuck in the "Living" sections of
newspapers and magazines. And of course her ode to the delicious fun of
buying gorgeous impactical shoes sets up anyone who might raise an eyebrow
as a party-pooper. After all, in her article, I found myself ("feminists")
categorized and dismissed, along with mothers and podiatrists, as decidedly
In this post 9/11 age of global insecurity, I like my momentary escapes
in the light sections of newspapers and magazines as much as the next
person. But the supreme confidence with which Givhan speaks for all "women"
here, and her challenge, "let she who is without shoe lust cast the
first stone", prompted me to brave the implied label of harrumphing
feminist and draft a dissenting opinion.
I'm not that annoyed by Givhan's glorification of spiky heels and shiny
shoes as eroticizers of women's bodies, though I could do without her
description of a woman's derriere on heels as suggestive of "being
served up for proper admiration on a silver platter". Or her assertion
that (all) girls "secretly hoped their black patent leather shoes
did reflect up". Troubling implications of such cute statements aside,
Givhan is well aware of the many reasons high heels are bad for women's
feet. She has written about them elsewhere in her work as fashion editor
for the Washington Post. But heels are a fact of femininity in the U.S.
(and now arguably, the world). Women buy heels for a variety of reasons.
What really angered me enough to respond to this seemingly innocuous piece
of fluff was not so much the high heel thing, but Givhan's crowing affirmation
of the widespread, and I think damaging, stereotype of women as ridiculous
and trivial ultra-consumers. Ensconced as she is in the fashion industry,
Givhan lives and breathes a world that thrives on this image: woman primarily
consumes, and displays her consumption, while man primarily produces,
and profits from his production; this is the stuff of pleasure and yearning
desire. To many, this logic may seem as natural and universal (biological?)
as the casual generalizations Givhan makes: "There is an undeniable,
physical pleasure in shoe shopping... Is it really an overstatement to
describe the pleasure of footwear as distracting, all-consuming, orgasmic?"
But that's not my world. In several years of surveying mainstream advertising
and fashion images for my courses on the anthropology of sex and gender,
I've seen how pervasive this image of consuming-woman is in the U.S. [See
Ridiculous Women exhibit].
This of course is nothing new--Barbie epitomized in plastic that ideal
for women long ago. But shop-till-you-drop woman is back with a vengeance
now that 9/11 is safely in our past. Just as Barbie's frozen smile and
inanimate, pointed-toe stance (for high heels of course!) allow for the
pleasure of playing at effortless consumption, so too contemporary images
of women buying and displaying stuff provide comfort in a time of great
uncertainty for Americans. Ford is now marketing huge pick-up's complete
with vanity mirrors to women. And the fashion industry seems to have gotten
over its brief post-9/11 guilt about the impracticality of high fashion
In this world, Givhan's account is off the mark. The shoe is not the primary
fetish, “woman” is. And the dangerous thing about a fetish
is that it is both absurdly trivial because it has no "practical"
use, and it is unobtainable because it is unreal. Like the impossible
shoes Givhan reports women buy but can't even wear, many women, including
models themselves, voraciously consume images of women on display yet
know they can never be that ideal. Perhaps this is the dynamic from which
that familiar love-hate relationship with this ideal femininity springs.
The anthropologist Christine Gray, in a survey of her students, found
an astounding number of Barbie-bashing stories, in which the doll suffered
indignities at the hands of boys and girls alike, from being microwaved
to being run over by a train. It is easier and more satisifying to dismiss
and hate the ridiculous and the trivial [See Gendered
So when I read Givhan's confident assertion that a "woman's shoes
are the foundation of her public persona, the point from which everything
else rises", I couldn't help but feel that such a portrayal of women
is especially offensive now. Perhaps such pronouncements from the rarefied
worlds of Milan or Paris where Givhan covers her shows don't play so well
out here in Oregon, which, according to an April 2002 report from the
Economic Policy Institute, is one of the 11 states where the gap between
rich and poor families' incomes increased the most in the past decade.
In this struggling economy, women work hard and very seriously, and I
would venture to guess even the urban professional women she interviews
would not consider their personas to be defined by a shoe. In such a context,
there is a very fine line between offering escape, and generating both
demeaning images and alienating envy.
A final note. Less than a year ago, after the terroist attacks on NYC
and D.C., designers took to producing stylish flats as a response to women's
supposed newfound desire for practical shoes. Givhan's report on the spring
and fall collections lauded this development, noting how damaging to feet
high heels are, and gleefully recounting how one of Tom Ford's Gucci models
fell three times during a Milan show because she could not walk in her
sky-high heels (International Herald Tribune, March 12, 2002). Now that
the spring 2003 collections are full of "backbreaking pumps"
again, Givhan's report here crows about this development ("Glory
be to the slingback, the mule and the kitten heel pump"), and dutifully
dishes up universalizing statements about what women must have and what
men most desire.
The fashion world with its fickle trends is Givhan's bread and butter.
I for one can choose not to bend to those market winds. Slave to fashion?
I have my fun in other ways.
Luce Asst. Professor of Asian Studies
Dept. of Anthropology
Portland, OR 97202