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Makley op-ed,
The Oregonian,

If these images move you to act:

January 12, 2003
The Oregonian, Portland, OR

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 unsexy naysayers.

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. Whatever.

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 for women.

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 Violence exhibit].

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.

Charlene Makley
Luce Asst. Professor of Asian Studies
Dept. of Anthropology
Portland, OR 97202

Copyright ©2002 Reed College and Charlene Makley.