Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Pump It Up!

When you see a pair of pretty, pretty Loubs, do you run home and cry into your pillow, cursing the patriarchy with every breath? Do you not wear high heels because you're a pinko commie socialist  man-hating lesbian bull dyke feminazi? No? Well the folks at the Today Show think the answer to those questions is, "yes"!

So, the premise of this clip is pretty simple: intrepid reporter goes around asking random people in Grand Central Station if high heels are "empowering" or "oppressive." (NB: Some random smarmy dude from America's Got Talent is subbing in for Kathie Lee.) This is not the first time Hoda and Kathie Lee have completely dumped on [their misconceptions of'] feminism. (And please take a look at what Jessica Valenti is wearing. OMG, that feminist is just soooooooo manly!)

This "story" is offensive on several levels. First, it erroneously conflates empowerment with sexiness. One of feminism's goals is to make sure that women feel comfortable and happy about their bodies. In that sense, feeling sexy is a form of empowerment. But it's not empowerment in and of itself. Secondly, by asking if high heels are "oppressive" it is forcing the random person on the street to think that there's some secret cabal forcing women to wear high heels for their own dastardly ends. And, if framed that way, the answer to that question is obviously "no," because as feminist scholars have been trying to prove for the last 30 years, oppression is not necessarily a conscious act--women, in fact, can participate in their own oppression. Crazy! The third flaw of this segment is that they only speak to women who are already wearing high heels because they have desk jobs. The woman in the fashion industry likes them, but obviously can't wear them because of the nature of her work. Yet, unlike what the "experts" say later in the video, this does not make her any less successful. Obviously, anyone who willingly wears heels on an everyday basis wears them because they like them. So all of those women are going to answer that yes, wearing high heels are "empowering." Whew, question solved: high heels don't enslave women! Thanks for that hard-hitting journalism, you guys!

Now, the act of wearing heels is not oppressive in and of itself. In the past, I suppose that critics of the stiletto have claimed that they disempower women because it forces us to hobble--you can't really do anything in those shoes except strut. Or, one could say that they're oppressive because really the only woman who can wear them is a lady of leisure and yet all women are expected to wear them. The first argument is false, in a way, because men are physically able to wear stilettos, they just don't for a host of reasons. If men wore heels, they would be similarly restricted. Maybe random dude from America's Got Talent should walk around in the shoes that made Hoda cry and see how sexy he thinks heels are then. The second statement is false because, at this point in time in history and fashion, the high heel has become a symbol of power for the working woman. She isn't sitting around eating bon bons in her expensive shoes: she's working at a desk, and she has the option to take them off.

But what is oppressive is behaving as if not liking or wearing heels is some kind of crime against womanity, like you won't get ahead at work if you don't wear them. The way the question was framed, you'd have to be crazy to think that a simple shoe could oppress half of the world's population. And notice that they didn't ask any women wearing sneakers or flats. Maybe those silent women change into nicer shoes when they're at work--because really, why would you be stupid enough to wander around the New York City subway system in three-inch heels? I marvel at the woman who can do that--truly she is a superhero. (To be fair, the article that goes with the segment suggests this, but that is not the message implied in the video.)

And does no one find it disturbing that, according to Lea Goldman, features editor at Marie Claire, and Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers, a woman's success in the working world is inextricably bound to her attractiveness, as defined by some vague idea of "normal" heterosexuality? If you wear flats, clearly you're just Dowdy McDowderson and won't get that promotion because you're not hot enough. Have these "experts" and "journalists" thought that maybe some women just don't wear stilettos to work because they think they're uncomfortable or impractical, or they're waiting for a nicer style of shoe to come along, or they physically can't wear high heels, or--horrors!--they just don't like high heels, and they aren't completely crazy for thinking that way? Because it's really insulting to be told that there's only one way a woman could be sexy, or that there's only one way someone can find a woman attractive, and that men are only interested in a woman's brain if it comes in a hot little package. That thinking is oppressive.

In her book Sex and Suits, Ann Hollander defines fashion as what society has told us is the "right" thing to wear at that point in time. We are very lucky in that, as the video above points out, fashion is telling us that women can wear heels for our own pleasure and not, as in decades past, to please hubby. But we just can't divorce ourselves from the sexist notions surrounding this frickin' shoe. And that makes us unlucky indeed.

Edit: You guys, I think the America's Got Talent dude has some serious sexual hangups.

1 comment: