Originally posted: 16.05.2013 on the ‘If the shoe Fits project blog‘
Over the last week social media feeds have been rife with comments about historian Mary Beard’s controversial decision to ‘come out’ and write about her love of shoes for the Daily Mail (8th May 2013). Of all the responses perhaps the most provocative was that of journalist Beverley Turner for the Telegraph. According to Turner, Beard, who has in the past been criticised for being “too ugly to be on TV”, has let herself down by pandering to “idiotic hacks” who have succeeded in “making a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University write about shoes. Yes – shoes.” With almost 3 years of research on the sociological significance of shoes now behind us, and in light of some of our own findings, we felt compelled to contribute to the debate by responding to Turner’s attack.
The Daily Mail is well known for a disproportionate allocation of column inches to shoes, and, disappointingly from our perspective, most of them are in relation to female celebrities and high heels. By excluding issues related to gender more broadly they have been guilty of reinforcing shoes’ status as a solely (pardon the pun) feminine and sensational topic. Indeed, perhaps the very location of the article was partially responsible for what seems like a vehement knee-jerk reaction by Turner. Yet Beard’s account, rather than fortifying a simplistic, even at times misogynist association of women with shoes, actually helps to deconstruct and de-mystify shoes as symbols of oppression.
As Turner herself acknowledges, Beard is an incredibly intelligent proponent of gender equality. She also likes to talk about shoes. It is here that Turner seems to have missed the point. Opting for a stock, and arguably outdated feminist response, she fails to ask the question: what is it about shoes that enables intelligent women to look past their negative stereotypes and confidently come out and talk about them?
Rather than listening to what Beard has to say about her shoes, Turner appears to have fallen into the trap of assuming that to talk about shoes at all is to dumb down or to reduce ourselves to objects subject to the male gaze. In this respect Turner’s tirade has done more to reinforce the stereotype of women that talk about shoes as mindless dupes and hapless victims of patriarchal oppression than Mary’s original article did.
Beard’s article, written in her own words (despite the addition of the sexualised Daily Mail tagline ‘MARY BEARD says there’s nothing like a new pair of shoes to bring out your inner sex goddess’), tells a very different story. Far from reducing her identity to ‘shoe addict’ or being ‘made’ to talk about shoes as Turner suggests, she enthusiastically explains the ways that her various shoes allow her to perform her daily activities whether on archaeological digs, cycling around Cambridge or going along to social events; and all done with a sense of style which is clearly important to her – and why shouldn’t it be? She acknowledges the potential that certain shoes have to symbolise oppression, but in terms of her own experience this does not seem to feature. She describes herself as a ‘flattie’ girl, more for their practicality than her feminist morals, and she does admit to an admiration of the skill involved in balancing on a pair of heels as well as their beauty and engineering.
Perhaps most significantly she says: “There is something so levelling in the appreciation of a beautiful pair of shoes that surpasses all boundaries of size, intellect and perceived beauty.” Far from using shoes to directly and defensively respond to her male media oppressors, her shoes provide a way for her to identify with other women (with no mention of men) in her day-to-day life and for them to identify with her. It is this process of identification that underlies Beard’s account and she beautifully articulates the role that shoes, perhaps more than any item of clothing, play in this process.
Our research at the University of Sheffield on how our identities are both made and experienced reveals identity as a very complex process. In contrast to the popular assumption (the one the Daily Mail usually promotes), that shoes signify feminine sexual identity and objectification, we have found that they offer a valuable lens through which to access the various complexities of who both sexes think they are, who they want to be, who they have been and how they manage any transitions between their multiple identities – both on a daily basis and throughout the life course. In Beard’s case her shoes allow her to move between being an academic historian, archeologist, media personality and partner. Much like many of our own research participants she struggles to get rid of significant pairs, like the gold trainers that carried her through her 12 weeks filming the Meet the Romans TV series for the BBC, which allow her to reconnect with memories of a prior identity.
Mary’s account, along with our own research, tells us that there is far more to shoes than Turner would give them credit for. It is partially due to such negative stereotypes that, until now, they have not received the academic attention they merit. Shoes are generally taken for granted but anyone who has worn the ‘wrong’ shoes for an occasion, or who is physically unable to wear the shoes they desire will attest to their potential to help one ‘feel like themself’, or not. In addition, the extent to which they appear in popular culture, as well as frequent debates such as this one shows they are a potent topic of discussion.
Finally, there is a comment to be made in relation to the advances of feminist thought. There is a fine line between critiquing oppression and reinforcing it. Turner’s somewhat polemic response to Beard’s article reinforces precisely the male domination she seems to be arguing against – surely we are moving away from a time when women are bullied into what they should or shouldn’t wear, or, more precisely, what they should feel or say about their footwear choices.
Although it may not have been her intention, Turner’s own stereotyped views on the decisions women make divide them into those stupid enough to fall for the consumer hype of a sexualised femininity, and those who seemingly do not, at the expense of acknowledging individual motivations, context and choice. Feminists, of course, have long debated these issues and ‘choice’ is rarely as free as it may seem. However, a serious spotlight on shoes enables us to see the complexity of our everyday decisions in relation to our identities, and hopefully avoid the temptation to define these types of decisions as definitively right or wrong.
To read Mary’s own response click here to visit her blog.
Alexandra Sherlock, Dr Victoria Robinson, Professor Jenny Hockey and Dr Rachel Dilley are conducting research for the If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition project at the University of Sheffield. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. For more information visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/iftheshoefits