Abstract for Gender and Visual Representation conference: Winchester University, September 12th, 2012

‘This is not a Pipe Shoe’: Deconstructing the Shoe as a Visual Metaphor for Gendered Experience.

It is perhaps no surprise that shoes are used in visual culture to signify gender and sexual identity. In terms of film, one need go no further than Sandy’s transformational high-heeled red mules in the movie Grease to realise their significance. However, through an innovative set of research methods the research reported in this paper sheds light on the extent to which shoes and gender – through visual metaphor – are enmeshed in much more mundane, and powerful, visual contexts.

Drawing on Butler’s assertion that gender is constituted and also transformed through stylised repetitive acts (1988), the paper analyses the results of a 48-hour content analysis, performed to determine the various ways shoes are represented on television. A small selection of the resulting 170 references will show some of the ways gender stereotypes are not only fortified, but also transformed and subverted through shoes.

During a recent empirical study, the selection of clips was shown to research participants who work in the footwear industry. Their responses revealed that in some circumstances metaphorical use renders particular shoes invisible – even those people most conditioned and likely to notice the shoes were surprised by what they saw. The invisibility of these shoes raises concerns about their subliminal power when representing gender and sexual identity. By shining the spotlight on visual shoe metaphors one is able to ‘make strange’ and therefore deconstruct what we think we know about shoes, and gender.


Butler, J. 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40, 4, 519-531.

For more information about the conference or to register click here to be redirected to the University of Winchester website.


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