Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why These Shoes?

Linda and Donna wrote to me with the following question:

Why would you use the symbol of high-heeled shoes to raise the awareness of sexual assault? To see the words high-heeled shoes and sexual assault in the same context is to say they have something in common. How can you raise awareness by creating a connection that should not be made in the first place? This symbolism implies that there is a connection between to two.

Please enlighten us.

From someone who wears high heeled shoes and someone who does not.

I wrote the following response. What do you think?

Hi Linda & Donna,

Thank you for your email and an opportunity to consider your questions and describe a bit about our relationship to these cultural artifacts and metaphors.

We took up the metaphor, "You can't understand another person's experiences until you've walked a mile in their shoes." We wanted an opportunity for men to better understand that some of women's experiences are significantly different than mens. Too often these differences are glossed over by ideas like, "We're all human, after all." Gender training and day to day living can obfuscate differences. High heeled shoes represented an opportunity for men to step into shoes that carry the cultural symbolism of "woman" in "femininity." The physical experience of walking in shoes that can be painful and require "training" to master provided an opportunity for men to better understand how something so taken for granted as the shoes a person walks in can make for very different experiences in day to day living. We hoped that awakening to this one taken for granted notion would make way for more awakenings. The more awake we are culturally, the more freedom we have to negotiate the meaning of symbols given to us (or sold to us) and the idiosyncratic meaning we make of these symbols.

For us, the connection with "sexual assault" is already embedded in "high heeled shoes" because they are culturally marked as "feminine." "Feminine" is too often marked by patriarchy as "less than" and subject to "objectification." There are slang names for high heels that clearly expose this danger and manufacturers and retailers market these shoes more "benignly" as "sexy."  

We want to call into question the cultural assumptions and practices that allow these markings to go unexamined and operating with impunity. Complicating these markings in a surprising and interesting context can make way for remodeling the markings and helping individuals have more say in their own relations to these representations.

Our interest is not in requiring women to change their relationship with these symbols, but to invite men to be more aware of the multiple layers of meaning embedded. We want men to consider the relationship they prefer to take to these symbols rather than the relationship they have been given or sold. We want men to consider engaging in conversation with a given woman her relationship to these symbols and negotiate how this relationship may influence or be part of the relationship between that man and that woman.

We believe these considerations, examinings and potential awakenings can help men be more articulate about their interests and intentions, more successful in having the effects of their interests and intentions match up and make for more successful and satisfying relationships between women and men.

Then, if one person wants to take on "sexy" as a descriptor of their fashion or even their person, they can do so with more freedom and less constraint from cultural or patriarchal dictates.

If another person wants to take on high heels as, say, "cool shoes" without other cultural signifiers, they can do so with more freedom to co-create with the cultural symbols and markings their unique relationship.

Our hope is that in a given instance, a man and a woman can negotiate the meaning and relationships to cultural artifacts and signifiers in ways that privilege their specific interests and intentions rather than being constrained by the obligations of dominant (and dominating) meanings.

What effects do these thoughts have on your thinking? I am very interested in your questions and thoughts.

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