When Louboutins are Fair Game: Not All Shoe References are Created Equal

722px-Louboutin_altadama140Obama White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler apparently likes expensive designer shoes.

That is the sad takeaway from a Washington Post profile about the extremely accomplished woman who is one of very few females to be invited into the President’s inner circle. The article also sexualized Ruemmler, a former litigator who is described as someone who likes to wear extremely high heels in the courtroom, as a “litigatrix.” Readers don’t really learn anything about Ruemmler as an accomplished professional, or why she is in the current news spotlight, until after the sixth paragraph of the article. The New York Times also profiled Ruemmler this weekend, but the approach was vastly different (no mention of shoes!)

Yet again, a major news outlet found an opportunity to marginalize a high-profile, successful woman by her attire and the sexual references they think they can draw from them. At least Hillary Clinton and her cleavage have some company.

But with this latest reference to designer shoes, and my own recent experiences with being attacked when trying to turn a clever clothing phrase, I say it’s time for writers to take a step back when it comes to the question of whether, and when, it’s acceptable to talk about women and their love of designer kicks.

Because not all shoe references are created equal.

Some women writers have a problem not putting all mentions of shoes in the same bin. When profiling someone successful, all writers should ask themselves – does a clothing reference enhance our understanding of the subject? Or is it sending an unintended inference about that person?

Jessica Valenti, Anna Holmes, and many others too numerous to mention couldn’t tell the difference in my piece about Lean In. When I wanted to summarize, in my own words, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that essentially boils down to the time-worn catch phrase of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, I decided that, since the book was aimed at professional women, that I would refer to a recognizable brand of shoes rather than those old boots:

“Sandberg’s argument, that equality in the workplace just requires women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps (though she does acknowledge the need for a shift in national policy for working families) is just as damaging as [Marissa] Mayer’s office-only work proclamation that sends us back to the pre-Internet era of power suits with floppy bow ties.”

Some women, who I thought were my sisters in feminism, took it upon themselves to attack en masse for my apparent sin of referring to designer shoes (they didn’t seem to mind the reference to the floppy bow ties).  How dare I?  Did I even know if Sandberg wears them?  Sadly, they were so enraged over the mere presence of a designer shoe reference, they failed to see I was really talking about those of us Sandberg’s message was aimed at, and that my bootstrap updating had nothing to do with trivializing Sandberg or her shoe collection (though I did like those cute red peep-toes she was wearing on the cover of Time Magazine).

Now, with the references to Ruemmler’s shoe collection giving writers a new opportunity to address this issue, I see my Louboutin turn of a phrase is being brought out again by Amanda Hess (and I’m sure others will follow) to build the argument that women’s shoe references are insensitive and should be off-limits, and that anyone who dares to cross that line should live in shame.

If I had criticized Sandberg’s advice as unworthy because she is a wearer of designer shoes and expensive clothes, then we’d have something to talk about.  I had other reasons for being critical of her message, but none of them had to do with her shoes.  As for the Washington Post’s focus on Ruemmler’s spike heels, the headline and first paragraphs gave readers the opportunity to infer that the current White House Counsel was someone not to be taken seriously, and is a excellent opportunity to talk about how journalists write about women.

Using the Washington Post’s inappropriate focus on sexy shoes as an excuse to revisit outrage over a turn of phrase (which was never directed at Sandberg) is really a question about journalistic commentary —  if a writer is going to be critical, then take the time to ask whether a phrase is trying to marginalize a person when referencing their appearance or whether is there a legitimate writer’s device being used. Clearly, many, many writers believe there is never an appropriate time or place to mention shoes. For me, there are occasions when it’s acceptable to update a worn cliche — you know, those bootstraps —  when it’s not an effort to bring down a sister.

If I had a pair of Louboutins with straps, I would definitely use them to pull myself up, especially when dealing critics who don’t take the time to understand that not all designer clothing references belittle us or mean that we’re trying to be “hateful.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to slip on my black patent Manolo Blahniks (which do have straps that I can pull myself up with). I have a feeling I’m going to need them as protective armor.

Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side.  She was formerly known around these internet parts as PunditMom, but now she is trying to be herself. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (an Amazon.com bestseller and now available in E-book form!). She was recently awarded the Campaigns & Elections Magazine/CampaignTech 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award for her research and writing on the power and influence of women online. Her shoe collection is composed of more flats purchased at Target than designer heels.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Common License

  • Loved this post. Will not hit you with my plodding comfortable Clarks.

  • Unfortunately I shop at Aerosoles so I fear I will never have the honor of my shoes being mentioned in an article. I read your Lean In article – am I missing something? You were defending women in the workplace and I find the backlash about your mention of Louboutin straps to be misguided. As women if we cant get the double standard straight, what can we expect from the men? Carry on my friend!

  • I’m thinking about what you wrote here, I have not read your original Lean In article.

    Agreed: Your Louboutin straps comment is not at all in the category of the comments about “Ruemmler, a former litigator who is described as someone who likes to wear extremely high heels in the courtroom, as a ‘litigatrix.'”

    Disagreed: Saying pull yourself up by the Louboutin straps has a different connotation than the catch phrase boot straps. I have no desire to attack you about it, but I would ask you to reflect on it. Because boot straps is a “time worn catch phrase” it has no feeling of a personal clothing reference about what women wear. Your phrase does. Unless we”re talking about models on the runway, is there any valid reason for referencing a woman’s attire when writing a professional article about her and her work?

    Then your reference to Sandberg’s cute red shoes seemed unnecessary & defensive in the context of you defending what you’d said about the boots. This is a tough area and as women reach more powerful positions, I think I am overly sensitive to these issues because we have not yet “arrived”. It’s still not common to have top women leaders so any reference to clothes, appearance is a way of diminishing them, however innocent the initial remark.

    All that being said, thanks for making me think more about this issue. You raised good points. Cherry

  • Interesting…before I read this, just seeing the title, I thought you were going to say that by using the “Loubotin straps” metaphor in your critique of Sandberg’s stance, you were also suggesting that Sandberg is arguing from a place of great privilege, out of touch with the challenges most professional American women face. (Since the vast majority of American women can’t afford expensive designer shoes.) It would have been very different if you’d said “pull themselves up by their Nine Wests.”

    • Jane, there is that aspect, as well. One of the points of my original piece was that Sandberg is making her argument from a position of privilege most working women will never know. However, I was not referring to her shoe wardrobe, which seemed to be to bug sticking point with so many people who objected to my reference. As for Louboutins vs. Nine West, maybe I was just being aspirational. 😉

  • Wow, makes you think – anything you write can be construed as offensive! Personally, I’d prefer we talk about clothing choices at all times – for men and women. It would be add an angle to serious news that would really appeal to people like me, who tend to read celebrity gossip more than the front page….

    For what it’s worth, I thought your Loubotins line was clever!

    • Since most of my shoes come from Payless, I had no idea what your Loubotins line meant.

  • Joan Haskins

    It would not be America if people didn’t take offense! For what it’s worth, I’d love a pair of Manolo Blahniks one day…

  • Dana

    If I were inclined to be at all annoyed at your Louboutin reference, it’s only because not all women wear heels–some of us can’t, really. My feet are very wide, and were so even before I got fat. I have not been able to wear anything narrower than Payless ShoeSource’s wide sizes since I was a teenager, and I don’t fit in those anymore.

    Even when one’s feet aren’t too wide for heels, one may find that they are neither comfortable nor promoting of orthopedic health overall. I’d like to get to old age without my feet being molded out of shape and my spine thrown out of whack, if that’s OK.

    But… I wouldn’t have been annoyed much, if at all, because I could tell the difference between your reference and the Post’s.

    An aside: Just because the NYT got it right this time doesn’t mean they always get it right–as you no doubt observed with the recent “opting-out” flap. 🙁

  • Diagonotter

    I don’t take umbrage at the mention of shoes in your “updated turn of phrase” but I would wonder if you turn of phrase (as I don’t have the article in its entirety) is supposed to indicate that equality in the workplace was for only the (mostly white) privileged class, since louboutin are a $1000 a pop to start. White Feminism ™

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