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.