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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Licentiate Column 24/02/11 The Red Shoes

Have you ever heard the Tale of the Red Shoes, written by Hans Christian Anderson? A vain girl tricks her adoptive mother into buying her a pair of much-coveted red shoes, which causes her to pay no attention in church. She stops attending services and goes to a party in her bescarleted feet instead. Once she starts to dance, the shoes will not allow her to stop. She dances and dances without an end in sight, through storms, through her mother's funeral, until she reaches the point of insanity or death, when a man take mercy on her and chops off her feet.

She eventually realises the folly of emotionally blackmailing a parent into irresponsible shoe buying, then she dies. So, a happy ending for everyone involved. Or maybe not.

In 1948, a seminal dance film was released, also called The Red Shoes. In it, aspiring prima ballerina Vicky Page gets the chance to dance the lead role in the titular ballet, but eventually has to choose between love of a man or love of her art, symbolised potently in the form of a pair of red ballet slippers. The consequences are predictably disastrous.

That's the trouble with red shoes: They symbolise the things that a woman are, very unfairly, restricted from freely having. These stories are designed to encourage women to conform. Dedicate yourself to your artistic passion instead of looking after a husband? Indulge in hedonism and freedom of self expression? Be an independent person who answers only to herself? Then prepare to have your legs chopped off with a rusty axe before repenting your wicked, wicked ways.

Even now, the world at large doesn't want us to own a pair of proper red shoes. After spending a day in town with my friend Fiona, bemoaning the dearth of such appendages, she came home and asked a question on Facebook; 'what do red shoes mean?' The answers were varied, but the real corkers included such gems as 'red shoes, no knickers' and 'red shoes = Amsterdam window girl'. Apparently, only whores get to don red shoes.

In this day and age, it's surprising that such asinine restrictions actually exist in terms of a simple primary colour. I want a pair of red shoes. Preferably with a very high heel and all kinds of ribbons and general fripperies. And yet, I have never ever had sex in exchange for money - what kind of topsy-turvy world do we live in?

My non-purchase is not as a result of these utterly sophomoric preconceptions; it's the conditions that these preconceptions may have precipitated. There are just no nice red shoes to be had. Of the 1000 or so pairs of women's shoes available on behemoth e-tailer ASOS.com, just fifteen are red, and even then, maybe only two pairs are even slightly close to that particular shade or rich, tomatoey, viscid, brilliantine red that has provoked centuries-long controversy.

It's damnably sexist to assume that such a shade of footwear automatically shrills 'come to bed NOW'. Don't get me wrong, it commands your attention - but the sexual attention can be unwanted or unintended. Red holds immense, often untapped power. Just look at the pope. He wears red shoes, and you don't see anyone wolf-whistling at him or mistaking him for a call girl, now do you?