In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Taking the High Heels Road

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Do we really need feminism any more? I mean, women work outside the home when they choose to, are protected by laws against discrimination in the work place and other places, and can vote. Isn’t feminism more about choice now–for both men and women–and the freedom that comes with choosing each his or her own happiness?

Just last week I brainstormed with my college student daughter for her speech class presentation over this very question. Together we offered instances beyond the blatant: sex trade and slavery, genital mutilation and pornography. Yes, we concluded, right here in the U.S., where genital mutilation and a thriving sex trade do not lurk in every corner of the country, feminism has work to do. Sure, equal pay for equal work slogans, body image and slut shaming come to mind as battlegrounds for feminism, but the more insidious poisons that preserve patriarchal prejudices work more subtly. 

Take language, for instance. Something as simple as “Hey, you guys!” may seem harmless as an expression. But most unconsciously respond to that call without thinking how the phrase beckons males and females alike while there is no feminine counterpart. “Hey, you gals!” would not turn a single male head. 

And then there are high heels. Given that most anyone can merely look at a pair of high heels and foresee the long-term damage of daily wear or even the short-term calamity that could befall a novice wearer, forcing women to wear them to suit the tastes of a few male gatekeepers smacks of sadism let alone sexism. That such footwear would be prerequisite to female attendees of such a prestigious event as the Cannes Film Festival, upon which some fates and finances depend, can be perceived no other way but sexist–wittingly or unwittingly.

However, I cannot imagine the headline, “high-heels gate”, to a BBC news story about flat-wearing females turned away at Cannes a few days ago–even if one of the refused flat-wearers (though later admitted entry) had a partially amputated foot too unstable for heels.

Ironically, one of the headliners of this year’s Cannes festival was ‘Carol’ the story of a 50-something lesbian.

Although the festival director denied a “ban on flats,” apparently the festival has a history of ‘partiality.’ 

The festival opened with a female-directed film for the first time since 1987, and organisers have endorsed a series of “Women in Motion” talks by stars such as Isabella Rossellini and Salma Hayek.

One former attendee noted the fashion bias existing for decades:

Wendy Constance, a children’s author who attended Cannes in the 1970s, tweeted the festival had a less than stellar reputation when it came to women’s clothes.

“Back in 1971, when I started work I asked for [the] rule about women not wearing trousers to be changed. It was. Forty-four years later.”

“It’s ridiculous that women are still being expected to conform,” she added.

Those subtler forms of sexism perniciously pervade, permeate a society and motivate conscious or unconscious acts of sexism that may seem small but, in their accumulation, grow large in the long-term consequences. Sexist attitudes have been known to influence the line of questioning by a male detective to a female rape victim or a male judge’s sentencing (two positions empowered with a great deal of discretion within a realm of rules), actions with far-reaching effects to that victim and women generally.  

So what if Cannes bans flats? Aren’t we being too sensitive? Nothing to get our undies in a bunch over, right? Wrong. 

Conduct of a nation, including its laws and commerce–daily practices–are predicated on the stuff fed to our brains sometimes in blasts of shocking information and trauma, sometimes in long steady courses of study and living, but mostly in imperceptible increments–like subtly sexist language, pictures, and gestures, such as silly dress codes at Cannes. 

Feminism means freedom; freedom means choice. We cannot choose if the knee-jerk reactions of our conduct are pre-programmed, unconscious and unchanging. We must question our behaviors, the reasons for rules we set and how they are enforced, not take accepted practices for granted. A simple start? Ban the arbitrary bans on women’s fashion choices.

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