Are High Heels Feminist? with Summer Brennan
Are high heels oppressive or powerful? Good or bad? Beauty or pain? What if the answer to all of those questions is…yes?
We talk with Summer Brennan about her new book, High Heel, which explores how heels aren’t just about fashion or culture, but are really about women’s place in public life.
Summer is a journalist who writes about gender, art, and the political history of fashion. Her new book, High Heel, is part of a Bloomsbury series called “Object Lessons: Exploring the Hidden Lives of Ordinary Things.”
What does it mean if the most feminine shoe is the shoe that makes it difficult to get from one place to another? In the literal sense, does that say something about our metaphorical ability to get from one position to another position?—Summer Brennan, author of High Heel
We chat about:
- Summer’s new book. High Heel is out now!
- Why high heels are such a divisive topic, and how Summer deals with negative feedback
- High heels and class: how what women are expected to wear ties directly to perceptions about where they stand economically
- Her own relationship with high heels—and ours (it’s complicated)
- Writing about oyster farms and environmental policy, high heels and feminism, and a thousand things in between—all at the same time
- Summer’s website
- Information on all of Summer’s books
- “Sex, power, oppression: why women wear high heels” in The Guardian
- Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series
- Sara shares why liking things thought of as girly ended up feeling like a rebellion to her—and how that resulted in sneaking clear mascara as a kid.
- Katel reveals that a love of clogs runs in her family, and why she blames high heels for once fainting on the NYC subway.
- We recommend Bossed Up, a podcast that keeps it real about the challenges women face at work.
- And a big fuck yeah to…Cantrip Coffee, a new roaster in Philly whose co-owner is Robyn from Blowdryer—the band behind our theme song!
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
SWB Harvest is one of my favorite business tools, and it could be yours too. They make simple software for project planning, time-tracking, and my personal fave, invoicing. I just sent out a couple invoices yesterday and it took me about two minutes flat. Whether you’re a solo freelancer, working in a big agency, or just need a way to track some time, Harvest has you covered. Try it free at GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings, and when you upgrade to a paid account, you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
KL And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together! And, Katel, we’ve been off for a couple of weeks! I’m so pumped to be back!
KL I know! It is kind of nice to take a little break though. But I’m excited too because there are so many amazing people that we are going to talk to this spring, starting with Summer Brennan.
SWB Yes! I’ve been a big fan of Summer for a while. She’s a journalist, and a writer, and one of my favorites on Twitter. And she has a new book out called High Heel. [KL laughs]
KL When I read this book, I totally went into it thinking, “how much can be said about a shoe?” [both laugh]
SWB Well, if it were about clogs though, [KL laughs] you’d understand, right?
KL Very, very much so.
SWB Katel wears a lot of clogs, y’all. [both laugh]
KL I do. And yeah, even though it’s not a super long book, it goes really, really deep. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
SWB Yeah! What I really, really liked about it is that it’s not like she’s trying to make an argument for or against heels, which I think would be kind of boring. And it’s not really about the history of heels either, although that definitely plays in. It’s much more about what is the role of high heels in our collective conscious or in our culture? And I think that that’s really fascinating. And it made me think a lot about my relationship to heels and the relationship I’ve had over time, which is actually pretty complicated. So, I’m curious, Katel, what about you? When you think about heels, what do you think about? Did your mom wear them? Were they part of your consciousness as a kid?
KL My mom definitely didn’t wear high heels, because when my sister and I were growing up, she was an elementary school teacher. So, she’d wear small pumps or kind of kitten heels to school because she was standing all day.
SWB But even teaching all day in a low heel? I don’t know about that.
SWB My mom didn’t wear heels. I mean, when I was little, she was in college—biking to school. [laughs] When I was a little bit older, she worked in a biotech lab and she did not wear heels there. Although, some of the people who worked in her lab did. She said that a lot of women that she worked with were young women, and it was their first job, and they dressed up back in the eighties. But then she was in grad school! And if you are a grad student in the sciences, you are pretty much wearing sneakers or whatever. [KL laughs] You’re working in a lab all the time, which I think is interesting. It’s definitely something that was never a big part of her professional life, and that for the most part, she’s kind of rejected. She’s never been somebody who was hyper femme in that way. And particularly not during her career.
KL Yeah. [laughs] I kind of love that. It actually makes me remember that my mom never really—she never really discouraged us or encouraged us to wear them. As we were growing up, I remember going to dances and stuff—she didn’t really have a stance at all about that kind of thing. I know she didn’t really love dressing up for work. She would come home and just want to slip into something more casual like her clogs [laughs] or flip flops. See? It runs in the family! [both laugh]
SWB I mean, don’t you find that you also want to slip into something comfortable when you get home?
SWB I mean, I’m all for it. And not just footwear either, like soft pants immediately.
KL Totally! Yeah, exactly. And I think because it was just me, and my mom, and my sister, I do wonder if it had been different if we had had a male figure present. Would she have felt more pressure to dress up? Or would he have had opinions on what she wore or what we were allowed to wear as girls or teenagers? And I think generally, my mom was very much like, “you don’t need a man, you don’t need to do anything to please a man.” Which… yes. [laughs]
KL But I think maybe in the process of her trying to cope with the absence of my dad, she was kind of actually helping us to learn to feel good about ourselves without relying on someone else.
SWB Yeah, it’s interesting you talk about that because I was really strongly discouraged from not just high heels, but from fetishizing anything hyper-feminine. So, that actually [laughs] made me want things like heels much more. And this conversation has made me realize something. So, I would usually say that my parents discouraged me from heels and other feminine stuff, but that’s not actually true. My mom wasn’t really into makeup and fashion, but it wasn’t her, it was actually really my dad. For example, he was extremely anti-Barbie. So, when I was a little girl, all I wanted in the world was Barbies—
KL Aww yeah!
SWB Like so badly! I loved them so much. And for a while, my dad tried to really ban Barbie. And eventually, that fell apart; it just was not sustainable. [both laugh] But what I realize is that so much of what he was doing was setting rules that were basically about limiting girly things. So, later on in middle school, I started wanting to wear makeup, and I was not allowed to wear makeup. So, then I would sneak it. I bought clear mascara, [both laugh] hoping that that would be something I could hide. [KL laughs] I’m 99% sure that my mom realized I was wearing clear mascara and foundation. [KL laughs] My dad was a little bit… he liked to make rules but he actually wasn’t actually that aware of what was happening. And I think my mom just never said anything about it. [laughs]
KL [laughing] I love thinking about you sneaking clear mascara. God, yeah! I didn’t get super into makeup, but I definitely had friends who wanted to experiment with it, which seems totally reasonable. And they weren’t allowed to, so they did exactly what you did.
SWB Well, for me, all of that—heels, makeup, all that particularly girly stuff ended up feeling like a rebellion. And so for a lot of women, it doesn’t feel like a rebellion, it feels almost like conforming to the stuff they were expected to do. But for me in some ways, it was the opposite. And I think that some of this really speaks to what Summer talked about, which really hit home for me, which is this question—‘are heels feminist or anti-feminist?’ is not a very helpful question because there’s not really a very good answer. Because in my example, my dad was the one who decided for me that they were oppressive, and unhealthy, and frivolous. And while I think he would have liked to believe that it came from a place of caring about my health and practicality, what it really came down to was equating femme stuff to being silly or shallow. And that’s really about misogyny, and about controlling women, and judging what women are worth or not worth based off of how they present. And that’s actually the same kind of misogyny that underlies the expectation that women do wear heels. So, of course, now I can wear whatever the fuck I want, but umm…heels usually hurt! [both laugh]
KL Oh god, they do! I mean, I remember all these times I tried wearing them—everything from those little pumps to boots with high heels, remember those? And even kitten heels, and how I have just never really been able to walk in them really well. And I would try to do it at work, and I would have trouble working, or it would just hurt like hell, and I thought I was failing. Like there was something obviously wrong with me. Like how could I not do this seemingly basic feminine thing? So, I wound up wearing a lot of ballet flats, which just made me feel shy about my height because I’m already short. And, you know, here were shoes I could wear [laughs] to appear taller, and I just couldn’t make it work. [laughs]
SWB Yeah! You know, I’m 5’11, and I never needed to be taller, [KL laughs] but I did go through a pretty serious heel phase in my early twenties. It was at the end of college that it really started. I started wearing heels to class?!
SWB Yeah! I mean, can you imagine? Fuck that. [KL laughs] But I was into this kind of vintage-y vibe a little bit, so I was trying to wear a polka dot dress with a peep toe, that kind of thing.
KL Love it.
SWB Which sounds great in theory, but is a lot of work. [both laugh]
SWB I feel tired just thinking about it! [KL laughs] But then later on in my twenties, I was working in Arizona and sort of the Arizona fashion sense is a little bit like LA. So, you’d see a lot of pumps with designer jeans at the time.
SWB And I definitely wore some of that, and I remember wearing heels to work almost daily. And then I remember doing things like [laughs] flying to LA for the day. Actually, this one time flying to LA for the day to be on set with Jeff Probst—
KL Oh, weird! [laughs]
SWB —the Survivor host.
KL Yeah! [laughs]
SWB Long story for another day. [both laugh]
SWB It was an interesting day. And anyway, so I went to this sixteen-hour day to hang out with Jeff Probst on this set in Hollywood. And I got on the flight at 6 o’clock in the morning in some serious fucking pumps, and I remember flying home in them [laughs] at like 9pm, and just being like… oww! [laughs]
KL I can’t even imagine that, that just sounds like torture. [laughs]
SWB Yeah, like how? How, baby Sara? [laughs] How did you do it?
KL [laughing] Exactly. Well, did I ever tell you about when I was living in New York City temping and I went to go on a job interview and had been working with this recruiter, who had advised me “dress up.” She specifically said, “wear a skirt suit, and if you don’t have one, go get a cheap one and heels.” So, I literally went to the cheapest department store I could find and I got this really ill-fitting skirt suit that was too long, and too boxy, and some black heels. And on my way to the interview while riding the subway, I think I was super nervous, but I also just remember feeling so incredibly awkward in what I was wearing… that I fainted.
SWB Oh my god, what? What happened? [KL laughs]
KL So, [laughs] luckily we were pulling up into the station and someone got me off the train, and I came to slumped against the stairs going up out of the subway station, and somebody was offering me a bottle of water. And they had called the paramedics. So, it was this whole thing. When that happens, they don’t let you walk out—[laughs].
SWB Oh my god.
KL You have to leave with the paramedics. So, they made me do that. I ended up in the ER because they wanted to make sure everything was okay. Of course, I called my recruiter and said, “I’m not going to make it to the interview, here’s why.” And, of course, she was just so incredibly kind and generous, and she helped me out, and we sorted everything out. But yeah! I went back for the interview I think later that week and…I got the job! [laughs]
SWB [laughing] Oh my god, you still got the job?! [both laugh] Wait, so when you went back, did you have to pull the skirt suit back out and put it on again?
KL I sure did, yeah.
SWB Oh boy. Okay! So, you were able to buck up and put on the heels and go get the job [KL laughs], but it’s also just not that simple. I know a lot of women who are in, say, engineering who have said that they are constantly doing the math of like “how do I present in a way that I enjoy and that feels like me, but that is also going to fit in with all these dudes?” There’s a lot of pressure to kind of dress like the other dudes on your team and to kind of always be in the sneakers and hoodie situation. And especially early in their careers, women say that they get all kinds of the wrong kind of attention if they dress too femme. So, they want to be taken seriously, and the best way to be taken seriously is to just revert back to a hoodie. But then also you don’t get promoted as the girl who shows up in a hoodie! Right? You’re just the girl in a hoodie versus a woman professional.
KL Right, right.
SWB And it’s very difficult to come at that and say, “well, what is the quote-unquote ‘right’ way to approach it?” Like…there isn’t one. Or I’ve also known trans women who specifically wanted to make sure that they were presenting in a very femme way because it would help them avoid misgendering, and it was them wanting to make a very clear statement about who they were. But dressing super girly in a lot of environments didn’t quite fit in, so then they were always sticking out more than they already felt like they were sticking out.
KL Yeah. And then I also think about women of color who present femme—then there’s also this other whole set of calculations. R.O. Kwon wrote this piece last month in the New York Times about constantly being called “cute” in professional settings as an Asian woman.
SWB Ugh! And I hear that is constant!
KL Yeah! So, then it’s like what do you do if that’s constantly happening? Try to dress older or dowdier or what? Like you can’t just be.
SWB Right. And I think that that is true whenever you are a professional woman who is visible; you are always an object of judgement. I mean, I think this has come up a little bit on the show before, but I have definitely felt that when I am on stage. That even people who are really well-meaning will spend a lot of time talking about my hair or my outfit when I give a talk. And you get into this weird space, like you’re always on display.
SWB And I’m thinking about the story that our friend was just telling us that I think we have to tell everybody about.
SWB Okay! So, she is super professional. She is fucking rad.
SWB But she’s going into this big pitch presentation, and she’s going in with a bunch of people she has not worked with before. And there’s like seventeen of them and they’re all going to go to this client meeting. So, they decide that what they’re going to do is create what they call a “placemat.” So, basically print out sheets that have every person from their team’s headshot, and name, and title on it, so that everybody can have that in front of them and not be like, “oh, wait, who’s this person presenting now or talking?” etc.
KL Or like switching business cards and stuff.
SWB Right! So… okay, cool. She’s like “great idea!” But then they decide they’re going to vote on who has the most [KL groans] photogenic headshot.
KL [groaning] No… [sighs]
SWB And, of course, she’s looking around and in this group of seventeen people, [KL laughs] a) she’s by far the youngest person, b) she’s one of two women. So, lo and behold, guess who gets labeled most photogenic? And everybody’s treating her like she’s supposed to take that as a compliment, and to me, it’s just this very thinly veiled “you’re the hot one.”
KL Ew, yeah!
SWB You know? It’s super gross. And it was so throwing her off her game before she had to go in and give this really big pitch!
KL Yeah, totally. And god, that’s so frustrating to hear her talk about it because after the fact, she’s spending time questioning how she responded, and kicking herself for trying to act cool in the moment, and questioning whether she did the right thing. It’s just a lot of work.
SWB Right. And it’s so frustrating to feel like no matter how much time and energy you put into a) being awesome at your job, and then b) presenting in “just the right way,” it’s still [KL laughs] never quite enough. And you can’t avoid people feeling like it’s sort of okay to talk about how you look and if you’re doing the right thing and all of that. So, it just comes back to this double bind of there’s no way to do it right. If you don’t wear heels, you’re too casual. If you do wear heels, people are going to make fun of you because you can’t walk the eight blocks to lunch that they want to walk. And it’s like, how are you ever going to come out of that with your self intact?
SWB You’re just constantly second guessing all of the time. And I think that is why I liked Summer’s book so much. She argues it’s not just about looks, it’s not just about the high heel as an object, it’s about women’s place in public life. And in context of a culture that is going to punish women for any choice no matter what it is, it’s just not very helpful to try to say, “wear the heels or don’t wear the heels.” It’s never that simple. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Summer Brennan
KL Summer Brennan is a journalist writing about gender, art, and the political history of fashion. She has a new book out titled High Heel, which is part of a Bloomsbury series called “Object Lessons: Exploring the Hidden Lives of Ordinary Things.” And we can not wait to hear more. Summer, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Summer Brennan Thanks so much for having me!
KL So, what made you want to write about the high heel?
SB So, first I fell in love with this book series that Bloomsbury puts out. And it’s pretty diverse in terms of the issues that come up with the objects that the authors choose to write about. And I’d been thinking a lot about feminism, and sexism, and gender, and women in the workplace specifically, and the way we’re kind of expected to perform gender, but also maybe subvert gender to some degree in the workplace. I was working at the United Nations in Manhattan at the time, which is a pretty formal work setting. And I started thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about women, about being women, about who is a woman, and who isn’t a woman, and what’s expected of us. And so thinking about the stories we tell ourselves—actually, I was reading a lot of Helen Oyeyemi at the time, [laughs] and she’s this wonderful novelist, and she incorporates fairytales into her work. And so I started thinking about these original stories that we draw on when we think about gender and gender roles. And so many of them had to do with shoes actually. Think of Cinderella or The Red Shoes and different stories like that. And it just kind of came together as a way to get into these kinds of conversations.
SWB There’s this thread that I keep thinking about where you kind of talk about this debate that won’t stop. Are high heels feminist or anti-feminist? Are they oppressive or are they powerful? And you kind of write that the answer to all of those questions is yes, and that we kind of keep having these debates because they’re not really about fashion or culture, but they’re about women’s place in public life. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how you came to that realization and what you mean by that?
SB Yeah. Well, I think that’s the thing that I was struck with. That it’s so often it’s this or this other thing. It’s one or the other. It’s this binary choice of good or bad or feminist or not feminist. And it just was much more complicated than it’s made out to be a lot of the time.
SWB So, the book is out. And it’s been getting a lot of press. And I know that you’ve had some excerpts or adapted excerpts lots of places, including—I was reading this piece in The Guardian adapted from the book. And I know that you were getting a lot of feedback as you started talking about the role of the high heel and the sort of complexities of the high heel from men who suddenly seemed to have a lot of expertise in the high heel.
SB Right. [laughs]
SWB And I’m really curious, how have you been handling that kind of feedback, and what do you say to those people—if you bother to say anything at all—who suddenly come out of the woodwork to critique whatever a woman writes.
SB Writing anything as a woman, you often get comments, or speaking in public in general. But I think what’s so interesting about the high heel debate is that there isn’t really an accepted argument that can be assigned to different ideologies. It’s not definitively feminist or definitively not feminist. You can find people that are in favour of them or against them sort of across political lines. If you say that high heels are good, people are going to get on your case about it. And if you say that they’re bad, they’re going to get on your case for that as well. And it really is just about more this not this ambivalence but we’re still sort of sorting out what we find acceptable for women to do in public and to be able to express themselves.
SWB It reminds me so much of debates about things like women and makeup. Are you wearing enough makeup, too much makeup? We don’t want women to be wearing too much makeup because gosh, then they’re just trying too hard or whatever. But we also don’t want women to not be wearing any makeup. But the best makeup is this makeup that looks like no makeup makeup, but nobody knows what no makeup makeup actually is. [all laugh] Like that whole discussion, which feels like it also comes back around every six months or so, where you get a lot of men’s opinions about whether and how women should wear makeup. And it’s like, “oh, so I see, the answer is, of course, that whatever you choose to do, you’re definitely going to be perceived as doing it incorrectly by some group of people.” [laughs] And then there you are at the other end thinking like, “okay, well what is the exact right way that I can approach this to not be harassed for it?” And, of course, the answer to that is there is not one. [laughs]
SB Exactly. There is no way. And I think that was sort of the most striking discovery or revelation. I sort of knew this at least instinctually if not explicitly, but there really isn’t a right way that you can be as a woman, so as to gain semi-universal approval even. Or “this is the right way.” Because, of course, you’re given benefit and drawback from almost everything you’re going to do in terms of how you present yourself as a woman.
SWB I know you’ve also written that you enjoy feminine things, you don’t want to not be able to wear high heels or just set them aside because of the sort of problematic parts of it. Has writing this book made you rethink your own relationship to heels at all? How did that evolve as you went through the process?
SB Oh, absolutely. So, I don’t wear high heels that often. I’m definitely not an evangelist for them, but I wore them a lot in my life. And I think I hoped that on some level that actually might be an interesting lens with which to look at them very closely. Because when I was reading about them and doing my high heel research and I tried to look at it from a bunch of different perspectives in terms of biology, and fashion history, and anthropology, and all that stuff, a lot of books that are specifically about heels or women’s shoes are written by people that really love shoes or are really obsessed with shoes. And I’m actually not that obsessed with shoes! [laughs] So, I didn’t go into it loving, loving high heels, although I wore them a lot. And coming out of it, I think I have a very different appreciation for them than I did going in, and I think I sort of choose to wear them less myself, but maybe have a better understanding of why they’re so important to other people.
SWB I had the period in my twenties when I wore a lot of high heels to work…and that period ended, and that’s probably good for me personally. [all laugh]
SB Yeah, that’s like me a little bit! [all laugh] And I think that why people who choose to wear high heels—the majority of people who wear high heels in their daily life are women, but of course they’re not the only people who wear high heels. Nonbinary people wear high heels, men wear high heels—all kinds of different people wear them. But as I sort of say in the book, that said, they’re so associated with womanhood in our culture. But the reason to choose to wear them is so different. And sometimes it can seem just like a natural thing. You grew up and your mom wore high heels, and as a little kid, you tried on your mom’s high heels in her closet, and then got your first pair for your eighth grade dance or your prom or whatever. And it just sort of existed in culture around you as this rite of passage for adulthood or for your gender, although maybe you didn’t think about it explicitly being about your gender. It was just part of your expected growing up. Also, these issues come into play about class as well in a big way. For me, I didn’t grow up around a lot of very fancy parties; I grew up in a more rural area. So, I think moving to New York City, I felt like I needed to show that I was a sophisticated young lady, right? So, I think that probably influenced my decision [KL & SWB laugh] to wear high heels too! And I couldn’t afford very fancy clothes, and so I felt like, “well, I’m wearing high heels, so I’m dressed up.” So, you can’t say I’m not dressed up if I have high heels on.
KL Yeah! I think that’s so interesting that you talk about the myths of class and how that comes into play when we talk about high heels. And that is something I just hadn’t really stopped to consider.
SB Right. And it’s very much about class. I mean, talking about shoes and the physical mobility of a person walking is very much about class. And that has changed over the last 150 years in really interesting ways too. I mention in the book Rebecca Solnit’s work on this. She wrote this amazing book, which came out in 2000 I think, called Wanderlust, which is about walking. So, she talks about the politics of who is seen walking where and what that says about their social station. And the iteration of that for women is especially interesting. She talks about a man in public—a man of the people, a public man, you think revolutionaries, politicians… it gives a much different connotation than a public woman or a woman of the streets, which becomes more like a prostitute. Even just the linguistics of it. I mention that there’s kind of an interesting play on words that the word “tramp”— if you talked about a man who was a tramp, the implication usually was that he was homeless or a vagrant of some kind. Somebody who was out walking around because he had no choice but to be out and around because he didn’t have a home. But a “tramp” for women is like calling someone a slut, right? Or a prostitute.
KL Yeah. I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, which is throughout the book, you draw examples from fairytales—everything from Cinderella to The Little Mermaid—and how shoes carry so much meaning in those stories. What made you decide on fairytales as such a central source for exploring the high heel specifically?
SB It felt like a natural fit to me. I guess it’s just one of those things in the creative process—maybe that sounds annoying—I didn’t so much sit down and search around for metaphors, it just sort of came to me as something that made sense. And maybe that’s because for so many people, fairytales are these sort of original, generative vehicles for storytelling for many people in their lives. They’re the first stories that many of us hear and I think that they have a really powerful place in how we form our idea of self, and struggle, and all of that. And also just you think about famous shoes. I thought about the glass slipper in Cinderella. You know, Cinderella is a story about class mobility. It’s a low-class, low-status woman—or maybe reduced status in many versions of the story. She had been higher status, but has been reduced. And then she gets to either gain or reclaim her higher status because she’s been selected by a high-status man. And the go-between that she uses is this pair of shoes. And you can see that in Cinderella stories—I mean, loosely Cinderella—but back to Ancient Egypt, to Imperial China, it pops up again and again. The variables are a little bit different, but the low-class woman, the high class man, and the shoe are the main things [laughs] that unite them all. So, I think I started off thinking out the Cinderella myth and these ideas of class mobility via shoes. And then the more I looked at other fairytales, I thought, ‘gosh, there’s really a lot about feet.’ [laughs & KL laughs] Women and their feet, women and their shoes. You asked me about this Guardian article that was adapted from my book. I actually didn’t adapt it myself, but they did a really interesting job of pulling parts of it to make it into an op-ed. And, you know, getting a lot of reactions to that—people saying, “high heels are not painful, how can you say that they’re bad?” and “I’m empowered by them.” And then, of course, on the other end you have people saying, “it’s the same thing as bound feet” and I’m a misogynist for thinking that women should ever wear high heels. But the pain of wearing high heels is a reality for I think a lot of people and it does impede your mobility to a degree. And so I started thinking about The Little Mermaid. In the original story, in order to go into the world of men, she has to experience terrible, piercing foot paint. So, there’s just a lot of it with women in pain in fairytales and paying some kind of pain price. And I felt like an unusual amount of that focused on feet and on shoes.
KL It’s amazing how much you must have uncovered in the process of writing and researching the book. Is there anything that was just really surprising?
SB It took me a while to make the connection that this had to do with walking, which maybe seems so obvious because they’re shoes. But I think because they were high heels—and it’s not so much something surprising I uncovered, but just surprised myself and connections I failed to make, I guess. Just this bigger metaphor of what does it mean if the most feminine shoe is the shoe that makes it difficult to get from one place to another? In the literal sense, does that say something about our metaphorical ability to get from one position to another position? I also mention myths a lot in the book—some of the older Greek and Roman myths from Ovid. And I had forgotten how violent some of them were and so much of them focused on rape. So, I think one of the biggest things—and I’ve said this to other people I’ve talked to about the book—I sat down and had a meal and sat down with Rebecca Solnit and she was talking about how when she sat down to write the “Men Explain Things to Me” essay, she was a little bit surprised by how quickly it went from a kind of funny anecdote about an annoying man to the mass rape and murder of women that exists everywhere. [laughs] And it shouldn’t really be surprising, but how quickly it goes from something that is sort of benign to something that is very dangerous and very serious. So, I think the book went to much darker places than I’d expected. There is a whole section that deals with sexual violence, and I don’t think I thought I was going to be including that when I started writing the book.
SWB Yeah! I think a lot of times you say, “oh, I’m writing a book about the high heel” and it’s like, yeah, it’s going to be about fashion or maybe it’s going to be this feminist takedown of the high heel. But I think people aren’t anticipating looking at it through this lens that uncovers so much of these deep, intercultural connections. And I really appreciated that, it’s one of the things that I loved about it and that made it so beautiful.
SB I wanted to… I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to take it really seriously as a symbol. It’s often invisible the way these misogynist ideas about women and women’s things—or things that get labeled as women’s things—can dismiss them as unimportant or frivolous. And I think I did that with it. I mean, I did that to myself and to my subject throughout the process, honestly. And I had to keep reminding myself. I mean, I wrote a book about it and even I had to keep reminding myself that this was a serious issue. Especially when it’s something like—this is a thing that women, if they are raped, their shoes can be blamed for the rape. Or this is a thing—even if it’s just something that causes physical discomfort to many, many, many people every day. Isn’t that worth talking about? [laughs]
KL Yeah, absolutely.
SB Even if it’s something—I mean, yeah, you can get to the extreme of damage to your body down the road or does this put you at a disadvantage? I also looked at it from a biological perspective of why is this attractive? [laughs] Why is this a thing that we’ve decided looks good? I think it looks good, but I know that that’s a product of being a member of the culture that I am in. So, I was curious—is there an answer for why we think this is attractive? And some of the arguments kind of come down to “well, it does make women easier to catch.” [laughs] From a predator/prey perspective. And I guess my mind ended up going in different directions when I thought about this topic. So, I tried my best to sort of lasso them into something that resembles a narrative.
SWB I really love though that it is taking something that is often perceived as being relatively frivolous and unpacking so much behind it and not allowing us to just accept that things that are feminine are labeled as frivolous and don’t deserve a deeper look.
KL Yeah. And thinking a little bit about that culture piece of it, you spent a lot of time in Paris while you worked on the book, right?
KL And the book ends in El Paso, which is not necessarily a place as known for its fashion as Paris is. [laughs] So, how did place play a part in your understanding of the high heel?
SB The high heel is very much an occasional shoe. Even if you wear it every day, it sort of speaks to place and occasion just by its construction. I mean, you can’t really hike in a high heel. You can’t walk down a dirt road in a high heel as comfortably as you can walk through a corridor in a building; they are shoes that are most comfortable indoors. And maybe somebody could argue with me about that, but I’m not sure why they would.
SWB I’ve seen Troop Beverly Hills! [all laugh]
SB Yeah! It’s been a while since I’ve seen…
SWB There’s a hiking scene in heels, yeah!
SB Oh my gosh, I missed a whole chapter I could have included. [KL & SWB laugh] But you know what I mean. I think high heels imply place in a way that a lot of men’s shoes don’t. And again, if you’re talking about one’s social class or social position, that’s involved in place too. So, I was in Paris and El Paso for things unrelated to the book High Heel just because I’m a journalist and a writer and I was doing other projects that brought me to those places. But anywhere I was, I would observe gender dynamics in the people around me and how women presented themselves and how that presentation maybe was received, or helped, or hindered them in different ways. And I don’t think it’s actually in the book, but I was in El Paso reporting on the detention of migrants in the summer of 2018. And one might think that high heels have more of a place in Paris than at the border, but there were women crossing the border wearing high heels who had walked—high heeled sandals, they’re weren’t maybe stilettos, but you find them in kind of unexpected places I guess is my point. And, of course, a lot of the men there wear high heels, but we don’t call them high heels because they’re cowboy boots. [all laugh] But they’re still kind of high heels.
SWB Yeah, you can get a good couple of inches off some cowboy boots.
SB Oh, totally.
SWB So, you had a book out a couple of years ago called The Oyster War.
SWB It’s about an oyster farm, land rights, the environment. And then, obviously, talking about the high heel is a very different topic—
SB [laughing] Yeah.
SWB —and I’m curious, how do you decide what topics to dig into and write about and how do you approach research for such wildly different topics?
SB Yeah! Well, I also sort of arrogantly thought that High Heel would be this sort of little thing I would do. [all laugh] Because I read these books, and I read a couple of books in the series, and they’re short! Mine’s actually on the long side for the series; it’s 35,000 words. But I had just written a book that was twice that length, and I just thought, “well, this will be like writing two or three magazine articles; it won’t be the same as putting together a whole book.” And I was interested in the idea, and honestly, having my first book come out being a female author, writing about an issue of science and policy, which my first book was on, I was kind of surprised how much sexism I encountered. A lot of the responses were really sexist! It was this very publicly fraught issue about—I won’t get into it—but it had to do with wilderness preservation and sort of big hornet’s nests politically. And it was kind of amazing how some of the people who didn’t agree with my conclusions could come up and just dismiss this years of work that I had done without any expertise or without even backing it with what they had to say because they were an older, white man basically. So, I had people insinuating that I was sleeping with subjects or that a man I wrote about in the book was secretly my partner—he was never anything of the kind. But just things like that. And I felt like a lot of the criticism and approach was very gendered. And I uncovered some original research about the nineteenth century that sort of changed a narrative, and I put a lot of work into it! And I was amazed at how quickly that could sort of get brushed aside by people who hadn’t done any research. And I got lots and lots and lots of emails from people like, “well, I googled this and it said something different, so.” And so I was thinking about sexism and feminism in a way that I hadn’t before. And I used to think of myself—I mean, I thought of myself as as feminist, but it’s one of those things when you haven’t had to deal with a certain level of discrimination or a certain level of harassment or what have you, you maybe don’t have to think about it quite as closely. So yeah! I’d been thinking a lot about these things and decided to do this book. So yeah, it’s pretty different.
KL So, we’re actually just about out of time, but I wanted to ask another thing. Just before High Heel’s release, you were also finishing a draft of another book called The Parisian Sphinx? When is that going to come out?
SB So, that’s set to be published in May 2020.
KL I mean, what has it been like to kind of move—it seems—so quickly between projects? That’s a lot and it’s incredible. How are you hanging in there? [laugh]
SB I mean, I’ve been doing those books at the same time. And originally I thought that High Heel would be a short project that I could do quickly, and I ended up working on it for two years. So, if that can encourage anybody to read it, that would be great! But I got really pulled into the subject in a way I hadn’t expected. But I had been working on the other book—I finished High Heel a year ago—and I’ve been working on the next book for the past year. And it should come out next year!
KL I’m really interested in that—sort of the format of the books as well. You’re going between not only wildly different subject matter, but also the format of the books. And I don’t know how long The Parisian Sphinx is going to be, but it sounds like it’s going to be sort of like a novel length—
SB Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s one of the biggest reasons why honestly I wanted to do High Heel. I love essay writing and I love Rebecca Solnit’s work, and Heidi Julavits, and Zadie Smith. And up until now, I hadn’t really been that kind of an essayist. So, I wanted to do something different and that wove together lots of different ideas and inspired by the things that had inspired me.
SWB I love that so much because I think that’s something I really relate to, which is this idea of always wanting my work to evolve, but that not necessarily being something linear. It’s often like, “well, let me see what it’s like to do this. Ooh! Let’s see what it’s like to co-author something.” Also turns out not easier! [KL laughs]
SWB Those kinds of decisions where you learn so much about yourself and about the work as you explore that stuff. So, it’s really interesting to hear you talk about what has led you through all of those different choices. And it’s been so great to talk with you about High Heel! High Heel was such a good read; thank you so much for writing it. Where can everyone learn more about High Heel and about all of your work?
SB Aww! You can go to my website, which is summer-brennan.com. And you can go to Books and there’s a page about High Heel there, which has some extra information and some links to where people can buy the book and some excerpts as well.
SWB So, High Heel is on sale now; you can get it almost anywhere. And we will link to it in the show notes. We will also link to some of your pieces like the one in the Guardian. Summer, thank you so much for being on.
SB Great! Thanks so much for having me. [short transition music plays]
Promo: Bossed Up
SWB Are you looking to switch careers, escape from a toxic workplace, become a better leader, or just be more of a boss in your everyday life?
KL Gosh, who isn’t?
SWB Well, then you might like “Bossed Up.” It’s a biweekly podcast hosted by Emilie Aries. She’s a speaker, an author, a leader, and she’s all about figuring out your career conundrums—like how to negotiate a raise, land a promotion, or start your own business.
KL “Bossed Up” is full of amazing tips for both taking your career to a new level, and living a
happier, healthier life along the way. Which you know we’re huge fans of here!
SWB [sigh] Yes we are! So, if you’re ready for a podcast that keeps it real about the challenges women face at work, and helps you find your way to sustainable long-term success anyway, subscribe now to “Bossed Up.”
KL That’s B-o-s-s-e-d Up—available wherever you get your podcasts, or at bossedup.org.
SWB Go get it, boss! [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel, you told me you have a fuck yeah for today?
KL I do! So you know how I love coffee?
SWB Fuck yeah! [KL laughs] This is a very short fuck yeah. [both laugh]
KL Fuck yeah, coffee! So, I do have a fuck yeah but I have to tell you the super short story. So, my husband Jon has, as you know, a pinball league and he’s been running this season and they were getting some sponsors for the final tournament. And one of the sponsors that came in is Cantrip Coffee, which is a brand-new coffee roaster here locally. And I realized that one of the owners is Robyn from Blowdryer, the band who does our theme music!
SWB Oh my god, no way!
SWB She told me she was really busy trying to get this new coffee company off the ground back when we were working with them to get the theme song onto the show! And then, of course, I forgot about it. So, that’s so exciting to hear that it’s launched [KL laugh] and it’s out there—
KL I know!
SWB —and they’re already sponsoring stuff. So, how’s the coffee?
KL It’s really delicious; I have been drinking a bunch of it because we can get it pretty easily. There’s a little shop near our house that sells it, but you can actually also get it online. So, if anybody’s interested, they’re online. So, yeah! Fuck yeah to buying things made by people we know! It’s so cool.
SWB Fuck yeah to Cantrip Coffee—also cool D&D reference.
KL Yes. [laughs]
SWB I love it so much! Fuck yeah, Robyn; I can’t wait to get some of my own.
KL That’s it this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, an awesome Philly-based band. You should check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Summer Brennan for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey, get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you next week!
SWB Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]