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High Heeled Heroes

What’s the deal with female heroes in high heels? Are we supposed to believe it's an added superpower - killing and slaying in impractical footwear? Or is it something else?

In his book, Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture, Jeffrey A. Brown discusses several 90s female heroes that were challenging the female hero narrative and representation in the 90s such as Xena, Pamela Anderson’s character in VIP and Buffy. He says, “The dominatrix overtones of these living room action heroes may have been toned down a little bit from their big screen counterparts but they still exist. Clad in leather and armor bustier, Xena may be the most easily identifiable as a dominatrix-influenced fantasy, but the sight of an adolescent Buffy, dressed in club wear and high heels as she kicks and stabs ghoulies to death is not that far off the mark either.”

There are some restrictions to what a television character can wear compared to what is acceptable in a film with a more adult audience. This is a sort of campiness that softens the sexism, Brown puts it. All of this helps me to explain my indifference to Buffy and disgust at her workaday heels while I was more than able to suspend disbelief that heels were no challenge for the leather-clad, all out dominatrix fantasy of Selene in Underworld. But still, television heroines that have this dominatrix vibe to give the inspiration to the female viewer, the initial eye-candy for male-viewers - and, honestly,  in the case of Xena and Gabrielle a lesbian or questioning audience as I’m sure we’re all aware…

The dominatrix representation is one that Brown digs into quite deeply but the summary is basically that a dominatrix represents both masculinity as far as punishment and femininity as far as teasing sexuality. Brown cites Thais E. Morgan who says the dominatrix uses “the signs of masculinity to mock masculinity”.

Brown adds that “both the dominatrix and the action heroine combine disparate signs: male and female, subject and object, powerful and powerless, pleasurable and punishing…they represent castration anxiety for male viewers but at their most progressive they also demonstrate the frailty of binary opposite cultural categories.” She is an all in one superpower and so heels are no match for her. She is not just a woman, she is beyond womanhood - glamourized and fetishized and powerful enough to harm others and the pain of her pumps is not even on her radar.

“Like the dominatrix, the action heroine refuses the terms of the social contract of sexual difference," which is clearly the way to attract multi-gendered audiences (Brown). Additionally, this is also a great way to intrigue the teenaged audience who is often interested in gender play, gender bent characters and gender roles in general (Smith).

So, basically, there’s a tradition here of this combination of the dominatrix-like hero blurring the lines of gender roles by being aligned with the archetype of the punishing dominatrix female. 

And as I read this there are just too many examples to name from comic books, film, tv and as far back as ever. Catwoman is a nice, obvious one but also Charlie’s Angels, Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element or Resident Evil, which Brown mentions as well. I’m thinking of all the Marvel women, especially Scarlet Johanson’s Black Widow, Trinity from the Matrix to some extent and of course Selene from Underworld

There’s one more layer to this portrayal of the hero in heels that, if the dominatrix argument perhaps goes too far for you, let’s look at Buffy and even some of the other heroes as not fighters but detectives - essentially that is what they boil down to in their respective series dramas, no?

In Linda Mizejewski’s book, Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture she claims that a woman detective is non-conformist character and so, as Mizejewski puts it, “she's a woman whose story does not lead to love and marriage…the easiest way to assure audiences she’s straight is to glamorize her, giver her a male cop partner, or put her into a bikini and high heels with plenty of silhouette profile shots”.

Mizejewski goes on to note that Jodie Foster’s Clarisse works hard against this by  “removing her from girlie or glamorous cliches”. In the opening scene she’s shown as sweaty, coming from an obstacle course at FBI headquarters  -she’s in sweats with no makeup, hair pulled back but messy but then she gets on the elevator and the distinction between her and the other “beefy guys” is clear - she’s smaller, she ends up looking , as Misjewski puts it, “delicate, vulnerable and pretty despite the sweaty gym clothes.”

So a little onto the why from Mizejewski here - as far as detective films go, the buddy comedy and the potential sex appeal of a sexy, cis female cop are more secure as far as box office wins go because if she’s a lesbian or even queer coded, or just simply not for the cis male gaze, it’s a risk and who is going to risk millions of dollars of production costs to make a movie that isn’t going to appeal to the most viewers and also not offend potential viewers or dvd buyers.

Just an interesting, honorable mention as Mezjewski finishes up this chapter, is the pregnant sheriff we get in 1996’s Fargo. This is nearing the spoof level (thanks Cohen brothers) of reminding us of her heteronormalcy instead of high heels. But it also reminds this writer of the fact that women are really only boiled down to a couple of archetypes: virgin, mother, whore.

Lastly, in looking for any signs of progress, change or comment on this depiction of women in regular occupations on film while also not making their pregnancy part of the character or part of their overt heteronormalcy, I found an interesting and rather deflating note in an article by the Financial Times. In the article, they say that at the time Fargo was made, “there was speculation that Fargo would set the tone for future depictions of pregnancy, that mothers-to-be would be allowed to be fully realised characters rather than bumps on legs. But, in fact, there have probably been more films featuring wood chipper body disposals in the past 25 years than there have been ones featuring characters who just happen to be pregnant.”

So this tradition of female fighters in heels will continue as long as there is the fear that 'regular women' cannot be heroic without being hyper masculine or glamorized to the point of camp. But as long as we know that teens will cheer for the dominatrix-clad mighty masculine-feminine hybrid, she will appear in leather and heels, at least on the big screen, and kitten heels for prime time. And at no point must she complain about sore feet after a tough day of fighting ghoulies. That's the fantasy – that's the belief I suspend as I watch any of these women spin kick on a stilletto.

Please leave a comment below or join us in the Spooky Salon for a longer chat LIVE on this and other topics from the podcast and blog.

Brown, Jefferey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender,  Fetishism, and Popular 

Ide, Wendy. "Why Fargo is still the mother of all pregnancy movies". Financialt Times

Mizejewski, Linda. Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. New York. Routledge, 2004.

Schubart, Rikke. Super Bitches and Action Babes. The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 
1970-2006. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 2007.

Smith, Frances. Rethinking the Hollywood Teen Movie: Gender, Genre and Identity
Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, 2017.

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