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If the red shoes fit…
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Monday, 11 October 2010
tags: consumer culture, contributions from, disciplines, europe, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense, semiotics
Empowerment is an essential sign of women’s emotional well-being in British culture today. TV makeover shows regularly portray women transforming their wardrobes, and themselves, from dowdy and self-doubting (invisible) to confident and empowered (bright and visible). Red shoes occupy a special place at the intersection of empowerment and visibility. Not only are they a bold and daring fashion statement — they take us into the symbolic domain of the fairy tale, a genre steeped in the empowerment theme.
In Clairol’s ‘Red Shoes’ ad, a timid heroine dreams of empowerment — or in fairy-tale language, becoming the princess that she truly is. Thanks to her magical helper, the brand itself, she becomes brave enough to ‘steal’ her new power (symbolised by the red shoes) from under the nose of the wicked witch (the snooty sales attendant).
Bravery, disguise, theft and flight, all the fairy-tale themes are there. So is the most important fairy-tale motif of all: the triumph of mobility and daring over determinism and fate (the cruel gaze of the sales attendant), the powerless outwitting and outpacing the powerful.
But going back to one of the milestones in the development of the red shoes symbol, we find a different story. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘The Red Shoes’ uses the symbol not to empower the heroine Karen, but to push her back into the fate she’s desperate to escape (that of the poor, invisible village girl). Karen’s red shoes end up grafting themselves on to her feet and carrying her away in a dance she can’t stop or control.
It’s her own desire that turns around on her, overwhelming her will and forcing her into a parody of the mobility she wants so much. The red shoes here go into symbolic reverse: from a source of power, they become an instrument of alienation and compulsion. Magical bringers of empowerment, wilful destroyers of autonomy — red shoes fulfil both these roles in Andersen’s story.
Returning to the symbolism of shoes today, we see the same undecidability at work.
Shoes in general are described both in the language of empowerment and aspiration, and in that of alienation, fetishism and pathology. Women are often seen as being ‘out of control’ when it comes to shoes: prey to addiction, compulsion and obsession. But at the same time, their shoes seem to offer magical lines of flight out of all kinds of traps and dead ends.
And because they come with an extra symbolic helping of magic both helpful and dangerous, red shoes in particular walk the line between aspiration and alienation, mobility and repetition, liberation and compulsion.
Red Shoes PR (whose employees are obligated to wear red shoes)
Click here for a PDF essay in which Kate Bush tries and fails to expel the alienation from her red shoes.