Mary Beard and the question of liking what you like to wear

Mary Beard, famous Cambridge scholar of antiquity, has written an article about her love of shoes (warning: Daily Mail link). This has caused some response because apparently women are not supposed to write about shoes, because it makes them look silly. I think it’s silly to think that women have ever written about shoes in the first place.

Think about it. Online commerce has made it so that anyone with enough money and a working Internet connection can order whatever kind of shoes they like, from cheap fast fashion to handcrafted leather creations. You can get vegan shoes. You can get shoes with shock absorbers. You can get shoes with deadly spikes coming out of the sides. You can get historically accurate recreations of 18th- and 19th-century shoe styles (here are some Western examples). There are even sites where you can design your own shoes—if you want a shiny gold pump with a heel striped like a Christmas cane and a fuzzy platform sole, you can have it done. If you love shoes, there has never been a better time to be alive. I am not sure if it is possible to be addicted to shopping for shoes, but if it is there has never been a more dangerous time to be alive.

I have never read a news article about a woman who actually likes shoes.

Whenever these articles about “shoe addicts” come out, the women are always interested the same damn brands—Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Stella McCartney, and so on—the very feminine ones that “every woman” has heard of and, not coincidentally, the most expensive ones. Saying that you like these brands is the equivalent of saying that you are are a movie buff because you’ve seen Star Wars or an expert Chinese chef because you nuked some leftover kung pao chicken last night. A woman who genuinely was interested in shoes and wanted to write about them would know of some other brands.**

Of course that’s not the point of these articles. The point is to define yourself in a certain way. Mary Beard is saying that she likes shoes, but that’s the shorthand. There’s several statements packed in there, all part of a projected self-image. I am conventionally feminine and I know which brands are associated with “feminine.” I want to be younger than I am. I don’t like my body. I know that people will think I am vain for liking shoes, so I will attempt to show that I am serious by throwing in some dubious links to theory. I am still ashamed to make purchases that my husband would disapprove of. I am like you, or like the you you are supposed to be. I desire the right things. Don’t be threatened by me.

The question I have to ask—why on earth would I care whether Mary Beard is girly and charming or not? She makes documentaries about the ancient Romans, for god’s sake. I guess the answer is so that I’ll be annoyed at her and write about her, and gather publicity for her and the Daily Mail.*** In which case, it worked—but why did she have to do it at the expense of the poor shoes? Their reputation is bad enough as it is.

* Beard’s upper limit for her shoe purchases is about $450, the discount rate. These sorts of shoes are like cars, in that you’re not supposed to buy them at the sticker price, which can run over a thousand dollars.

** I’ve never seen this done—I would guess it’s because it makes the woman into too much of an individual, with her own likes (and, even more frightening, dislikes!) The point isn’t sharing knowledge or particular desire, it’s creating a safe self-definition.

*** According to Beard, she wrote the article partly because she was going to have an article written about her shoes anyway, and she’d rather control the conversation about herself. However, it’s a conversation about shoes. What on earth did she have on her feet that required the original, preempted article, anyway—horns from endangered elephants? Dildos? Children’s skin? And was this presumably nasty original article going to be run the Mail? I can’t think of a worse fate than trying to avert the sour judgment of Daily Mail (or DAILY FAIL, AMIRITE?) readers.

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