The Cruel Shoes: Claire Underwood’s powerfully destabilizing stilettos

Here’s  a fascinating read by Megan Garber of fictional First Lady Claire Underwood’s perma-stilettos in House of Cards:

It is strange and striking that Claire Underwood, who is a human woman if also a fictional one, spends the early episodes of Season 4 of House of Cards permanently clad in stilettos. Claire, now the First Lady of the United States, wears her signature shoes—the shoes that complete her “power dress code”—not just when she is making public appearances, giving speeches and attending international summits and what have you, but also when she is not, technically, “appearing” at all. There’s Claire in the kitchen of the White House residence, hanging out with her husband while teetering in stilettos. There she is visiting her childhood home in Texas—among horse stables and tangled grass, upon soil that is so perilously soft—clad in sky-high heels. There she is nursing her mother in the same impractical footwear. In a scene that finds Claire exhausted from a day of, in every sense, dealing, she returns, finally alone, to the retreat of her lush bedroom, lays down on a chaise, assumes a fetal position, and falls asleep. In her heels.

(Did no woman, ever.)

What does Garber think this all-stilettos, all-the-time performance means?

Heels do for Claire what they will for anyone who wears them: They emphasize the thin lines between control and the lack of it. They emphasize aesthetics over practicality. They suggest privilege but also a kind of willful subjugation—an acquiescence to discomfort, to the dangers of walking in heels, to beauty standards that have been largely determined by men. They are shoes fit for a moment in which femininity is both a source of power and a source of its opposite.

I love it!  Shoes are just  a very modern means for disciplining and controlling women’s bodies.  They function similarly to stays, corsets, and the modern version of these foundation garments, Spanx–which actress Robin Wright has talked about wearing in her portrayal of Claire Underwood!

Garber continues:

So Claire Underwood walks—around the White House, around Washington, around the world—in a very particular way: deliberately, carefully, intentionally. She strides with confidence, but also with caution. Each step, when you are teetering upon the earth perched upon three-inch-high stilts, is precarious. So each step moves Claire forward; each step also threatens danger. She walks the way she does because of who she is, but also because of what she wears.

As  a child of the 1970s, all I could think about as I read Garber’s thoughtful analysis was Steve Martin’s bit about “The Cruel Shoes.”  I never understood this or thought it was funny–granted, I was probably 10 when I heard this and had never worn any heels.  Garber’s article kind of brings it all together!

9 thoughts on “The Cruel Shoes: Claire Underwood’s powerfully destabilizing stilettos

  1. Not a good choice for walking on snow-covered grass in a dark space between two buildings (one of them mine), in February, at night, bitterly cold, on the way to a noise frat party, with none of the walkers realizing that just ahead of them is a four foot drop-off to an asphalt pavement, littered with frozen gas grills, gas canisters, half-deflated kiddie pools, bike parts, ratty furniture, outdoor game boards, and other debris of bro’threnly “life.” I’ve seen this clip a dozen times, with the only difference being whether anybody falls, or just nearly falls, Totally “opposite,” on the scale above.


  2. I would add that shoes (like stays and corsets I would imagine) discipline the body in their potential to inflict pain! Especially high heels. I used to routinely lecture in boots with 3 1/2 inch heels. I thought they looked great, but by the end of the day, my feet were so sore it was difficult to walk. And I had no end of back troubles. So in a way, Clare is also practicing a form of self-mortification.


  3. Cruel shoes disappeared for a while with the blocky low heels of the 1970s and 1980s recessions, but they returned when women gained more economic power/started getting uppity (choose your own reason).

    ej is right. Heels are the hairshirts of the modern woman, except that they reinforce pride rather than humility. As someone who lives in a more crunchy granola part of the country, I’m worried that I will stick out like the country rube that I am if I don’t invest in some heels before traveling to, say, N.Y.C.


  4. Well, shoes are not a new form of control — witness Chinese foot binding, which marked both gender and class.

    I’m intrigued by younger colleagues who routinely wear 3″ heels. I occasionally wear heals, but they tend to be low, and comfort is a rule. I do like being taller though, and that’s the power connection!


    • HAHAhaha! inorite?

      Although recently I’ve been wearing heels so long as they’re chunky. I like the height, but I don’t like the pressure heels put on my heel alone with stilettos.


      • I got my first pair of heels this year– but it’s a pair of Pediped half-boots (with the chunky heel) and they are not uncomfortable at all. I literally can’t walk in ordinary high heels.

        (btw, today’s ask the grumpies is from someone who wants to know what to do after being denied tenure, if anybody is interested in giving her suggestions)


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