At first blush, it might seem eccentric to assert that a pair of red high heels stands as our current most potent symbol of the corruption of the ideals of both democracy and feminism.
However, on 26 August 2018, Liberal MP Julie Bishop resigned as Foreign Minister to take up her current place on the backbench. For the occasion, Ms Bishop chose to wear dark clothing and a pair of red satin "bejewelled" high heel shoes.
Bishop’s choice was heralded by some media as “awesome power dressing” that 'symbolised the Liberal Party's issues with female representation in Federal Parliament'.
Some three months later, Ms Bishop donated her red shoes to the Museum of Australian Democracy. The shoes, claimed the Museum in a statement, are
' a bold statement and a symbol of solidarity and empowerment among Australian women.'
Ms Bishop then described her footwear as a “tribute to the aspirations of all women” and tweeted that she hoped they would inspire others to enter public life and pursue any possible aspirations to become foreign minister, or even prime minister.
Journalist and broadcaster Dr Julia Baird took it to the next level, declaring that Bishop’s red shoes to be
'symbols of defiance, spunk and covert rebellion [that] will become relics of a subterranean rage'.
Bishop’s sentiments around the gifting of her shoes – and the widespread support for the gesture from media commentators – is the 2018 equivalent of the infamous remark attributed to Marie Antoinette on being informed that the lower orders had no bread. “Let them eat cake”, she reputedly retorted — a remark that sprang either from malice, ignorance or both.
Bishop’s advice to women to take inspiration from her designer shoes is in the same vein as the aristocratic Frenchwoman’s advice to starving peasants — and that remark did not end well for the Queen.
It is a cause for serious lamentation that the symbol of feminist empowerment among white, Australian, middle-class feminists is high heels. Back in the day, feminism eschewed high heels: they hindered our progress – literally and figuratively – and caused us painful foot, leg and spinal injuries. Close-ups of Bishop’s squashed, wrinkly feet, gripped vice-like by her shoes, don’t inspire dreams of high office. And why should they?
The decision by the Australian Museum of Democracy to use Bishop’s high heels as the symbol of the former Foreign Minister’s contribution to democracy is even greater cause for lamentation. The Museum has managed to trivialise Bishop and her career – as well as trivialising every other woman – by selecting a pair of shoes as a symbol of female achievement and a source of inspiration.
This is extraordinarily undemocratic of the Museum. It is also sexist and elitist. The former because while the worth of women is judged sartorially, the worth of men is not. The latter because such shoes are not available to perhaps the majority of women, who either can’t afford them or, whose daily lives do not lend themselves to the wearing of killer red satin pumps with bejewelled heels — especially to work.
Presumably, Bishop had some concrete evidence of her mental and diplomatic acuity to donate to the Museum of Democracy in commemoration of her service as Foreign Minister? Or are we to believe all she had to offer was shoes?
In fact, what Bishop’s heels and the aspirational quality she attributes to them symbolise, is the disastrous and ongoing corruption of the ideals of feminism and democracy by politicians and media. Bishop’s heels are a metonym for the world in which LNP politicians dwell and its complete disconnect from the rest of us.
The heels represent a “feminism” that focuses on a woman’s appearance and they bear the message that as long as we have the right outfit, the best manicure, haircut and designer shoes, we’re in the race for high political office. Nobody actually believes this is the case, but what Bishop and her supporters are selling is the illusion.
This is in keeping with the rest of the LNP’s illusional/delusional messaging — such as the Prime Minister's bizarre assertion that:
“If you have a go in this country you will get a go.
There is a fair go for those who have a go. That is what fairness in Australia means."
To which Bishop would add, especially if you have a go in killer red heels.
It’s quite difficult to think of something less “covertly rebellious” than wearing a particular pair of shoes. In reality, it’s the epitome of conformity: conformity to what fashion dictates, to what men allegedly like, to tired, outdated ideas of how we should look. It’s a form of middle-class slavery reified as “empowering”. There’s nothing in the least rebellious, spunky or defiant about a woman’s appearance being given priority over our intelligence and skills. It is gobsmackingly regressive that some women in media and politics urge their sisters to seek in shoes what resides in our minds and hearts.
Liberal Party women, as represented in this instance by Julie Bishop, justifiably complain about their Party’s lack of female representation. It is difficult to reconcile this complaint with the self-denigration inherent in focusing on shoes as your primary symbol of power. Apart from anything else, Bishop wore them when she was resigning, defeated by the boy’s club and in retreat to the back bench. So…
The increasing arrogance and disregard of the electorate by the Coalition Government – and even of its own internal processes – is powerfully symbolised by the red high heels. They signify the abandonment to depravity typical of a dying regime; they signify privilege, elitism and contempt for the “ordinary” people on whose behalf a genuine government is required to act.
"Let them eat cake” has become “Let them wear red high heels” — a message all the more pernicious because it is directed solely at women. We already know how much the Morrison Government despises women, its own and more generally. A woman dies every week in Australia at the hands of a man and neither Bishop, who claims she wants to inspire women, nor Morrison, who doesn’t bother claiming anything, have any comment to offer on that situation.
In one stroke, Bishop has demonstrated her contempt both for democracy and feminism. The fact that the Museum of Australian Democracy has joined Bishop and the Morrison Government in endorsing and enabling their expression of this contempt only serves to underline, yet again, how our institutions and much of our media have been corrupted.
There’s nothing wrong with caring about how we look, or for that matter, wearing killer heels. However, the advice that a visit to Julie Bishop’s “relics” that allegedly represent, among other things, our feminine “subterranean rage” will imbue us with inspiration, is more than a little weird. Hopefully, Dr Baird did not use the term “relic” in the religious sense, because that would be altogether too much.
Disclaimer: The writer owns a pair of red satin shoes with gold heels but does not depend on them for inspiration and empowerment and wears them only when sitting down or being carried in a palanquin.
You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.
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