“The girl with low and sensible heels is likely to pay for her bed and meals”
– Anonymous, 1950s
In this discussion of the assemblage of Ground, Stiletto, Foot, Woman, I suggest that by using Jane Bennett’s thing-power materialism it becomes clear that these subjects – both human and nonhuman – work together in a network. As defined by Bennett, thing-power materialism “is a dynamic flow of matter-energy that tends to settle into various bodies, bodies that often join forces, make connections, form alliances…humans are always in composition with nonhumanity, never outside of a sticky web of connections or an ecology” (Bennett 365). Through recognizing the alliance of such bodies, we see that the stiletto does not have quasi-human agency. Instead, its thing-power resides in the ecology of its specific context at a given moment in time. There is no denying that the stiletto itself exists as an independent entity, but its power is inherent in the play of forces into which it enters. The flexibility of the assemblage allows the network to constantly renegotiate its balance of power; therefore, the network embodies a variety of interpretations of which humans are the actor most capable of recounting. Before continuing this discussion, let’s meet the actors in this assemblage:
- Ground – The ground can range in texture and solidity from mud or loose soil, to grass or sand, to wooden floors or cement. “Ground” is not only something that humans must interact with since things too are in contact with it in a similar manner. Therefore, “ground” engages with nonhumans and humans in a non-discriminatory way, treating each with equal disregard. Humans and nonhumans rest on the ground, stand on the ground, move across the ground, mar the ground, and are absorbed by the ground – just to list a few of the interactions. Whatever manifestations of “ground” that humans encounter, they acknowledge it as a surface that they must navigate. This surface is not only the landscape which humans traverse, but the earth that provides them with vegetable sustenance. Since humans are in constant contact with the ground – whether directly through their bodies or mediated by a nonhuman actor – they depend on the ground to be solid and unmoving beneath them.
- Stiletto – Shoes, though utilitarian and intentionally designed as protective wear for the soles of the feet, have changed greatly in purpose and design over time, but continue to remain an essential part of the human wardrobe (Pederson 8-9). On average, the American woman owns thirty pairs of shoes, many of which are high heels (O’Keefe 13). Stilettos, however, transcend the traditional functionality associated with shoes. The word stiletto comes from the Latin stilus meaning: “a stake; a pointed instrument” and was originally the name for a Sicilian fighting knife that was about five inches in length and tapered into a rigid point to enhance deep penetration (Cox 79-81). The name “stiletto” was borrowed and, as a shoe, the stiletto grew in popularity and took on a number of connotations as it was interpreted through various assemblages. The stiletto shoe is marked by a heel that is at least four inches in length and has a diameter of less than one centimeter at the point of contact with the floor. Additionally, the thin stiletto heel transmits a large amount of force (i.e. the entire weight of the wearer) onto a small area and are therefore often strengthened by a metal tube and capped with a metal or hard plastic tip.
- Foot – As humans, the foot is the lowest structure on the human body, meaning that it is closest to the ground and most likely to be directly effected by it. We are dependent upon our feet to work in conjunction with the rest of the body and our neurological system in order to afford us mobility and balance. The human foot has evolved over time into a mechanically complex and structurally strong appendage that accounts for our ability to locomote bipedally. The structural arches of the foot act as shock absorbers and the big toe provides stability (Stanford, Allen & Anton 305).
- Woman – What does it mean to be a “woman”? In one sense, it is a state determined biologically through the appearance of external female genitalia, female sex organs, and the genetic determinant of the XX sex chromosome. For others, “womanhood” is a portion of the life cycle marked by menstruation and fertility. Yet, what it means socially to be a “woman” is not standard across the spectrum of human experience and is not even limited to biological sex, does this imply that “woman” is also a socially constructed, culturally determined identity?
Back to the Assemblage: Ground, Stiletto, Foot, Woman
Like Bennett, “I don’t seek the thing as it stands alone, but rather the not-fully humanized dimension of a thing as it manifests itself amidst other entities and forces” (Bennett 366). So now that we have met the various participants, I want to look at the thing-power coursing through this particular assemblage.
As witnessed in the video as well as in the images, the combination of stilettos, feet, and the human body have a unique relationship with the ground. The wearer, upon slipping on a pair of gorgeous heels, compresses the bones in their foot, altering their balance and the distribution of body weight that evolution worked so diligently to spread throughout the foot’s bones. Rather than being spread throughout the entire foot, the entire weight of the wearer is now concentrated on spike heel and the dime-sized cap, meaning that a great deal of pressure focused on a small point can damage the surface of ground, denting hardwood floors or piecing the soil. Damage is not solely limited to the ground, though, since the wearer can experience back pain, blisters, disfigurement of the foot, and can even permanently shorten their Achilles tendon making walking a painful experience. In totality, the design of the stiletto is entirely impractical for the human wearer and the ground, yet their popularity is ever-growing.
Bennett discusses joy as a possibility for bridging the gap between thing and concept, recognizing “joy as one expression of the thing-power of the human body, joy as animating energy generated in part by affection for a material work experienced as vital and alive” (Bennett 363). It is this kind of energy that the stiletto animates in its wearer that Columnist Meghan Cleary, New York-based fashion authority and author of The Perfect Fit: What Your Shoes Say About You, acknowledges when she writes, “It does not matter if you are a clog girl, a flip flop girl, a platform girl or a motorcycle boot girl, single or married, kids no kids, stepkids, adopted kids or pets. House or apartment. City or country. When a woman chooses her shoes, she chooses the way she operates in the world. How she is physically occupying the world and how she relates to it” (Cleary). Nothing rings clearer than this concept when the stiletto is viewed in context of the assemblage of the ground, stiletto, foot, and woman.
The assemblage allows humans to interpret the concept of “woman” in multiple manners because it depends on what role the stiletto plays in the particular moment as at a particular time. One interpretation of “woman” is linked to sexual prowess and sexuality. “The stiletto is one expression of our feminine power that gives us the ability to tower, to command our strength to show off our divine feminine form, our light, even if just for a moment, for all the world to see” (Cleary). The stiletto reshapes the body, “The silhouette of the stiletto wearer becomes unmistakably female. Its very design limits the range of action in the foot and restricts the walk of the wearer, while at the same time it pushes the body into a most alluring feminine shape with breasts thrust out and bottom behind for balance” (Cox 106).
By compressing the foot to exaggerate the arch and ankle, stilettos allude to the natural reflex of the foot and toes that Alfred Kinsey, in his research into the sexual modes of and mores of the American woman in the 1950s, observed occurring during orgasm. The teetering, wobbling gait by attempts to balance on a needle point also promotes an exaggerated change in posture” (Cox 104). Stilettos give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height. They also alter the wearer’s posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles, and making the bust and buttocks more prominent. “Sensible shoes command respect, but high heels solicit adoration” (O’Keefe 16). Therefore, woman and drag queens alike look to these shoes as a transformative vehicle for change since they embody high fashion, sexuality, and female empowerment.
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter” in Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3, 347-372 (2004).
Cleary, Meghan. “In Celebration of the Stiletto” in The Huffington Post, posted June 2, 2008. Found at <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/meghan-cleary/in-celebration-of-the-sti_b_104717.html>
Cox, Caroline. Stiletto. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2004.
O’Keefe, Linda. Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More. New York: Workman Publishing, 1996.
Pederson, Stephanie. Shoes: What Every Woman Should Know. Brunel House: David & Charles, 2005.
Stanford, Craig, Joan S. Allen, and Susan C. Anton, eds. Biological Anthropology: The NaturalHistory of Humankind. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.