I went on a walk with my grandmother to exchange a pair of shoes that didn’t fit when I was spending a few days at her house for the holidays. I held her hand, partly to envelop myself in her energy—that of a woman who is always on the go, ready, even enthusiastic about taking on quotidian challenges. When I’m not with her, I long for her care. To have her around feels like being wrapped in blankets. But we also held hands to help her stabilize on a pair of heels she insists on wearing despite the trickiness of the Portuguese cobblestones that populate the streets of Rio.
Even when people tell her she should step down from those heels, to let go of this unnecessary sign of feminine passivity, she reminds us that there’s nothing she can’t do, nowhere she can’t go, wearing them. She click clacks the cobblestones defiantly, purposeful.
My grandmother’s energy, although agitated, is elegant, not unlike the actress Isabelle Huppert‘s, who is a decade younger than her. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 picture Things to Come, Huppert, like my grandmother, often wears heels of the office variety: retaining the poise of a stiletto, but also practical, efficient. Things to Come is about Nathalie Chazeaux, a high school philosophy teacher and academic, whose life gets swept up in misfortune. Her husband of twenty years leaves her for another woman, her depressed mother dies, and she’s fired from her part-time publishing job. She struggles to keep her life together without losing grasp of the person she is or the footing of the space she has carved out for herself as mother, wife, daughter, and intellectual.
Shortly after Things to Come came out, Richard Brody, long time New Yorker staff film critic and Godard scholar, wrote in his review that “Hansen-Løve never gets to the soul of her protagonist—her film comes to life with Nathalie’s own activity but doesn’t reveal much about her in repose beside her baseline of human decency.”
His comment disturbed me: what about Nathalie went unexplored? Brody assumed, as many people—especially men—do, that a domestic life can’t construct a personality. For men, more than women, the housewife role is boring because it is granted. I wanted to tell Brody that on the contrary, Nathalie’s activity told me all I needed to know about what kind of person she was. Beyond human decency, she had the beautifully maternal quality of refusing to be forced into repose; of caring, deeply and unconditionally, about those around her. So much that her presence becomes not only pleasant, but essential. It feeds the energy of the entire house, makes it safe. I saw it because I recognized it; Nathalie Chazeaux is akin to the lineage of women I come from.
The film is striking in all of its aspects, but what I couldn’t forget was the way Nathalie’s wedge heels click clacked on the floor. How loudly she moved from place to place; how her movement characterized her struggle. Nathalie is always picking up, setting down, moving things around. Holding a bag and a stack of papers, piling books in her purse. Essential to her movement is the sound her heels make on hard floors, which consistently asserts the presence of femininity. You can hear her when she’s coming around from a couple of rooms over, click clacking with the same force she does when she is determined to leave. It’s more powerful than slamming a door, the way these shoes clack, because they linger for a while before they completely cease. It’s also hovering, imminent, as if the room, by listening to the sound of her approach, can feel her presence before she is even there—much in the way clouds turn grey and the wind picks up before a storm. And once the weather resettles, you’re left with a space that has been changed by the force that has reckoned with it. No place is the same after Nathalie’s shoes have come and gone.
The clutter of daily tasks Nathalie’s life revolves around is enveloped in that sound; it’s a testament to her effort. Her shoes clack when she is moving in places that bear the weight of her activity, to use Brody’s word. Contrary to what might be assumed—in a society where men’s roles oscillate between work and home, agitation and inertia—this is simply most of the time. Women like Nathalie and my grandmother don’t have a moment where they might put their cares out to rest. In all spaces, they are moving, their shoes clacking, nonstop, unapologetically and unhesitant about announcing themselves and asserting their presence while meeting ordinary challenges.
Housekeeping has long been understood as non-labor, an activity that should largely go unpaid, perhaps because society has taught us to believe it comes naturally to women. As expectations of women in the work force have shifted from the post-war era onwards, we have favored women’s plight in the workplace and mostly ignored the fact that some women occupy a duality of space in the home and the work environments. Nathalie wakes up every morning to go teach at the high school, a job requiring her presentation of femininity to signify authority and elegance. Often, we see her dressed in light sweaters, contained patterned blouses, fitted pants and, of course, wedge heels. She paces up and down the classroom, challenging her students to think through the sound of her click clack. Nathalie takes on the streets of Paris and the hallways of her own home with the same resolve she presents in the classroom. The division of her labor does not translate to fragmentation in identity, or efficiency: the same woman who will stand up for the seriousness of her textbooks in a publishing meeting will make dinner for her children; still the same woman will take care of her ill mother; she will peruse her bookshelves at home in search of a volume her ex-husband had the audacity to take away. There is no need for Nathalie to change outfits in between, to slip into something more practical or less demanding than heels––the sound of her shoes stomping the ground accompanies her like a shadow does its figure, inextricable from each other. Nathalie doesn’t succumb to the impracticality of her shoe choice, she persists through it: a woman as unafraid of tripping in her heels as she is unstoppable wearing them.
The sound of Nathalie’s shoes provides a clue to how we have come to perceive womanhood. Domesticity has been connected to meekness, conformity, subordination—domestic women have become symbols of the hidden, the quiet. So much so that it becomes increasingly harder for our current generation of feminists, who are preoccupied with the wage gap and the female CEO, to appreciate a woman who moves in the space between the office and the house and who takes seriously these infinite labors without complaint, ignoring the tenderness in the balls of her feet after a long day in heels. But is it possible that in our eagerness to see the maternal as meek, we have blinded ourselves entirely to the powers a woman can have in the domestic sphere? Is it possible we have deafened ourselves to the sound of their presence?
It’s true that a hard working housewife is a delight to any patriarch—at least at first glance. In the same way, it’s also true that there are patriarchal strongholds—the imposition to be beautiful, to appeal to the male gaze—that encourage women to wear heels, as well as the unjust task of submitting our feet to a torture men don’t have to. In an essay about the evolution of the high heel for the Atlantic, as it concerns its primary wear by men in pre-Revolution France, Megan Garber notes that heels “simultaneously raise up the wearers, and by virtue of their heights, hold them back as they move through the world.”
But, what of women who use the momentum of the height to propel forward, to proclaim to the world—the institutions that they are fighting—that not only are they able to bear its impracticality but in fact use that same characteristic to assert, to threaten, to mark presence?
At this age of feminist thought it should go without saying that this is not true of all women. As Garber rightfully argues, there are no absolute truths to gender.
This points us to the liberating idea that women can choose to give heels meaning by refusing to wear them just as much as they can by choosing to wear them. Nathalie’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s presences are so obvious, so all-encompassing and so vital to the workings of the home—a space that has as one of its functions to provide us with solace and mercy—that the sound of their heels clacking on the floor becomes a lullaby; and the silence of their absence becomes menacing, as if we’ve done something wrong and our privilege to comfort has been revoked. These women excel at the ability to give us the most primal of sensations, which is to feel protected. Although protection has been long associated with patriarchal roles, I am certain that hearing my mother and my grandmother click clacking around the house is what has always given me the deepest sense of safety, of being home.
Women like Nathalie, like my grandmother, can be as threatening to men and the oppressive structures of our society as a woman occupying a leadership position in a corporate job, because they have the ability to transform the spaces they move in subtly and yet irrevocably—with the sound of their heels, with the warmth of their touch. Their power is founded on the knowledge that they protect us as they do because they can, not because they’re obliged to; their action rests entirely upon their will. A decision to refuse access to this power is able to throw off the equilibrium of the whole house and substantially change our perspective of family and the concept of home. The sound of Nathalie’s shoes is threatening because it proves her to be a woman whose life is interesting, engaging; which requires her comings and goings, loudly proclaiming where she is. Far from being submissive, she is defiant of what the world asks of her, because she knows there’s nothing she can’t do—and what’s more, there’s nothing she can’t do her own way, the way she knows best. Clacking her heels. Nathalie Chazeaux will be fine, and free, because it is what women like her do. A rebel can still rebel in motherhood, daughterhood, wifehood. In this light, heels represent not the response to the male gaze, but evidence of an assertive personality, a refusal to be ignored.
After coming back from the walk with my grandmother on that hot summer’s day in Rio, I tried on the pair of wedges with black straps she had gifted me for Christmas. They fit, and they clacked beautifully on her floor.