Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story on embattled White House legal counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, who was thrust into the spotlight last week over her management of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. Halfway through the piece, Post reporters Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin turned their attentions southward. They quoted the Wall Street Journal on Ruemmler’s “stunning 4-inch bright pink stiletto spikes,” noted that her shoe collection inspired the blog Above the Law to dub her a “litigatrix,” and reported that “her shoes—which include pairs from designers Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin—are so legendary that everyone from the president down teases her about her footwear.” Then, Eilperin dived further into Ruemmler’s closet for a companion piece titled “A white house counsel known for her shoes.” Apparently, one pair has paisleys on them.
High-heel name-drops like these are a scourge on journalistic profiles of powerful women. For some journalists, reporting that a woman wears high-heeled shoes of various colors and origins apparently passes for a weighty detail that gives some insight into the subject’s character. Often, that perceived insight is negative: Heels are mentioned to paint women as spendy, superficial, severe, or a conspicuous deviation from the male standard. Take this recent profile of a group of female tech entrepreneurs, in which Los Angeles Times reporter Andrea Chang introduced the women from the soles up. “It seemed like a typical dinner party for the well-heeled set: eight women, some dressed in stilettos and skinny jeans, gabbing over glasses of wine and endive spears with goat cheese at a lavish Hollywood Hills home,” Chang wrote. “But amid the Kate Middleton pregnancy chatter and a debate on the best mascara brands, the conversation turned to mobile app strategies and the latest tech companies to score millions of dollars in venture capital funding.” The implication is that it is atypical for women to wear heels and also have a mind for business.
The mention of high heels is an egregious detail—so many women wear them, they’re about as meaningful a fashion choice as a senator in a suit. But Christian Louboutin shoes—which are spike-heeled, red-bottomed, and priced in the hundreds to thousands of dollars—are rare enough to inspire next-level negativity. Louboutins are such an easy target that journalists have dropped the name to malign women who aren’t even wearing them. USA Today’s Joanne Bamberger knocked Lean In by claiming that Sheryl Sandberg wants “women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps.” (Whether or not Sandberg actually wears those shoes is not an established fact). One of the most heated Louboutin controversies brewed from a 2010 Vanity Fair piece about the crew of Valley teenagers who broke into celebrity homes to steal their designer clothes. The story, called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins”—later adapted into the book and film The Bling Ring—reported that one of the teens at the center of the ring, Alexis Neiers, appeared in court “wearing a tweed miniskirt, a pink sweater, and six-inch Christian Louboutin heels.” Neiers contested the characterization of her footwear in a call to journalist Nancy Jo Sales that was captured on the E! reality TV show Pretty Wild. “Nancy Jo, This is Alexis Neiers calling,” she wept into the phone. “I’m calling to let you know how disappointed I am in your story. There’s many things that I read in here that were false, like you saying that I wore six-inch Louboutin heels to court with my tweed skirt when I wore 4-inch little brown Bebe shoes!”
The moment was made to be immortalized in a hilarious ever-refreshing GIF, but Neiers has a point. A Louboutin mention functions more like an accusation than an objective detail. To be clear: If the President of the United States ridicules your subject’s shoes (as confirmed by the White House communications director), that’s a fact worth reporting. But if you’re going to go there, your shoe section requires some additional context. Like the acknowledgement of the fact that when the media focuses on a political figure’s appearance, the public rates her as less “in touch,” “likeable,” “confident,” “effective,” and “qualified.” Or the fact that “Litigatrix” is an unnecessarily gendered made-up word that conspicuously conflates powerful women in any industry with those who work primarily in sex dungeons. Or that the designers of men’s shoes are rarely name-checked in profiles about the politicians who wear them. Or the fact that, despite the press attention it’s attracted, Ruemmler’s shoe collection may not be all that outrageous. “One of Ruemmler’s pairs has a jeweled paisley pattern,” Eilperin writes. That’s a colorful detail. But “another is black and strappy”—that one, not so much. The Post couldn’t even find photographic evidence of Ruemmler’s apparently obsessive shoe game: “We tried to get a photo from the White House showing one of these exceptional pairs; instead we got this shot of her in a senior staff meeting with the president, revealing a conventional pair of heels.”
Mostly, pieces like this one fail to consider the woman’s own relationship to the shoes on her feet. Ruemmler apparently declined an interview with the Post, so discussion of her shoes is (insultingly) inserted as a proxy for her thoughts. But if shoes constitute statements, what do the women who actually wear them think they are saying? A 2012 New York Times feature titled “In Silicon Valley, Showing Off Their Louboutins” rose above other similar pieces by taking the rare step of interviewing high-profile women about their relationship with fashion. “Earlier in my career, if I had to choose between a skirt and being taken seriously, I would have chosen being taken seriously,” a former Google exec who “never leaves the house without four-inch heels” told the Times. “But now I’m at a point in my career in the valley where I’m judged by what I’ve done.”