Can We Finally Stop Doing Things 'Backwards And In Heels'?

Aug 4, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 10:06 am

At the Democratic National Convention last week, President Obama gave Hillary Clinton props for being a super tough rival during the 2008 Democratic primary. "She was doing everything I was doing," he said, "but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels."

Now, it's always great to hear the leader of the free world acknowledge the unlevel playing field ... but I have one quibble: I think it's time we stopped talking about women doing things "backwards and in high heels." (And not just because it's no fun to wear heels on a playing field, and an unlevel one, at that.)

No disrespect to Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire — they were legends. Seriously. Just watch them. But Clinton negotiated a ceasefire in Gaza and imposed sanctions on Iran, and surely we can do better than frame her career in the context of fancy footwork and uncomfortable shoes.

This isn't the first time "backwards and in heels" has made an appearance at the DNC. In 1988 Ann Richards, then treasurer of Texas, noted that she was only the second woman in 160 years to deliver the keynote address at her party's convention. "But if you give us a chance, we can perform," she said, and then delivered the "backwards and in high heels" line with gusto to thunderous applause.

Clinton has repeatedly embraced the phrase herself: In 2008, she lamented that on the campaign trail, Obama went to the gym while she had her hair done — "It's one of those Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire things," she quipped.

In a recent conversation with Politico's Glenn Thrush, Clinton said the metaphor held up during her time as secretary of State: "I had to do everything he did, just like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire," she said. "Only I had to do it, you know, backwards and in high heels after I'd had hair and makeup done."

At the DNC last week, Obama's nod to Clinton's uphill battle received warm applause. On Bustle, Alex Gadu characterized the remark as "so, so right."

The phrase is no doubt sweet and well-intentioned, but there's something about it that doesn't sit right with me in 2016. Maybe it feels a little glib and old fashioned to use footwear as a shorthand for contemporary women's issues.

Or maybe it feels like it glorifies female struggle — without really addressing the fact that Ginger was doing everything backward because she lived in a world where only the Freds could go forward.

Or maybe I'm just worried that there's an 8-year-old kid out there, watching the presidential race in her light-up sneakers, who suddenly wonders: Wait, am I supposed to be wearing heels?

So if not "backwards and in heels," then what? Perhaps we just need to adapt the phrase for 21st century concerns. How about:

"She did everything he did, but she did it ...

... concurrently, and with inadequate parental leave"

... competently, but still making $0.79 cents to the dollar"

... apologetically, lest she otherwise be labeled a 'bitch' "

... nervously, while trolled on social media"

... stylishly, while criticized for her clothes"

... dauntlessly, while catcalled on the street"

... amiably, so as not to appear 'aggressive' "

... vicariously, through the lives of her children"

... prettily, and preferably in pink"

... wearily, and wishing things were different"

Hmm ... none of those quite have the same ring to it, do they? Maybe we're stuck with "backwards and in heels" for the time being. But all the while aiming for: "... forward — always forward — and in whatever shoes she wants."

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