Cannes high heels: Trying to bring women to heel, with little success

Cannes high heels: The Cannes Film Festival has come under criticism for reportedly turning away women who were not wearing heels to a premiere of a film.

Joel Ryan/Invision/AP
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara depart following the screening of the film "Carol" at the 68th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 17, 2015.

On the same weekend that actress Salma Hayek called on those attending the Cannes Film Festival in France to take a step forward for gender equality in film, organizers allegedly banned women from the red carpet for not wearing high heels.

Ms. Hayek appeared on Sunday at a Cannes forum, saying cinema currently "undermines women’s intelligence," according to published reports.

On May 12, The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project sent letters “asking federal and state civil rights agencies to investigate the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.”

Then, on Sunday night,  several women were denied entry to the premiere of Todd Haynes's film "Carol," for wearing flats instead of heels, reported Screen magazine. The film festival's organizers declined to comment to Screen on the matter.

“I do know that the organizers [at Cannes] were kind of denying the rule [about high heels], but this taps into a larger conversation that’s happening about women in Hollywood in general,” says Kay Steiger, senior editor for Think Progress, a product of the Center for American Progress based in Washington, D.C. in an interview.

Ms. Steiger adds, “Certainly actresses are becoming more vocal about the kinds of roles they’re getting, how much they’re getting paid for films and how underrepresented women are on the writing and directing side of things as well.”

Hollywood is not alone in its failure to address this issue to any great effect, according to Steiger, “There are a lot of industries that are struggling with gender equality.”

“It persists across all industries, but I think people are paying more attention to Hollywood because popular culture is something a lot of people really connect to and look to for ways to think about their own lives and connect with in their own lives,” she says. “In part because social media is such an important part of how these films get marketed we’re starting to see people push back and say ‘My point of view, my experience is not really being represented.”

When women at Cannes were excluded from the red carpet for wearing flats, Twitter users pushed back.

While some might argue that men are often asked to wear a coat and tie in order to conform to a standard of dress, Steiger says that demanding that women wear heels is very different because of the physical stresses placed on the body by wearing high heels.

“A coat and tie isn’t painful for men in the way that heels are, so it also speaks to the idea that until more recently women who reached a certain age didn’t necessarily feel welcome in Hollywood,” Steiger says. “This is a misunderstanding of fashion because flats can be just as glamorous.”

Chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar broke the gender barrier in chess by becoming the world's first female to earn the men's Grandmaster. She is also known for her choice of mile-high heels while participating in exhibition matches which require hours of standing, but says she would not appreciate those heels being mandatory, rather than a personal fashion choice.

Ms. Polgar was also very outspoken about gender equality on Twitter after British Grandmaster Nigel Short’s blog post in which he claimed that the brains of men and women are 'hard-wired' differently, giving males an advantage at chess. Neuroscience didn’t back up his claims.

“Yes, indeed I love beautiful shoes as well as heels, and can even understand why organizers of specific events may encourage women to wear heels, BUT at the same time, I think it unfair to have it as a condition to attend an event. It reminds me the type of double standard women have to endure in many male dominated fields including in chess," Polgar wrote in an email response. “It certainly sends a very wrong message to girls. Such policies should certainly not be mandatory, but should be ones choice.”

Getting Hollywood to change its gender-biased ways may be even harder than convincing men that women can rival them in chess, according to Steiger  who adds, “Hollywood is such a behemoth. There’s so much money going around that they have been not as responsive to these needs until now.”

“It really taps into how pervasive the beauty standards are,” Steiger says. “Even though there may not be an explicit rule about whether women need to wear heels on the red carpet at Cannes, it taps into the larger conversation about how women in Hollywood need to look and act a certain way and that forward pacing persona is a part of how they are perceived and marketed in Hollywood.”

Steiger adds that films “didn’t get this way by accident. It’s a result of institutional structures that tend to favor the men in Hollywood more than the women.”

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