"Why did Mary Beard stoop to writing about shoes" -- & in the Daily Mail to boot?
Earlier in the week, as some of you will have spotted, I wrote an article about why I like shoes in the Daily Mail. The reactions to this piece, largely on twitter, were varied, colourful -- and took every side of the issue you could imagine. What was especially nice for me (who has known very different style objections in the past) was that almost every comment was as polite and good-humoured as it was forceful and uncompromising. In fact, I could imagine myself on another day making even the most negative comments that were raised against me. The web at its best, I thought.
The only exception was a guy (I assume, a guy) left over from the Dont Start Me Off website, who observed: "What a career boost outside of the world of history you have had Mary, all thanks to some "vile misogynists"" (Career boost?? Article on shoes in the Mail?); apart from that about the worst was an early morning tweet from an ex-Cambridge student (female) who complained: "Morning Daily Mail fix utterly ruined by Mary Beard chiming on about how much she loves shoes". (I dont THINK it was meant to be supportive?)
Apart from that many comments included those who thought the whole thing was hugely engaging ("such fun to learn about your love of shoes! Surely Mercury's footwear the original Roman 'it shoe'?") or enticing (@wmarybeard has made me want to buy shoes!! said one; 'I loved to read this: M Beard says there's nothing like a new pair of shoes" insisted another). Others (fewer overall, but still a significant minority) were not impressed. What was I doing writing about SHOES and in the Daily Mail to boot. As my friends on the Telegraph said: "Oh Mary Beard, why did you stoop to writing about shoes?"
So here's a bit of the answer, in rather more than 140 characters.
Let me say right now that there were two issues here: why shoes and why the Mail (and I won't entirely succeed in keeping them apart -- and I'm not talking the wider politics of the Mail right now). But here's a go.
Shoes? Well, as I said in the article, I do think that the particular place that shoes hold in the culture of (especially) female retail is interesting. As an object of desire, shoes are much more democratic than dresses; and the process of buying them much less stressful. You can ask for a size six-and-a-half if you can't quite squeeze into a size six with no feeling that you are somehow "too big". And that means shoe shops are much more incorporating than the average ("I'm sorry, Madam, it doesn't come bigger than a size 12" sneer sneer) dress shop.
There was also the idea of insisting that frusty old academics like me can, and do, enjoy nice things to wear. The fact that I don't dye my hair or do botox doesn't mean that I have no interest at all in how I look or what I put on. (In fact there is no one in the world who doesnt care what they look like -- after all, it isn't rocket science to see that "not caring what you look like" is actually another way of "caring what you look like"). The point about shoes for me is the sheer capacity for fun they bring, no matter how old or what shape you are. It's not about fear, or fitting (in). It's fun. Hence my little paean to Jimmy Choo espadrilles.
But why in a newspaper? And why the Mail? Please don't imagine that I sit at my desk reading about Roman demography (as I am at this minute), then suddenly get bored, so decide to pitch an article on Jimmy Choo to the Mail. In this case, for reasons that must be as baffling to most of the rest of the planet as they are to me, there has been a recent minor journalistic interest in my footwear (shouldn't have worn my hi-tops to that London party....). And I have learned from bitter experience that if someone is going to write an article about you, you would be much better off writing it yourself. You dont get complete control, but you get a lot more say about what goes in. (I could give you examples...)
So in this case I had just a few basic desiderata, which I feel I -- sort of -- achieved. I wanted it to be clearly light hearted (and I do confess that at the Mail we all had the most hilarious and enjoyable hour and a half when I tried on heels that I could never walk on, and took the piss unreservedly). I also wanted to make the basic feminist point (which I did) that high heels are a way of keeping women down -- the modern equivalent of the crinoline. And I wanted to bring in the Romans (which again I did).
OK, you can't control the headlines (Sex Goddess??), the captions (let me say now -- THOSE ARENT ALL MY SHOES -- in that picture), nor some of the adjectives. And, of course, I see why it makes some people fume (politely), and why I might in other circumstances have said the same. But in the end I feel more than OK about it. I said some of the things I wanted to say in a unexpected location (and, yes, I would do it again).
And when I got this tweet, I cheered:
"I teach Latin to 11-14 year old girls. Today I shared your shoe article in class; the students LOVED it!"
I think anyone in my position would cheer. After all, you get to different people, of different ages, in different ways. Who could not want that?