The Robo-Caller’s Lonesome Wife; or, Women Who Don’t Love Shoes *That* Much.

An engendered telemarketing scheme with deep roots: Carrie Bradshaw, the Police Department, and women who don’t always love shoes.

Susann Cokal

“Hello!” Somewhere at the end of my landline, a man’s voice chuckles at me. Bothersomely, in that way that annoys for no reason but also for every possible reason, because something worse is sure to come.

At the end of Season 4 (2002) of “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw cooed through a shop window to a prospective foot date, which would complement her last-date-in-the-City with Mr. Big. And ended up splattered with Miranda’s birthing fluids.

It’s the middle of a weekday and I’m working at home in Richmond, Virginia. I’m fairly sure this is one of those recorded telemarketing ploys meant to convince you that a real person is calling and deserves your attention.

But the call might be important (that’s how they get you), and it might be one I’ve been waiting for, and anyway that chuckle has irritated me enough to want to hang up on a real person if I get one.

So I wait for the robo-caller’s next line. And it’s awful:

“You’re as hard to reach as my wife at a shoe sale!”

Now I’m barely able to contain my outrage, but I hold the line, clutching the receiver in my fist. I have to know who, in 2018, would approve a call script with such a message. The company that designed the campaign was expecting perhaps a housewife of privilege, a vulnerable senior citizen— anyway, a woman — and, as a woman, I feel duty bound to tell whoever-it-is off.

“You’re as hard to reach as my wife at a shoe sale!”

I keep hearing it echo in the deep parts of my brain.

And here’s my answer: The Voice is calling on behalf of the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department, seeking my donation for —

I hang up. Without the satisfaction of speaking to a real person. I’m too mad.

What I would say to the caller and those who designed the campaign is this: Really, Robo-Caller, in 2018, do you think it’s okay to call god-knows-who and chuckle over female excitement about a shoe sale? As if all women, particularly whoever married the cop-in-a-can — the voice that represents all policemen and policewomen in this particular city — are so amazingly swept up by the excitement of shoe shopping that they can‘t be found by the men who keep tabs on them?

Shoe fetishes are well established in The Culture, from Freud to Pornhub, mostly expressed as a man’s sexual excitement over a woman’s footwear. Okay, maybe there’s a tiny bit of that fetish speaking through the robo-call, the male’s titillation at the thought of women tearing shoes out of each other’s hands and slipping them onto their feet.

On “Sex and the City,” Carrie exclaims over Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes, which she’d thought were “an urban shoe myth.”

I’d rather look at it from a more apparently harmless perspective. The cultural roots of this campaign run deep in movies and books and other ad campaigns, ones that have convinced shoppers that they do in fact love crippling shoes bought at prices steeper than their stiletto heels.

No force is more responsible, I think, than the TV-and-movies series Sex and the City, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week (mid-June 2018) — though shoe obsession is part of other cultural artifacts, such as Jennifer Weiner’s 2002 novel, In Her Shoes, and the movie made thereof.

Perhaps the definitive guide to an ordinary girl’s shoe obsession.

Shoe love suddenly made sense to me when I heard Toni Collette explaining that no matter how she gains or loses weight, her shoes stayed the same and cheered her up.

That doesn’t seem to be the motivation for the girls in Sex and the City, none of whom have any any real worries about their weight (Miranda fat at 132 pounds after giving birth? Puh-leez), but perhaps this is why the Robo-Cop-Caller felt safe referring to my supposed passion for shoe sales.

More on The Culture in a moment — now back to the telemarketers.

Well, I imagine the Robo-Caller thinking (and the campaign manager behind him), at least a shoe sale is safe. When they’re shopping for shoes, they aren’t off fomenting dissent and organizing the masses. Let the girls have their shoes … and then give money to the police.

If a woman designed this campaign, I am deeply disappointed. Especially since the voice identified with it is uber-male, with an accent that suggests its owner is white, patriarchal, and middle class.

Well, I imagine the Robo-Caller thinking, at least a shoe sale is safe. When they’re shopping for shoes, they aren’t off fomenting dissent and organizing the masses.

You reached me, on-behalf-of-the Richmond Police Department. You reached me hard. You reached me in a deeply offensive and outdated way, with a message that sets law enforcement and good-citizenship back in time at least fifty years, about as long as I’ve been alive.

A policewoman’s shoe. Nuff said.

That the disembodied voice spoke for policemen and policewomen is perhaps the worst part. Sure, there may be some policewomen who like a shoe sale, but would they call up to tell me about it and then ask for a charitable donation? Would one of them solicit my money with “You’re as hard to reach as my husband during the Super Bowl”?

Oh, no. That would be disrespectful. And sort of pointless. But a shoe sale — wow, it must seem everyone can giggle at that universal truth.

Sure, there may be some policewomen who like a shoe sale, but would they call up to tell me about it and then ask for a charitable donation?

I am a woman. I don’t like shopping for shoes; I never think about it. I have bad feet and I need a certain kind of arch support, and I order my shoes through the mail.

But that, of course, is hardly the point.

The point is that we’re supposedly in an era that celebrates women as people, as world leaders and artists and politicians. In my opinion, a woman should be leading the United States right now, instead of the avowed pussy-grabber who sits in what should be her Oval Office.

DT and HRC. Is he looking at her shoes? Are you?

I don’t know or care how Hillary Rodham Clinton feels about shoe sales or what she puts on her feet. But I do care that you might care.

True, being pro-woman and pro-feminist, pro-diversity, pro-equality, sometimes means donning a particular item of clothing. A pink hat for a march on Washington. A campaign button that reads “Pantsuits for President” (I have one). A sweatshirt with any number of slogans. But these articles are not about vanity; they mean something in the way that a shoe sale does not.

I don’t know or care how Hillary Rodham Clinton feels about shoe sales or what she puts on her feet. But I do care that you might care.

And yes, there are potent cultural artifacts that celebrate both feminism (of a limited sort) and shoe sales. The most visible example, as I’ve mentioned, is Sex and the City, which may represent all the research the designers of this campaign did before they wrote their own script.

That’s right, I can’t help but wonder if the show loved by millions (including me) is at least in part responsible for that maddening phone call. It’s that deep a part of the culture.

The shoe-mad lineup: Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

Carrie Bradshaw and her pals spoke for women in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Say what you want about their ultimate goals (committed relationships, marriage with or without kids, a closet full of “labels”), they did root out and shatter some deeply entrenched norms, most notably the series’ initial premise: that women can and do sometimes “have sex like men” — without commitment, purely for pleasure.

As a woman in my thirties living in a sprawling urban territory (the San Francisco Bay Area), I was relieved to find at least a part of myself represented, albeit on a cable network I didn’t have the money to pay for. I bought my clothes and shoes at thrift stores (my feet could handle it then), but it was a relief not to be held to some antiquated standard. And I had plenty of friends far more adventurous than I was; there are lots of orgies on the Bay Area circuit.

A typical Samantha stare.

And, on the show, there was Samantha. Entertainment reporters (particularly one of the men who host E! News) now call her character “slutty,” but the show rarely portrayed her that way. She had a body, she loved it, and she loved other bodies — and she felt she had a right to every pleasure she came across (sorry, puns were a hallmark of the program, in Carrie’s voiceover and in the girls’ coffee klatches).

This was a significant difference from her contemporaries on other shows. Some of them did have a fair amount of sex for fun — and for love — but they were often judged for it.

Roz (Peri Gilpin) of “Frasier” makes an entrance.

In a bed a few networks away, for example, Roz of Frasier had less sex and fewer partners than the eponymous radio host, but he rolled his eyes at her promiscuity and once told his brother, “Roz is not the freshest leaf you can turn over.” And Elaine of Seinfeld, perhaps a trailblazer, got plenty of sex with little scorn from her male castmates — but, eventually, a more-or-less steady boyfriend, Puddy, who thought she “had been with a lot of men” and was going to hell for this and other reasons.

Neither Roz nor Elaine, however, seemed to care overmuch about shoes, which were a SATC obsession.

The series and the two movie spin-offs demonstrate, among other things, that many women love shoes as much as sex, and that some pay far more for them than might seem reasonable to others. (I find it interesting that the ones who judge the shoe lovers are other women, not men — but more on that later.) Carrie buys so much designer footwear that when she examines her finances and calculates her ability to buy an apartment, she says she might “literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes.”

Elsewhere, to earn a free pair of sandals, Charlotte lets a salesman (“Buster” — ???) fondle her feet until he has an orgasm. And when Carrie finally signs up for an email account — a step into technology taken so she can try to woo back a lost love, Aidan — her handle is “shoegal.” Aidan thinks her email is spam and deletes it.

So those women are hooked. I still don’t quite understand the addiction; why shoes, why so many? But I wouldn’t expect Carrie and the gang to think much of my collections of antique casket plaques and gynecological equipment. In fact, they might find these objects off-putting.

They might make fun of my Danskos, as a former (married) friend once did: “Never complain to me about being single when you’re wearing those shoes.” For the record, I was not complaining about being single, though perhaps I was dishing about a douchey boyfriend. I wouldn’t have wanted her marriage … and it turned out I didn’t want her friendship either. Shoe-shaming goes both ways.

I also imagine Mr. Robo-Cop-Caller passing gas a lot and being ungenerous in bed. Oh, am I seeing you as a stereotype?

Shoe-shaming (Carrie’s term) is part of the sisterhood’s journey. In the episode called “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie’s shoes are stolen at a friend’s baby shower. The friend, a former party girl, balks at reimbursing Carrie for the full price, saying that there are things in life more important than shoes, and she shouldn’t have to pay for Carrie’s “extravagant lifestyle.” Now Carrie tots up what she’s bought over the years to celebrate that friend’s milestone events — marriage, children, all the traditional choices Carrie has yet to make — and she registers at Manolo Blahnik for the shoes she lost, then sends the friend an announcement that she’s marrying herself.

Carrie walks away in something really special.

The episode concludes as she skips down the street in an otherwise casual outfit, the grudgingly paid for Manolos on her feet, and a voiceover telling us that sometimes, in a rough world, women just need to indulge themselves with something really special.

I’ll give them that. I’ll give that to anyone. I am now imagining Richmond’s Robo-Cop buying himself a John Deere cap for working in the yard, or a dashboard hula dancer for his sportscar. If that’s what he needs to feel special and appreciated after a tough day’s work, I’m all for it (though I think he’s probably too old to pull off the sportscar). I also imagine him passing gas a lot and being ungenerous in bed.

Does this make me sexist? Oh, am I seeing you as a stereotype?

I still enjoy Sex and the City, even as it sometimes irritates me in a few ways. For one, the juggernaut is so tied to types — I’ll say “archetypes” rather than “stereotypes” — that it doesn’t hold up to certain kinds of scrutiny. I don’t see those four women being true friends in “real life” — at least, not without Carrie (and maybe shoe shopping) to hold them together. They’re too clearly typed: There’s the career woman (Miranda), the prim traditionalist (Charlotte), the wild sexual spirit (Samantha), and Carrie, the Everygirl with whom viewers identify. It’s weird when we find out that two or three of the others have actually hung out without her, as when she disappears into Big’s arms in Season 1. (Incidentally, I have the same problem with The L Word — friendship requires something more than shared sexual orientation, and most of the women in that series would not be friends either.)

Big and Carrie’s happy Parisian ending.

And who hasn’t wanted to shake Carrie out of her fixation on Mr. Big? Smart Woman, Foolish Choice. But that’s part of the point of the master-narrative — and in the very end, her choice changes himself, willingly, to become everything she’s wanted all along: a hero who flies to Paris (the shimmering Shangri-La of the series, always discussed and never visited, at least by Carrie, until the last two episodes). Now Big is prepared to come to fisticuffs with her current lover over his neglectful treatment of “our girl.” No comment needed.

If we go on to the follow-up movies, well. Ahem. All the men seem to have been tamed and happily domesticated (I’m not going to say “castrated” — okay, maybe I am), such that they provide the same kind of companionship to the women that the “girls” sought during the run of the show. It was a disappointment to me, at least, to find the women so in control, without a good battle of the sexes — at least after Big’s spectacular abandonment of Carrie at the altar, which was perhaps a debatable affront. He does go back minutes later; it seems he’s feeling a bit needy and freaked out over the big ceremony . But she won’t listen to him then.

The main storyline of Sex and the City 1 is about giving up the Cinderella dreams of princesshood (but still “finding your Love,” as Carrie’s new personal assistant says), but it climaxes off-message: Mr. Big slips a blue satin shoe onto Carrie’s foot and proposes marriage more conventionally.

Mr. Big fulfills a Cinderella dream at the end of the first film.

From time to time, SATC took up a feminist banner that had to do with more than sex, most noticeably in the second (and apparently final) movie.

Sex and the City 2 is all about liberating female voices silenced by patriarchy. The visuals even move object fetishization from shoes to hats, especially in the beginning. When Carrie wears a tuxedo as best man at her gay friend Stanford’s wedding, she waves him aside to dress up the outfit with a crown that looks as if it was stolen from the evil queen in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Carrie asserts her essential Bradshaw-ness with a black crown/hat at Stanford’s wedding.

She also wears a huge mushroom hat for a flight to Abu Dhabi, where the niquam that hides the mouth of one of the “Real Housewives of Abu Dhabi” makes her feel creepy.

This is all on message, as the other girls take their own personal journeys toward voicing their needs. The senior partner at Miranda’s law firm cuts her off in meetings so often that she quits (without suing over the hostile workplace). Charlotte needs to learn to admit out loud that being a mother “is hard” and that her baby’s constant crying “is making me crazy!”

Together they sing “I Am Woman” to an enthusiastic international crowd in an Abu Dhabi nightclub. Women in the audience sing along. We hear them roar.

“I Am Woman” in an Abu Dhabi nightclub.

Carrie has a minor breakdown when her latest book gets a bad review in The New Yorker, along with a caricature of SJP wearing a pair of Band-Aids across her mouth. The girls reassure her that her book, which is about marriage vows, is funny and represents “a strong female voice” that the patriarchy can’t handle.

I’m not sure how convincing it all is — activists and academics might see it all as nothing more, in fact, than a Band-Aid to the cause — but … baby steps. After all, as Helen Reddy wrote, “But I’m still an embryo, with a long long way to go, until I make my brother understand …”

Lookalikes silenced in the marketplace.

And yes, the strong-female-voice women are still identified with shoes: When Charlotte gets lost in the Abu Dhabi marketplace wearing full Arabian cover, Carrie tells the others to look for “purple peep-toe platforms” (which is actually an error; Charlotte is wearing purple stilettos). When the camera falls to street level, we see that the Arab women’s only means of sartorial self-expression is in their footwear.

By now there’s something more important at stake. Call it the sisterhood. Call it a woman’s voice in a man’s world. Call it, please, anything but frenzy over a shoe sale.

The feminist’s heart may be domestic in the end, looped around placid men and jokes appreciated more by women than by reviewers, but isn’t that also part of a woman’s right to choose?

I winced at some moments in SATC 2 — oh, too many to count, but here are a few: Samantha kicking her feet and referring to a man as “Lawrence of My Labia,” Charlotte embarrassed by pulling her pants up so high after a tumble off a camel that she has “an actual camel camel-toe,” Carrie luring a cab driver in the marketplace by lifting her robe to show off a leg (isn’t that kind of behavior what got the girls, or at least Samantha, into trouble with public display of sexuality), Big “punishing” Carrie for kissing Aidan by forcing her to wear a diamond ring — oh, it’s easy to understand why Kim Cattrall, now sixty-one, doesn’t want to play Samantha again.

But ultimately, I think the movie’s, and the series’, feminist heart is true. That heart may be domestic in the end, looped around placid men and jokes appreciated more by women than by reviewers, but isn’t that part of a woman’s right to choose?

Yes, even if a woman chooses shoes.

To the show-runners’ credit (or to their discredit, depending on your level of fiscal responsibility and your moral compass), I can’t think of a single time a man made fun of a woman for wanting expensive shoes (or any other luxury article of clothing, even when the prices at Prada shock Carrie’s short-lived writer boyfriend, Jack Berger). Even Mr. Big would never chuckle over Carrie and her love of shoe sales.

By now there’s something more important at stake. Call it the sisterhood. Call it a woman’s voice in a man’s world. Call it, please, anything but frenzy over a shoe sale.

And so, Richmond Robo-Cop, I will not be donating to the orphans or the Policemen’s Ball or whatever it is you wanted to wheedle me into paying for. I would, however, make a contribution toward sensitivity training that might lead to more effective solicitation strategies.

I would not do this happily; I would not do it generously. You should already know your audience, and know it through more than a few moments in popular culture.

Above all, you shouldn’t insult fifty-one percent of that audience.

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Susann Cokal is a moody historical novelist, a pop-culture essayist, book critic, magazine editor, and professor of creative writing and modern literature. Her latest book is The Kingdom of Little Wounds, set in the Scandinavian Renaissance, which received a silver medal from the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award series. Her head is not normally this huge.