High heels work the way they do not just because of aesthetics—the lengthening of a body, the curving of a leg—but also because of physics. To stay balanced on heels, be they stiletto-ed or kitten-ed or something in between—to walk upon spikes, essentially, successfully and safely—one must shift one’s center of gravity, stride after stride, so that the back is arched, the shoulders are stretched, and the pelvis is thrust forward. You slink and you sway; if you don’t, you will slip. Heels are delicate, and they are dangerous, and those two things, working together, are the source of their appeal.
I mention that because of Jurassic World. Which stars not just sinewy humans and slobbery dinosaurs, but also, bizarrely, another arbitrary product of Earth’s evolution: a pair of high heels. The shoes in question are the distinctly Middleton-esque nude stilettos that, against all odds, never leave the feet of Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the operations manager of the Jurassic franchise’s latest dino-themed pleasure park. While fleeing Indominus rex, an especially terrible species of terrible lizard, Claire runs across floors of slick stone and grounds of moist mud. She sprints and leaps and crouches. She drives an ambulance. She shoots a gun. She saves some lives. She takes some others. She grows as a person, and as A Woman. And she does it all in ridiculously spiked heels that you really, really hope are decked out with a good pair of DreamWalk™ Comfort Insoles.
This, of course, is absurd. And it is so obviously absurd that Claire's perma-pumps are the source of a running joke within Jurassic World, manifested both through dialogue—Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) at one point explicitly mocks Claire’s entire flee-unfriendly outfit, which results in her removing clothing, but not swapping shoes—and through ponderous, slow-mo shots. Claire’s flimsy footwear has become a joke outside the film, too. Pratt, during the publicity tour for the movie, made a dubious tribute to his co-star by way of prancing around in a pair of patent leather pumps.
The presence of these vaguely retrograde shoes in this vaguely futuristic film has also come in for complaints from commenters across the Internet, who have generally characterized the impractical footwear as yet another example of Jurassic World’s Woman Problem, in a movie that has long been criticized for its sexism. As The Dissolve put it, “The film’s script utilizes Claire’s wardrobe to tell a part of its story—and to make a joke—but it doesn’t go all the way with it. In this one tiny but maddening detail, Jurassic World sets itself up to fail.”
So, okay. Let’s stipulate what will be obvious to any human who has ever had the need to walk/run/move in a pair of stilettos: Claire’s shoes are definitely among the more ridiculous things in a movie whose plot revolves around the emotional inconsistencies of de-extincted dinosaurs. And, while we’re at it, let’s also go ahead and acknowledge that Jurassic World’s smashing of its way through the box office to enjoy the biggest opening weekend of all time means, among so much else, that a significant swath of humanity has now watched a woman who is supposed to be smart doing something supremely stupid: fleeing an impossible animal in impractical shoes.
Those things given: Does it matter? Is Claire’s footwear merely another innocuous flaw in a movie that is full of them, or is it pernicious in a more significant way? Does the film’s literal elevation of its female protagonist end up, figuratively, diminishing her? Does Jurassic World have … a Shoe Problem?
On the one hand (or, I guess, the one foot): Yes, totally. Heels embody the blithe double standards women have long had to deal with, in Hollywood and elsewhere: the familiar stuff of “bossiness” versus “assertiveness,” “dried-up” versus “distinguished,” etc. Elevated shoes, which both slow down and sex up that most basic of things—a person’s movement through the world—suggest that women have to work harder to do the same things men do, whether the thing in question involves advancing a career or escaping a pissed-off pterosaur. The shoes suggest, at the same time, that this discrepancy isn’t unfair so much as, like a pissed-off pterosaur, just part of the natural order of things. Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, the old saying goes, only backwards and in heels.
In that sense, it’s telling that pretty much all involved describe Claire’s perma-pumps in terms of punishment. “I trained for running in heels as if I was in the Olympics,” Howard remarked to an interviewer, with no apparent irony. “She was a trooper,” Pratt echoed, not mentioning the fact that this particular kind of trooping could have been avoided with a practical pair of hiking boots or, at the very least, ballet flats. “And,” the actor added, wonderingly, “she never once rolled an ankle or popped a knee or anything.”
It's also telling, however, that right after praising his co-star’s happy avoidance of knee-popping—encouraged by the Late Show host James Corden, and by Corden's audience—Pratt, donning a pair of pumps for the first time, ended up flapping his arms around like a dainty little ladybird. The actor’s considerable comic instincts took him to the same conclusion that pretty much any Jurassic World viewer could fairly come to: There’s something fundamentally silly about heels.
That idea, to varying degrees of irony, has long been exploited by blithe treatments of perma-pumps in films (and TV shows) that don’t happen to co-star animatronic dinosaurs. There's Lisa Reisert in Red Eye, running through an airport in stilettos; there's Juliet in Psych, detective-ing in pumps, and Annie Walker in Covert Affairs, spying in the same; there's Claire Underwood in House of Cards, lounging around her townhouse—as one does, etc.—in stilettos; there are Women, both Wonder and Cat, running and scissor-kicking in heeled boots. There's also the cliché of the weaponized heel (the death of Ms. Suzuki in True Blood; the death of Sam in Single White Female; Catwoman's reminder, in The Dark Knight Rises, that “stiletto” gets its name from the Italian word for “dagger”).
And there's also, at the other end of the irony spectrum, the cliché of the hacked heel—epitomized by Jack’s machete-ing of Joan’s heels in Romancing the Stone—and of the dramatic de-stiletto, which finds, for example, Veep's Selena Meyer removing her uncomfortable shoes pretty much the second she is out of the public eye.
Jurassic World's footwear carries a whiff of this same kind of self-awareness. Yes, it’s stupid that Claire is wearing heels to fight dinosaurs. The movie, however, is perfectly aware of this stupidity. Moreover, it chose the stupidity for itself. Bryce Dallas Howard, the star has said, wanted her character to be clad in heels. “First of all, I just believe that she’s one of those women who say they walk so much better in heels,” Howard told The Daily Beast. "I’m absolutely not one of those women. Beyoncé, for example! But I thought she’s definitely that person.”
Claire’s perma-pumps, Howard argues, reflect not just her character, but also the feminism of the current moment. “I think where we are now, for me, it’s about embracing my femininity as my greatest strength, and a God-given strength,” she said. For Claire, Howard added, “The thing that would have been considered the biggest handicap for her ultimately ends up being her strength. And that’s those heels. I really liked that.”
Claire’s heels, in this spin of things, are ironized heels. They’re argumentative heels. They are not the blasé stuff of the be-stiletto-ed Lady Action Hero; they are not the result of the unthinking rule-making that recently found Emily Blunt declaring, “We shouldn't wear high heels, anyway.” Jurassic World’s heels, instead, are a commentary on feminism and femininity for a character whose arc intimately involves those two things. You can buy Howard’s explanation or not—and you can buy World director Colin Trevorrow’s further explanation that “you’re expected to wear heels in certain environments”—but either way, Claire’s heels are … intentional heels. They are meant to make us laugh and make us think. They are making us talk about them. They’re not, in the manner of the typical Hollywood Heel, taken for granted; they’re instead the stuff of anger and indignation and debate.
And that, for better or for worse, is its own kind of step forward.