Women in Movies Running in Heels

Inferno is only the latest Hollywood product to insist that its lady-stars race around in infernal footwear.

Hope her shoes are outfitted with some Dr. Scholl's DreamWalk™ Comfort Insoles. (Sony Pictures)

There are several scenes, in the new movie Inferno, in which Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones)—Robert Langdon’s latest lady-sidekick—runs around Florence in a pair of wedges. Not full-on stilettos, to be clear, like the ones in which Jones’s co-star, Sidse Babett Knudsen, will end up sprinting later in the movie, but wedges that are, in Sienna’s case, multiple inches high, and made of patent leather.

It happens like this: Sienna begins Inferno as Langdon’s doctor, and the opening scenes find the pair suddenly fighting for their lives against baddies who have infiltrated the hospital where Langdon is recovering from a gunshot wound that was inflicted, ostensibly, by those same murdery baddies. The pair, having barely escaped the hospital, go back to her apartment to regroup. She changes from her scrubs into civilian clothes. At which point—knowing that her day from there will prooooobably involve more murdery-baddie-evading, and knowing as well that such evading often involves running—Sienna Brooks scans the contents of her wardrobe and decides, for reasons that are best left to the Illuminati and/or Dan Brown himself, to don not just a shirt of white silk, but also … those intensely impractical shoes.

Oh, and the shoes also have shiny little bows on them.

It’s a strange costuming decision all around, and firmly in the absurdist tradition of the heel-hampered heroine, which is to say of Ginger “backwards and in heels” Rogers, and also Claire Dearing in Jurassic World, and Lisa Reisert in Red Eye, and Juliet O’Hara in Psych, and Annie Walker in Covert Affairs, and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, lounging around her Washington home in her sky-high stilettos. But the sole-crushing costuming decision is also narratively strange. It really makes no sense at all that Sienna, who is a former child prodigy and a current Langdon-level genius, would choose, all things considered, to put on those silly shoes. No. Sense. At. All. Inferno is an absurd movie, certainly, its action revolving around sketchy character motivations and Bourne-borrowed action sequences and, ultimately, a boil-in-a-bag version of the plague; the most ridiculous thing in this decidedly non-divine Dante-themed comedy, though, is the shoes.

If the Sienna Shoe Problem were a one-off thing, it would be worthy of little more than a collective eye-roll from the ranks of women who see Inferno (or, for that matter, from any person who’s ever swapped heels for flats after the presentation is over, or slipped a pair of flip-flops into a bag as preparation for the wee hours of the wedding, or come to the realization that Carrie Bradshaw, traipsing around Manhattan in a pair of inches-high Manolos, is both a fantasy and a lie). But, of course, it’s not just Sienna. Women galavanting in heels—running in them, endangered by them, totally hindered by them but trying their best not to admit it—happens again and again in Hollywood productions. There’s Sienna, running and jumping and self-defense-killing in those silly, shiny wedges. There’s Claire, fleeing Indominus rex in her skin-color stilettos. There are Juliet and Lisa and Annie, all trying to make the best of the bad situation that has been inflicted on them by their costumers and by their genders.

And, yes. There is, later in Inferno, the movie’s other Langdon-lady, Elizabeth Sinskey, joining Sienna in running around (this time, upon the cobblestones of Venice and Istanbul) in ridiculous shoes (this time, in full-on pumps).

Perhaps it is related that, of the seven primary producers listed in the credits for Inferno, only one is a woman. Perhaps it is also related that Inferno’s director, Ron Howard, is male. Perhaps it is also related that Inferno’s costume designer is male.

Or perhaps not. Maybe the filmmakers, here, were attempting, with the impractical footwear, to make a subtle commentary on Sienna’s (and Elizabeth’s) characters. There is, after all, the cinematic cliché of the weaponized heel (take, for example, the death of Ms. Suzuki in True Blood, or the murder of Sam in Single White Female, or Catwoman’s reminder, in The Dark Knight Rises, that “stiletto” is lent from the Italian word for “dagger”). And elevated shoes are, to be sure, highly symbolic of the interplay between femininity and feminism, between empowerment and its absence.

Sienna’s character, however, as realized on the screen, never merits that level of symbolic attention. And Inferno overall presents not as a great piece of cinema, the kind of film that would layer literary symbolism on top of its Langdonian “symbology”; it presents instead as a diversion that both promises and demands a suspension of disbelief. It’s dumb. And that’s fine! It’s entertainingly dumb. But, wow, it is dumb.

In all that, Sienna’s wedges have a lot in common with Jurassic World’s bizarre perma-pumps: They seem simply to be a distracting costuming choice—made by creators who perhaps appreciate the aesthetics of heels without realizing the implications. (“You’re expected to wear heels in certain environments,” Jurassic World’s director, Colin Trevorrow, explained of Claire’s shoes, emphasizing the fact that she is a Professional Woman and de-emphasizing the fact that even a Professional Woman would rather run barefoot than in stilettos.) The decision to keep World’s heroine permanently heightened of foot, in the manner of the old-school Barbie, came, Trevorrow further explained, from the actor who played that woman: It was Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of the director of Inferno, who felt that escaping a slobbery dinosaur while clad in stilettos would ultimately be a kind of feminist statement. “For me, it’s about embracing my femininity as my greatest strength, and a God-given strength,” she told The Daily Beast. And 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.”

Howard’s motives may have been feminist; what ended up onscreen, however, was decidedly not. Jurassic World portrayed, in the end, yet another woman who was forced to overcome yet another obstacle—in this case, that most basic of things: the ability to move in the world. That hadn’t occurred, however, to its director. “Honestly, maybe I feel that I’m revealing my own ignorance in not having anticipated how that was going to become a subject of discussion, the way that it has,” Trevorrow admitted, in response to the outrage (and simple confusion) Claire’s heels provoked.

His ignorance was understandable—he probably has not had much experience with heels—and yet, also, an unforced error. Had Jurassic World had some female producers to complement its six male ones, they might have been around to mention that, symbolism aside, no woman in her right mind would be running around the squishy ground in heels. Those women might have been there, in the rooms where such decisions are made, to prevent such a silly thing as footwear from becoming “a subject of discussion,” thereby helping to save Jurassic World, just a little bit, from itself.

And had Inferno, similarly, had more women in the room as Dan Brown’s apocalyptic vision was being modified for the screen … the movie might have been (slightly) less absurd. Or, at least, its absurdities would have been, for the most part, intentional. As it stands, in this film about Dante and Beatrice and billionaires and Faraday flashlights and The Truman Show and Tom Hanks’s hair, the silliest thing—the most unbelievable thing—is still, yes, the shoes.