If the (sexist) shoe fits

When I was at primary school the most coveted shoe in the playground was the Clarks Magic Steps shoe. The pair came with a magic key that could be inserted into the shoe and turned to reveal a hidden picture on the sole of the shoe. The advert for them featured a young girl who turned into a princess upon wearing the shoes.

These were perhaps not the world’s most feminist shoes – although having re-watched the 1980s advert, the ‘princess’ does climb a tree and defeat an evil queen while wearing them, so… However, the target audience was under the age of 10 and no-one seemed too bothered about any possible anti-feminist undertone. Certainly, I don’t recall the shoes preventing any of my classmates from growing up into independent women who do whatever the hell they like.

Today, most of us think of Clarks fondly as the place we got our first pair of school shoes and, while not known for its cutting-edge style, the brand is still generally synonymous with comfort and quality. So it was something of a surprise to learn that it has come under fire over the past few days for its ‘sexist’ shoes. Clarks is withdrawing a school shoe for girls called ‘Dolly Babe’, after receiving complaints.

MPs have been quick to register their disgust at the offending shoe, which according to a damning Guardian report has ‘cloying detail of a pink insole printed with hearts’. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: ‘It is almost beyond belief that in 2017 a major company could think this is in any way acceptable. Shows what we are still up against.’ Carolyn Harris, shadow minister for women and equality, said the shoes were ‘blatant discrimination’ – the boys’ version are called ‘Leader’. Clearly, it’s been a slow summer for politics.

And Clarks isn’t the only brand accused of sexism. Campaigners have called for parents to boycott Tesco and Mothercare, claiming the stores promote gender stereotyping in their children’s clothing ranges – Tesco’s back to school shoes feature yellow dinosaur soles for boys and pink butterflies for girls.

Greenwich councillor, Miranda Williams, who first highlighted the Clarks issue, tweeted: ‘The idea that we should be bringing up a generation of boys to aspire to become leaders while the best hope for girls is to be Dolly Babes is just grim.’

Well, thank goodness Williams was brave enough to say it, because we all know children get their life aspirations from their footwear. I hate to think what will become of the children pigeonholed by ‘hearts’ and ‘dinosaurs’. All those years ago, I was heartbroken when my mother decided the Magic Steps shoes were too frivolous and bought me the black lace-ups instead. But no doubt this was a stepping stone on my route to becoming a journalist. I felt hard-done-by at the time, but the shoe’s on the other foot now.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

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