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High heels must have been a man's idea--"Their asses will look good and they'll be crippled!"--Rick Overton, Comic Strip Live, 1991)
AS A LITERARY SCHOLAR, I am embarrassed to admit that I was well into my graduate career before I thought to ask, Why does Cinderella's fate hinge upon a shoe, of all things? Surely it is no accident that the foot (as opposed to some other body part) features so prominently in the tale. The question came to me when I was teaching Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, in which female feet and shoes are strangely and strikingly bound up with romance and sexuality. The answer began to take shape during a fortuitous study break spent on what turned out to be one of those rare, rich morsels of late-night television--namely, the observation by comedian Rick Overton cited above. What started as a little piece of mind-candy developed into an intellectual smorgasbord, with entrees from folklore, ethnography, Chicano studies, feminism, and human ethology. Although the following discussion addresses Cisneros's work in particular, its scope extends far beyond literature and even folklore: Cisneros's use of the foot/shoe motif sheds light on male manipulation of female sexuality and thus on the design and operations of the human mind.
In the chapter "The Family of Little Feet," Esperanza and her friends seem excessively excited by the experience of prancing around in the cast-off high heels which have been given to them: "Do you like these shoes? Rachel says yes and Lucy says yes and yes I say these are the best shoes. We will never go back to wearing the other kind again." (41)
Why all the excitement? The answer to this question lies in the girls' budding sexuality and its concomitant power. High heels accentuate the "female"--elongating the legs, elevating and making more prominent the buttocks, and causing the hips to sway pronouncedly. When the girls slip the shoes on, they suddenly discover, "We have legs"--legs that are "good to look at, and long" (40). Almost immediately after they put the shoes on, the girls begin acting in a sexually provocative manner: Rachel teaches Esperanza and Lucy how to "cross and uncross [their] legs" (40) and the three of them begin "strutting" (41) in their high heels. They are no doubt imitating the slightly older girls in the neighborhood who have already begun to attract sexual attention and of whom Esperanza speaks in admiring and envious tones. They have yet to realize, however, that like these older girls, they too possess sexual power--they seem surprised that their mock-sexy posturing draws sexual attention: "On the avenue a boy on a home-made bicycle calls out: Ladies, lead me to heaven. But there is nobody around but us." (41)
Their resolution to "never go back to wearing the other kind" of shoe comes after they realize that the shoes make them sexually attractive to the men around them: Esperanza comments that they strut "[d]own to the comer where the men can't take their eyes off of us" (40). They also appear to sense that their strutting has an effect on women as well: "In front of the laundromat six girls with the same fat face pretend we are invisible. They are the cousins, Lucy says, and always jealous." (41)
This power to arouse men and to make women jealous initially exhilirates them--they "just keep strutting" (41), enjoying for the moment their position as the source rather than the object of power. This power begins to frighten them, however, when their bluff is called by a drunken bum who offers Rachel a dollar for a kiss.
A discussion of female power might seem out of place in a text which focuses primarily on the rigid control of women by men. However, even in a relentlessly partiarchal society, women have a power over men which only the aging process can take away: the power to sexually arouse. That the girls are at least subconsciously aware of the power the female physique has over the male libido is apparent in their deceptively innocent conversations: "You need …