What became clear is that movie audiences are more attuned than ever to on-screen footwear, amid our culture’s greater scrutiny of gender norms in film. But a look back at the history of heroines in heels shows that the issue is more complex than it seems.
For instance, one reason “Jurassic World” caught flak is not just that Howard was wearing heels but also that Trevorrow didn’t hide them. Veteran costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (“Cliffhanger,” “Speed,” “Strange Days”) explained that it’s typical for characters dressed in heels to be shot in a way that their shoes are not visible during any of the action. Try finding a single frame of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” in which you can clearly make out Gemma Arterton’s shoes in a fight.
“We do substitutes, where we might put a wedge [heel] on her, because you won’t be actually seeing her feet,” Mirojnick said. “So we build a . . . shoe that will have the right height for the scene, but the audience is never to assume she’s wearing anything but the heel we saw her in before.”
It’s often just too difficult to perform any stunts, even running, in a heel. Some films, such as “True Lies” or “Red,” show a heroine in heels and then make it a point to show her removing them, to represent her shedding that more feminine identity, which also makes the action sequences easier to perform.
Sometimes showing the heels during action scenes is a character choice. After the “Jurassic World” controversy, Howard told Cosmopolitan, “I feel really relieved at the amount of sensitivity that people have to women and women’s roles in films,” but she noted that “this character needed to seem ill-equipped to be in the jungle. She was somebody who looks like she belongs in a corporate environment.” Think “Romancing the Stone” and the screwball adventures of the 1980s. Some might call such thinking retro-sexism, reinforcing old stereotypes about women even as the films seek to lampoon them. In the sequel, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which debuts this weekend, she conspicuously wears boots.
Last year’s stylized Cold War spy story “Atomic Blonde” showed Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton in heels to emphasize the stature and power of the female spy whose concentration is so focused that she can convincingly kick butt while balancing on blade-thin stilettos. She is clearly a more capable fighter than the men. There’s even a trope of action heroines flipping off their heels and wielding them as instruments of death, called “combat stilettos” (see: “Single White Female”). Though somewhat out of date, combat stilettos illustrate the weaponization of the feminine, as opposed to the outright removal of it by ditching the shoes altogether.
A classic example of this comes from Hong Kong cinema: Jackie Chan’s “Armour of God,” wherein four “Amazon women” in black heels challenge Chan’s character. The women use the shoes as bludgeoning weapons. Chan, however, defeats them by taking the fight to a bridge, where their heels get wedged into the cracks between the planks, debilitating them.
Asian action films generally don’t depict women in much of a heel. The three fighters of “The Heroic Trio” are fine in flats. This might be because there’s less cutting between shots in their fight sequences, as audiences prefer to see the totality of martial arts skills, including those involving the feet. American cinema has only just started catching up.
Ruth Carter found inspiration in the footwear of Asian cinema for the costumes she designed for “Black Panther.”
“We wanted to give the women all the elements that make up a fierce warrior,” Carter said. “One of them was flat shoes that would have a split toe that would allow them to realistically go into battle.” The split toe, called a “tabi,” shows up in Asian films such as “Lady Snowblood” and is borrowed from Japanese culture, where it’s believed to give more agility to wearers. Japanese construction workers don a tabi toe to maneuver on dangerous scaffolding.
Although there are a few valid reasons for dressing a heroine in heels, Mirojnick said that decision mostly has to do with directors and studio executives who want to see the women looking sexy.
That perhaps is why it seems that some actors, such as Kate Beckinsale, will be forever imprisoned in heels. Whether in “Van Helsing” or any of the “Underworld” films, Beckinsale is perpetually on stilts in thigh-high boots. Back in 2004, she let loose about how it took a full 30 minutes to pull on the boots, because the (male) costume designer was a “purist” who wouldn’t allow zippers. She’s even in heels in the 2012 “Total Recall” remake, in which she plays Lori Quaid, a character whose first incarnation had famously kicked butt in aerobics gear and sneakers.
But, on the whole, footwear has evolved. You can see a marked difference in what women wore in the “girl power” 1990s and in the early aughts, when the stiletto gave way to the chunky heel in “Charlie’s Angels” movies, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series. In each, the heels tend to be heavy, blunt and far better for balance. (The female terminator of 2003’s “Terminator 3,” who inexplicably chooses to wear needle-thin stilettos, seems like a character from a very different era.) Mirojnick pointed out that chunky heels were also fashionable at the time.
Now the chunky heel has been supplanted by the wedge — as in “Wonder Woman.” But Mirojnick said we’re also going to be seeing more of her favorite female footwear, the knee-high black boot with a low-to-nonexistent heel, as Zazie Beetz wears as Domino in “Deadpool 2.” Mirojnick said it’s a versatile, practical shoe that’s both sexy and functional, while creating a beautiful silhouette.
But the decision as to which shoes a heroine will wear lies with the director. Carter described how shocked she was when Ryan Coogler, a 30-year-old man, told her that the women in “Black Panther” should be covered and in flats. (Carter did end up giving them a very small wedge heel, “just enough to pivot on comfortably” in battle, much like you’ll find in shoes of martial artists.)
“It was a breath of fresh air, and it shifted something in my brain, too” she said, explaining that even forward-thinking designers at the top of their game can fall into patterns. After “Black Panther,” she costumed Halle Berry for “Kidnap,” a story about a mother who goes rogue to track down her missing son. Carter and Berry had to fight for “mom jeans” and sneakers for the character. “My direction was to put her in a tight tank top and shorts, when Halle herself even said: ‘Listen, I’m a mom. I want to represent actual mothers out there.’ ”
Like Carter, Mirojnick said she has been “lucky” to work with many directors who “saw no division between the sexes” when it came to costuming. Her work on Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 satirical sci-fi film, “Starship Troopers,” may, in fact, be the most resonant example of de-gendered costumes in action-cinematic history.
“Practicality was of utmost importance to Paul,” Mirojnick said. “He was adamant that men and women were to be dressed the same.”
In the film, soldiers of the future fight an endless war against huge, weaponized bugs. There are equal numbers of male and female fighters, and the men and women even share the same showers.
It was only sensible that men and women would wear the same flexible combat boot, except for Denise Richards’s Lt. Carmen Ibanez, whose small wedge heel denoted her higher status among the troops.
And, as Mirojnick reminded, “Denise is quite short.” One can never underestimate practicality.