Backwards and in High Heels

There is a famous cartoon talking about Fred Astaire with the caption, “Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, ...backwards and in high heels.” I always used to think that meant that women had to be twice, perhaps three times (depending on your views on staying upright in high heels) better than men just to share the same stage. While that may be true, it’s not the only reason this quote rings true for so many and why it resonates across many forms of art.

If we ask, for example, why the dance demands that the woman travels backwards, or why she dances in heels then we get closer to the issue. It’s an external accepted standard that it’s just the way things are done, a standard unlikely to have been set by female dancers. You could argue that the style and look fits the music but then, who decides the music? If Rogers is allowed to be more than a decorative foil to Astaire, if she’d been allowed to pick the tunes and the style of dancing, what more was she capable of?

The reason I’m thinking about this is because there’s a structural problem within many of the arts which automatically locks out women and minorities because of the accepted standards and assumptions. It’s certainly there in poetry. For example, there has recently been a translation of the Odyssey published by a female translator and while that’s fantastic and I’m excited to see what she’s made of Homer’s poetry, we’re all trapped within that tale. These stories are inexorably skewed towards men and dominant cultures. There could be as much drama, interest and joy in the story of a woman finding peace, but this would be deemed a domestic story. The overall message is that women’s stories are for women, and men’s stories are universal. Minorities, presumably, need not apply - although personally I feel that the Aeneid is crying out for a modern translation reflecting the challenges and struggles of migrants. I’d love to see an actor of colour at the top of his game like Riz Ahmed retelling Aeneas’ story in the way we should all learn to see it.

Many of the barriers to greater visibility of women and minority groups are hidden. If nature and classical music are accepted subjects and inspirations for poetry, for example, and you live in an urban tower block with no access or connection to a concert hall, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re LGBTQ and the standard love stories don’t fit your understanding of romance, your work will be considered specialist or niche. If you’re a person of colour, you might have a whole rich tradition of culture embedded in your work but because it’s not recognised in the predominantly white canon, you won’t get the recognition for this scholarship.

What I can’t understand is why, when they’re plain for all to see, we don’t let go of these implicit standards. Why not let Ginger Rogers kick off her shoes, pick her own tunes and let’s see what she can do? And while we’re at it, let’s invite some of those minorities who’ve never before been invited to take the stage, those who can’t afford a spangly costume or have a different idea of what constitutes beauty – or music, or dance. The end result is more beautiful art in the world and even if it does mean that white men have to relinquish centre stage and the standards they hold dear, I think we all benefit from that. 

The Odyssey
By Homer Homer, Emily Wilson