Clacking and the Social Science of Being the Boss Lady
Almost all of my shoes have heels. Three inches minimum. I had wanted to wear them since I was a little girl. They made you look taller and undeniably more mature. But the best part about them, thought I at age five, was the sound they made.
It’s a sound, I later learned, that some people think ought to be suppressed. In the film The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea complains about her job and mentions a group of women she calls Clackers, because of the sound their stiletto heels make on the marble lobby of her office building. “They worship her”, she says of Miranda Priestly, Andrea’s boss and the editor in chief of Runway, the fashion magazine they both work for.
I remember older women in school (frumpier than those I admired) and even some of my peers (who I guess admired these frumpy older women) saying that women do not need to make that clacking noise and that it’s perfectly possible to cross a hard floor in heels without doing so.
And it is. If you want to meekly tiptoe across, terrified of anyone noticing your presence.
Clacking is attention-grabbing. To clack is to let the entire room know that you are approaching. It’s also a distinctly feminine sound. I think this is the key reason why some people take issue with it. It’s annoying and sharp. Clack clack clack clack. Almost nagging. A man’s footsteps might be equally noisy on a hard floor and no one would care. A woman’s steps in heels though is a sharper sound because the surface area hitting the floor is smaller. But it’s not the pitch that makes clacking so much worse than a man’s thump and thud.
It’s that women are to be seen and not heard.
Think about every time you see a woman clacking in a movie. You never see a weak-willed woman doing it. It’s always a strong one, usually striding ardently to wherever she’s going, absolutely sure of her direction. Sometimes there’s anger behind it, and the steps are even louder, but clacking is used at its base to indicate not only that a woman is coming, but that you’d best get out of her way because she’s got shit to do and a plan of action.
It’s worth noting that the thing that separates Andrea from the other girls at work besides a woeful disinterest in fashion is that she is not comfortable in her job. She wears the heels Nigel gives her early on, but it’s clear that a pair of stilettos alone does not make her live up to the work. It’s only when she really embraces her place in the company and gets her shit together, becomes proficient and expert and self-assured at it, that she too clacks.
Clacking is the sound of being in control.
It’s no coincidence that the first we see of Miranda Priestly, the ultimate Boss Lady, is her feet in red high heels emerging from her chauffeured car and clacking on the sidewalk in front of Elias-Clark Publications. People move out of her way like the Red Sea and they can hear her coming, her stride most ardent of all the women in the Runway offices, far enough away to manage to scurry off before she gets there.
This is why the Clackers worship her. Not just because the peons scramble to get out of her path when she gets to work, not just because she’s the judge, jury, and executioner of the fashion world. It’s because she has this power that women so rarely get. That is what they’re aspiring to. To be In Charge.
To be that threatening.
Miranda is known to be a workaholic and the public narrative about her describes her as a “dragon lady” who demands the impossible of her employees and controls the fashion world with an iron grip. These are things that, as Andrea rightly points out in defense of her boss, would be considered admirable traits in a man, but are seen as demanding and entitled in a woman.
Miranda is called a dragon lady to demean her authority. To try and bring her down. Because, at least in her fashion world, she is threatening as hell. She is a serious, powerful woman who can destroy a designer with a pursed lip and who can cockblock any publication, including her own, from getting half the names they’d need to be worth a damn with a single word.
Powerful women are threatening. They do not put the feelings and needs of others first. They do not coddle or baby. They do not blend into the background until someone needs them. They do not demur from actions that might point attention their way. They do not do as women are supposed to do. And perhaps most indicative of their impertinence to the status quo, the ones I admire most are unrepentantly femme as they do it.
Don’t take this the wrong way, those more masculine ladies among us. Wearing a pantsuit and a pair of oxfords doesn’t make you any less of a bad ass. But disavowing feminine traits in favor of masculine is almost always part of the story of a woman being awesome on her own. It makes it more palatable. So often it seems that in order to really claim any power for herself, a woman has to affect masculine to do it. Princesses have to put on armor and swing the sword themselves. They have to be a tomboy or else too weak to be a hero. Put on the man’s clothes before you can be taken seriously. So to walk into a room of people, especially men, and tell them what the fuck to do and to get the fuck to it in a skirt and makeup and pair of heels is an especially feminist gesture, in my opinion. It means you don’t have to act like a man to be respected like one.
To make no concession, to remain femme and give those who wouldn’t be nothing to make them more comfortable with the idea of taking orders from you, and having them take them all the same. That is what that clacking sound means.
It means you are here and you are the goddamn boss. And no, you are not ‘one of the boys’ and they don’t have to be comfortable with your authority, but they’d better not question it if they know what’s good for them. And you will not walk more quietly across the marble lobby because you do not care if people can hear you. Because you have more important things to do than to worry about trivialities like if your getting from point A to point B is disrupting someone’s ability to be unaware of you.