She was frightened, and wanted to throw the red shoes away; but they stuck fast. She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. She danced and was obliged to go on dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day—but by night it was most horrible.
—from "The Red Shoes," by Hans Christian Andersen
In 1948, The Red Shoes made Moira Shearer an overnight sensation, crystallized the crushing dilemmas of ambitious women in a post-World War II culture, and presented us with a fever dream of a ballet that remains one of the finest dance sequences ever committed to film. Vicky's passion for dance becomes the prize in a war of egos between two men, each of whom feels a claim to her career. One of them belittles her; the other holds her masterwork hostage. In the end, she straps on the red ballet shoes and jumps, or falls, or is driven to her death, just in time to miss her glorious comeback, having paid the price. Well, it's somebody's price, anyway.
At first glance, "The Red Shoes" is a story about dancing, and it's no surprise that the relatively rare screen adaptations of the story are almost exclusively dance pieces; after all, that's what poor Karen must do throughout most of the story—dance through town and dance through graveyards until she finds an executioner willing to divest her of her feet.
It isn't a dance story, of course. It's a story about a woman who finds joy in something for her own sake, and has to be violently put back in her place because of it. (A chastised Karen must debase herself by serving the pastor's wife and discouraging children from games and pretty things, and must finally lose all hope of redemption before God shows up to make good.) Still, there aren't many versions of the tale—not like her far happier, slippered cousin Cinderella. That's no accident. The story is a convenient vehicle for dance narratives because of the dancing it contains; it isn't often directly adapted because so many stories about women are already about their humiliation. In a world where unconscious expectations are shaped so deeply by childhood stories of every kind, The Red Shoes needs no introduction; if a woman is suffering, somehow that must seem about right.
This pattern of humiliation in order to learn a valuable lesson is time-honored; literature has a long history of it, and as soon as cinema began, women appeared. Noble sacrifice, doomed poppet, hooker with a heart of gold, or femme fatale: they've fallen by the dozens to prove that being a woman has terrible consequences built in.
Slowly but surely, this dynamic made the onscreen leap to the romantic comedy. Screwball antics on both sides, or wry bantering between equals who just happened to be counting down the minutes until the Hays Code expired and the kissing could start, began to give way to a particular flavor of romcom. In these, movies, you can't walk ten feet without tipping over a hero who begrudges our heroine, or the heroine who must debase herself by degrees until the relationship can happen. This isn't the only story, of course, but it's familiar enough that you've probably thought of more than one in the time it took to read the sentence.
To no one's surprise, these same stories are often deeply concerned about the ways in which women's emotions compromise their work. (If it's learning selfless, sacrificial compassion for children or family, things might sort themselves out as she realizes her place is to nurture, far away from the selfishness of ambition; if she's childfree and focused on a job that requires bold leadership, it's likely only his help can save her.)
One of the most highly publicized sitcom pilots of this fall is Selfie, a loose adaptation of Pygmalion. The pilot has several elements that will prove key to any eventual success: it has two energetic and suitably game leads in Karen Gillen and John Cho, there's a screwball sense of pacing that jogs us quickly past its worst moments, and it's being produced by a network that has the clout to make it a must-see. Of course, it's also still Pygmalion, which means it is, by necessity, a story about a woman being altered to suit by a grumpy mentor who will doubtless fall for her for reasons the story will claim—will have to claim—are because of who she was all along.
In the meantime, we're introduced to Eliza Dooley, who has thousands of social-media followers. She works in sales (everyone around her agrees she's successful because of her revealing clothes, with no connection ever made between being good at sales and being good at social media). They blame her for making out with a married man who lied about being married; they all knew, they just didn't tell her ahead of time.
Her wake-up call about changing her image involves public humiliation during a bout of food poisoning on an airplane. After that briefly shakes her social standing, she comes to Henry Higgenbottam and begs him to help her personal rebranding. He considers it: "You can't be helped. You are addicted to the instant gratification of unearned adulation from a group of perfect strangers."
She begs him, through unshed tears, as he lists the reasons he doesn't like her. "If you don't like me," she pleads, "then just change me."
Another romantic comedy is A to Z, which promises in its opening voiceover to chart the relationship of Andrew and Zelda from beginning to breakup. In that beginning, Andrew tries (unsuccessfully) to use company resources to track down Zelda's personal information because he enjoyed briefly speaking to her. When they first go out, he declares he remembers her from a music festival they both had attended a few years prior, and that he knew the moment he saw her he wanted to live with her and have children. She declares that it couldn't have been her, because she wasn't there that night.
Much of the rest of the episode centers on him (successfully) using company resources to track her expenses and see if she actually did attend the concert the same night he did. When she finds out, she's furious. Then, she calls him late that night, and admits it was her there after all.
"I told you I'm a terrible person," she says. The music rises; it's certain he'll forgive her.
The strangest, and perhaps the most honest, version of The Red Shoes might be the version staged by the Television Theatre Company, which blended ballet with a frame story in which old Hans himself goes to visit a family friend and discovers her daughter, Karen, refusing to attend school. She's been disobedient, willful, distracted since her mother's death. Andersen suggests they put on a play in her doll theatre. It features a willful young girl named Karen, whose love of the red shoes leads to the expected disasters.
In terms of sheer imagination, it remains underappreciated in the creepy-children's-tale canon. It's a hauntingly horrific piece of cinema psychology, and given that it was made explicitly for children, it has all the unsettling cast that the writer himself could want. Amid several characters who feel outright Lynchian in their strangeness—the clothespin parishioners, the handkerchief blizzards, the paper-cutout funerals—Karen is played by several dolls over the course of the play as she grows. The three dancers who portray her wear identical masks—dead eyes, closed lips, quite speechless and placid no matter their frenzy.
As they act out the frame tale on Karen's bedroom floor, Karen becomes upset that her initial delight in red shoes (the red shoes that remind doll-Karen of the mother she lost) has begun to endanger her relationship to her adoptive mother. Karen begs Uncle Hans to have the little dancer set the shoes aside and stay at home with the doting old lady. "I don't think she ought to leave the old lady now. It just doesn't seem right."
Hans makes the doll put on the cursed red shoes. "But you made her choose the red shoes every time," he says, and forces the little doll forward despite.
Of course, Karen gets struck by the Devil's mania; she's forced to dance, and to keep dancing, through the town and through the graveyard, out to the barred doors of the church where the Karen who can speak begs on behalf of the doll who can't.
"I don't understand," she begs, "why can't the angel just forgive her?"
Hans doesn't answer. Mercy was never the point; neither was some lesson. Only her suffering matters. (Later, Uncle Hans makes Karen tear paper to provide a snowstorm for Karen to find the executioner in.)
At movie's end, Karen weeps for mercy from her mother and from Uncle Hans. The music rises; it's certain he'll forgive her.
“Don’t cut off my head!” said Karen, “for then I could not repent of my sin. But cut off my feet with the red shoes.”
And then she confessed all her sin, and the executioner struck off her feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet across the field into the deep forest.
And he carved her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches, and taught her a psalm which is always sung by sinners; she kissed the hand that guided the axe, and went away over the heath.
Genevieve Valentine's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and other magazines, and the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, Teeth, and more. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is out now from Prime. You can learn more about it at the Circus Tresualti site. For more about the author, see her website. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.
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