July 28, 2016

Backwards and In High Heels

People have been tweeting that "backwards and high heels" line from President Obama's speech about Hillary Clinton last night with tremendous gusto, and no wonder: it's a great line. I've thought so for years. It sends so many signals. It conjures up competence, elegance, confidence, style, accomplishment, delicacy, poise, some understatement (always good--a smart woman never outshines the man what brung her).

Ginger and Fred danced together so well, and when we watch those old films and see them perform we are lost once more in a world in which two people manuever together, each with his or her own set of steps, but meshing them so brilliantly that the result is perfection. Whether the dance is entertainment or political (and in this particular election year I sometimes wonder if there's a difference), the partners engaged in such a perfect performance can be a joy to watch or the solution to a problem. The woman and the man appear to be equals, and in cases like this one, given the difficulty of the task, the woman could argue that she is his superior, given some disadvantages that she has. After all, she has to follow his lead (backwards), even though he does give her some direction, and she must follow his lead gracefully (in heels). He should handle her body skillfully but if he doesn''t, she cannot betray her discomfort.

But would she make such argument? Would it be "worth" her while--think about all the justifications we already hear for the pay gap, which is already difficult to overcome without a lawsuit.  Better perhaps to move into the position of the leader, if that's what it is. Besides, POTUS is one position for which the salary is the same for all incumbents.

The line fit President Obama's message so well; I suspect few people (perhaps none given the commentary I've seen) have wondered where he got it. Well, I believe it actually comes from cartoonist Bob Thaves, who drew the wonderful strip Frank & Ernest, and he wrote the line specifically in 1982 about Fred Astaire, with that comparison to Mr. Astaire's longtime partner Ginger Rogers.  The entire line reads:

Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels!

Ms. Rogers herself has quoted the line on her website.  The meaning is obvious: Mr. Astaire was a wonderful dancer, but we tend to forget while we watch him that Ms. Rogers matches him step for step, and in that famous sequence in Shall We Dance? skate for skate.  Twirl, leap, chasse, jete, over and around. Backwards and in high heels (or on wheels). Equality on the dance floor. Equality finally, perhaps, in the political arena.

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