Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747

The 1970s were a time of great change for American women. Through the turbulence of the 1960s, women’s roles in American society went largely unquestioned. Even the revolutionaries of the period dismissed questions of women’s liberation and feminism. But, led by such theorists, writers, and political figures as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug, women in the 1970s began to demand different treatment.

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There has been much talk about the ‘‘Sexual Revolution’’ in American society. Although it is very difficult to make generalizations about such a vast transformation of social attitudes, we can con- fidently say that beginning in the 1920s and lasting into the 1950s a small but increasingly vocal minority of Americans wanted their Puritanical culture to talk frankly about sex. The ‘‘carefree’’ 1920s were characterized by groups of young people who had much different attitudes toward sex than did any generation in American history—for the first time, sex was being regarded not simply as a dirty secret for married people to keep but as a recreational activity. In the 1950s, a decade whose image today is dominated by middle-class American values, the movie star Marilyn Monroe and the magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, among many others, forced America to confront its hypocrisy about sexuality. And in the 1960s, the various countercultural groups of young people often made sexual liberation or ‘‘free love’’ part of their program.

But for all of the changes in American attitudes toward sex, American attitudes towards women had changed little. This ‘‘Sexual Revolution’’ often made women into sexual objects, existing only for the pleasure of promiscuous men. Even the invention of the birth control pill, which allowed women to experiment sexually without fear of pregnancy, was a mixed blessing for women in some ways. Tired of the disdainful attitude toward women demonstrated by the self-described radicals of the 1960s, Friedan and Steinem organized a women’s movement that sought to secure equal treatment for women in society. One of the most difficult problems this movement faced was how to fight for the sexual freedom of women without seeming to make women into ‘‘tramps’’ or ‘‘sluts.’’ There was no model in Western culture for the woman who was in control of her own sexuality; as Steinem often pointed out, Western women were inevitably portrayed as virgins, whores, or mothers, with no other roles available to them.

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American society spent much of the 1970s and 1980s debating the question of women’s liberation. What were appropriate roles for women at home? In the workplace? How should a woman use her sexuality? By the early 1990s, most jobs and careers were open to women, although a ‘‘glass ceiling’’ often existed that effectively prevented women from advancing to executive positions in government or business. An especially thorny and enduring problem was sexual harassment, or unwanted sexual advances at work, especially those made by a male superior to a female employee. Many men dismissed the issue, but the legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon—mentioned by Edward in Spike Heels—helped draft legislation to define such conduct and make it illegal.

In 1991, many women’s frustrations about sexual harassment came to the fore in the so-called ‘‘Anita Hill case.’’ President Bush had nominated Judge Clarence Thomas to serve on the Supreme Court, and, during his confirmation process in the United States Senate, a lawyer who had worked under Thomas, Anita Hill, accused the judge of sexually harassing her during the time they worked together. The stories Hill told of Thomas’s behavior were very familiar to millions of women, but the Senators questioning her in the hearings concentrated instead on Hill’s sexual history, her conduct, even her clothes. The Senators’ obliviousness to the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in many women’s lives, and their tendency to ‘‘blame the victim,’’ caused those women to conclude publicly that ‘‘they [the Senators specifically, but in a larger sense men in general] just don’t get it.’’

Rebeck draws on women’s problematic, expanded sexual freedom and on the issue of sexual harassment in her play. Georgie uses her sexuality as a way to establish power, but her sexuality apparently backfires. In the play, though, we see that Edward and Andrew have been treating her like a commodity, almost as if they have traded her— something they have done before—for Lydia. The thorny issues of sexual harassment, women’s liberation, and changing gender roles are at the heart of Spike Heels.

Literary Style

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Setting
Spike Heels is set in two apartments in contemporary Boston. The play does not make much use of the city; however, Rebeck cleverly structures the play in two parts, and the division is also indicated by the locations of the two acts. The first act is set in Andrew’s apartment, the second in Georgie’s. As the play examines very carefully some important differences between men and women, setting the two acts in apartments belonging to the two sexes allows the setting to mirror the theme. Rebeck also uses music to contribute to the theme and to reinforce our impressions of the characters, indicating in the text what music should be playing in each apartment—classical in Andrew’s, Elvis Costello in Georgie’s.

Character Development
The play is in large part about self-discovery and the way that we grow to understand and learn new things about other people, and Rebeck uses the development of her characters to reinforce that theme. With the exception of Georgie, all of the characters in the play are both presented to us and described to us by other characters while they are offstage. We get a very negative impression of Lydia before she ever arrives on the stage—Edward describes her as a vampire—but when she does show up she is much more animated and sympathetic than we suspected she would be. Edward seems like a monster in the first scene, but when he makes his first appearance he is less so (although he is certainly unsympathetic and arrogant). Andrew appears quite sympathetic when he is presented directly to us, but when he is off-stage—when Edward or Lydia is talking to Georgie about him— we learn things about him that are unflattering. Rebeck’s use of direct and indirect characterization underscores her point that we cannot make hard and fast judgments about people based solely on how they first appear.

Symbolism
As indicated by the play’s title, the most important symbol in the play is Georgie’s spike-heeled shoes. The spike heels represent a number of aspects of women’s roles in contemporary society— as sex object, sexual predator, working woman, and homebody. As the play opens, Georgie arrives at Andrew’s apartment, complaining about how badly her spike heels hurt her. Women on the job, Rebeck indicates, are expected to dress attractively or even in a way that accentuates their sexuality. Men’s work clothes hide the body, she suggests; why do women’s emphasize their bodies? In addition, women must endure pain to appear professional or attractive. High-heeled shoes, worn consistently over a lifetime, can cause permanent malformation of the foot, and the spike-heeled shoes (taller and, because of their narrow heels, transmitting more impact to the foot) are especially dangerous for that.

Women are expected to wear high heels to work, but spike-heeled shoes, connoting sexuality, are rarely appropriate for work. So why does Georgie wear them? Georgie is from a working-class family and has little experience with the white-collar world. The fact that she wears these shoes to work indicates her inexperience in the business world. And, as a secretary, she feels powerless. Sexuality has always been her source of power, and the spike heels represent her sexual power—something that Lydia comments on. Georgie uses the spike heels to lure Andrew and Edward, but they limit her, make her just a sexual object. In that sense, when she doffs them—as she does on stage—it emphasizes her powerlessness and her lack of a defined place in the world. But, as she says herself, the spike heels are also an entirely nonsexual way for her to obtain power. ‘‘I like the way they make my legs look kind of dangerous,’’ she tells Edward and Andrew. ‘‘And I like being tall. I like being able to look you both in the eyes. It’s the only chance I get, when I’m wearing these things.’’

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Kennedy, Louise, Review of Spike Heels, in Boston Globe, May 8, 1993, p. 27.

Klein, Alvin, Review of Spike Heels, in New York Times, Connecticut Edition, November 14, 1993, p. 18.

Pressley, Nelson, Review of Spike Heels, in Washington Times, September 21, 1994, p. C16.

Rich, Frank, Review of Spike Heels, in New York Times, June 5, 1992, p. C3.

Shaner, Madeleine, Review of Spike Heels, in Backstage, December, 1999.

Further Reading
MacKinnon, Catharine, Only Words, Harvard University Press, 1993. MacKinnon examines sexual harassment and explores the legal issues involved with legislating against it.

———, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Yale University Press, 1979. Sexual Harassment of Working Women is one of the first works to identify sexual harassment as a social problem that needs to be addressed.

Phelps, Timothy M., and Helen Winternitz, Capitol Games: Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Story of a Supreme Court Nomination, Hyperion, 1992. This work is a long and careful look at the Anita Hill case and its effects on American society and politics.

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