The Red Shoes Diaries: A Modern Fairy Tale
The Zalman King movie The Red Shoe Diaries came out in 1991 to less than favorable reviews. It was popular enough to spawn a spin off series on Showtime, but was never taken seriously by critics. The critics were happy to consider the movie soft-core porn and move on. This movie, while certainly not a masterpiece, does deserve a second look. What most failed to see was that the movie was not just for entertainment, it was a movie that had a purpose. It was conscious retelling of a fairy tale that happened to be explicit and erotic in parts. It wasn’t trying to be stimulating, as much as it was trying to convey a message, if not a warning, to its audience.
In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD writes about the fable of the Red Shoes. Estes explains that the psychological truth behind this fable is that “a women’s meaningful life can be pried, threatened, robbed or seduced away from her unless she holds on to or retrieves her basic joy and wild worth.” This is, without a doubt, what happens to Alex in The Red Shoe Diaries.
The movie opens with the funeral of a woman that we do not know and have not yet met. We only get to know Alex through the diary entries read by her grieving fiancé, Jake. It is through these entries and flashbacks that the story unfolds.
Alex’s first entry begins with her dancing. She has too much energy, so she goes home early from work, turns on the music and lets loose. This scene of her dancing is a clear reference to fairy tale. It is not that kind of dancing that kills Alex though. It is the dance of intimacy and sex that will be the death of her, though she does not yet know it at this point in the movie.
Her lover Jake arrives home and takes her in his arms. The movie then shows them playing in a field and enjoying each other. It is here that we hear Alex’s voice over the imagery of her and her lover kissing and touching beneath a tree. She explains that they have been together for six months and she has already become enchanted by him. This is her fairly tale prince whom she is lost without. She has completely surrendered and he knows everything about her. Next we see Jake reading the last lines of her entry. “I want my mystery back. Something, anything—one thought, one deed, one tiny secret that is mine alone.” Jake snaps the diary shut and declares that he doesn’t understand.
hat Jake doesn’t understand is, that for Alex their relationship is like the old pair of handmade red shoes. She thinks that she needs new shoes in order to be happy when, in reality, she doesn’t. Alex has taken on a too-tame life, which has caused her to lose accurate perception of her life. Soon this skewed perception will lead her into excess and loss. Alex has made the fatal mistake of devaluing all that she accomplished and gained in her life. She is cursed by the belief that she is not worth it—that she doesn’t deserve happiness.
King plays with this idea of sight and perception with Alex’s visit to the eye doctor. She is informed that there is a piece of glass embedded in her iris and she needs to have it removed. As the doctor removes the glass and puts a patch over eye she tells us about how most people give up and stop dreaming by age twenty-two. Alex, we get the feeling, is determined to never stop dreaming—never stop hungering.
Though Alex says that she should have called Jake to take her home, she decided to take the adventure of walking home alone. As she walks she notices that everyone assumes that she has the patch over her eye because she is covering up the damage done by domestic abuse. It is an ironic observation by the people who pass her by because it was not Jake who abused her. The abuse comes from her mother, and more importantly herself. Alex is a victim, just not in the most obvious way. The comments were not totally unfounded even if Alex doesn’t realize it.
This is where Alex’s life takes what she thinks is an unexpected turn. A car nearly runs her over because she didn’t see it coming. (Alex doesn’t see her undoing either.) She falls out of the way, and falls right into this guy’s arms. This is not just any man though. It is a very well built man who was working to repair the street. Immediately we see the chemistry between the two. They want each other. They speak and then go their separate ways. It might have ended there and Alex might not have ever spun out of control. The problem was that these new red shoes, represented by this new guy, are too much of a temptation. He is something bright, shiny and new. He is something that she thinks will be better for her. Oh, how she thought wrong!
A week later she goes back to that same street corner and watches him. She has made her decision to make him hers; she only has to act now. Though Alex is nervous and unsure, she follows him to his second job—at a shoe store. If you missed all the other parallels then this is the one that should hit you over the head. This guy is a shoe salesman by no mistake. Alex goes in to buy a new pair of shoes and to, in a way, buy this new guy that she thinks she needs. He tells her in his own crude way that he is more than happy to sell her a new pair of red shoes and to sell himself to her. She buys the shoes and walks out of the store with his address.
That night she takes comfort in her bathtub. This is her sanction, her church. Jake comes in and begins to touch her. They end up making love in the bathtub and we think that maybe she will change her mind and realize how good she has got it, but she doesn’t. The next day when Jake is at work she is sitting at home wanting to go, but too scared to go. Alex tells us that she always dared herself to do the most outrageous things, but never could gather up the courage to actually do them. Before she leaves she trips and knocks over one of Jake’s building models. This is not just to show her clumsiness, rather it is there to remind the viewer that she isn’t seeing things right. Alex then takes off and runs to Jake. Jake, her old red shoes are not there for her. Unable to take comfort in his arms, she runs to her new shoes, her new man.
Alex senses that her world is falling apart, and yet she keeps going. She goes all the way to Jake’s apartment. There he proceeds to kiss her and push her head down toward his crotch. He is going to take control of the situation and her it would seem at first. Alex begins to follow his lead, but then suddenly turns the tables. She says, “Fuck you! My panties. Rip them off.” And that he does. Thus begins a very violent encounter between them. The scene fades and we see Jake reading the entry in shock. He reads the last line of her entry in disgust, “He makes love like he works in the street—tender as a jackhammer.” Jake snaps the book shut, unable to read any more. How could she really prefer that to what they had? He still doesn’t understand her need for pain.
Alex wasn’t satisfied by that encounter though. She has to keep dancing, so she shows back up at his place again. This time she is in a wig and costume. Dressed as someone else she can pretend that she has what she wants most. As she kisses his lips and chest we hear her explanation. Alex has always given this thing up to others, this greatest aphrodisiac of all—control. This affair is not about love, but control. It is her obsession, her addiction.
In the next scene we see Alex sitting at her desk at work dressed in her normal clothes. We hear her words over the scene. She has not seen the man she had an affair with for two whole weeks, but it hasn’t been easy. She is like an alcoholic “coming of the hooch,” she explains. “One week, one day, one minute at a time.” She thinks that she has played with fire and not gotten burned. The audience hopes that this is the case too, but we know it is too late. Her fate is sealed.
A woman comes in and tells Alex that her brother is here to see her. Alex goes pale. She doesn’t have a brother. She knows, as does the audience, who her visitor really is. Alex asks her coworker to take her clients and then she reluctantly sees her visitor. She tells him that she was content not knowing his name and that it was over. He tells her that his name is Tom and then goes on to talk about his life some. Alex tries to end things, but she knows that Tom is not going to give her up that easily. He is still the one in control.
Alex is trying to move on with her life, but she is still very unhappy. We that it is her birthday party and she is surrounded by friends, but it doesn’t matter. Alex is dying inside and soon she will really be dead. After the festivities we see Alex ridding in a car thinking about her current situation. She thinks to herself that maybe she should put an ad in the paper. She says that it would say that she would pay top dollar for women’s experiences. Send diaries to Red Shoes at P.O. Box whatever. This tells the audience that she is feeling isolated and alone. There is no one she feels she can share this with. (It also is a good way to lead into a TV series.) Moreover, it she tells us that her friends would encourage her continue her affair. She feels like it is, in part, her friend’s collective values that have allowed her to indulge.
Recreating the romantic moment they shared in the park Jake proposes to Alex. This is a dream come true in many ways, but it also proves to be a nightmare for her. She doesn’t tell Jake she will marry him right away, instead she proceeds to tell him of how messed up she is. Though she doesn’t come right out and say it, we get the distinct feeling that she feels like she doesn’t deserve Jake. He curls up next to her and reassures her that nothing else matters, that he loves her. He tells her that if you hold anything to the harsh light long enough that you will eventually find fault in it. That is why he builds things with lots of shadows in it. “Shadows are what makes things beautiful,” he tells her. Her shadows are what make her beautiful to him.
Reluctantly Alex and Jake go to tell Alex’s mother of their engagement. Though we have heard how horrible Alex’s mother is, we haven’t really gotten see just how abrasive she is until this point. She is blunt and offensive, but it doesn’t bother Jake one bit. Alex; however, is very upset by it. This is not too much unlike the old woman burning the old red shoes because they are hideous. This woman, Alex’s mother, would be disapproving of any man that her daughter chooses. She doesn’t trust or value her daughters taste or choices. This is part of what has made Alex constantly second guess herself and believe that she is not worth anything.
On the way home they stop at the park and Alex gets out the car and runs away. Jake chases her. He tackles her and she struggles. Finally she stops struggling and just sobs in his arms. She is unable to tell Jake just why she is so upset. He thinks it is just about her bitch of a mother, but it is much more than that. She knows that she still hasn’t escaped her mothers control and that she is still in the grasps of Tom’s control. If her marriage is to work then she must gain control of the situation, of her life.
Alex summons Tom to meet her at a hotel room to tell him once and for all it is over. This plan backfires and ends up being the beginning of the end for her. Tom refuses to let her go. He threatens to rape her and keep stalking her. He is not letting her go. The red shoes have worn out, but they will not come off. She is desperate now.
After Alex has given in and slept with Tom again, she stumbles home. On her way home a group of bikers steals her purse, but she is too drunk or dazed to notice. Alex is consumed by pain and fear. She is succumbing to the poison of her red shoes. Once home she drinks away her pain and tries to numb herself to what she has done. She plays with fire, which is what she has done all along symbolically. Then she takes a good look at herself in the mirror. It is over she realizes. She told herself that if she couldn’t gain control then she wasn’t worth shit. If she isn’t worth shit then what else is left for her but death? Alex slips out of clothes and into the haven of her bathtub. It is here that she takes a razor and draws it across her wrist. Death is her only release from the curse of the red shoes. We see the red clouds fill the bath water and Alex sinks further into the tub.
Seeing the red clouds in the water reinforces the symbolism behind the color red. Red is the color of passion, of sex without soul. Red is the color of life, but it is also the color of sacrifice. Alex sacrifices her life for her obsession and loses control. It is then that she must offer her life-blood so that she could free not only herself, but also Jake of her deeds.
In the end Alex was what Estes would call a starved soul. Alex felt dead inside and it was only the fire, the danger of her desires that kept her going. She was hungry for something she had no way of getting. Unable to give herself the nourishment, the love and self-worth, she needed she ultimately starved herself. She tried to satisfy her hunger with whatever she available, but in the end it only made things worse. This is how addictions to alcohol, drugs and even sex are born. They come out of unfulfilled needs. Like a trapped animal, Alex panicked and ended up hurting herself. Her instincts were dulled or injured and she could not flee or fight back like a normal person would have. Her perception was permanently altered and from this she was never able to recover. If she had been able to see things clearly maybe she would have realized that it would have been better to be hit by the car then fall into Tom’s arms! She would have seen that she had no business destroying what she should have been rejoicing.
The warning that Zalman King sounds should be heard loud and clear for the women of today. Do not cast away those old red shoes for new ones. Do not cast away a good relationship for a fling. Beware of those self-destructive urges. Realize your worth and celebrate the joy in your life instead of falling victim to any number of addictions. The Red Shoe Diaries is a movie as much about celebrating life is it is about the death of one woman, and that is why it should be watched over and over again.