We need to stop saying Walk of Shame

Susan Mc Ateer

Flicking through the dreamy editorials that grace the pages of British Vogue, I came across an image of a model dressed in black vinyl, sequins and Yves Saint Laurent knee-high crystal embellished boots. I should clarify, these boots aren’t merely decorated or lightly studded with crystals - it looks like Swarovski threw-up a boot. The model stands hip popped, leaning against a wall on a bright New York street with a man in a suit walking out of the frame in the foreground. The accompanying caption reads ‘Saint Laurent’s epic crystal-studded boots extend to daylight hours, too. Walk of Shame? Anything but.’ While the glamour, nonchalance and crystals all fed my fashion appetite, I was pretty taken aback by the phrasing of the subtitle. Vogue holds a position as a fashion bible, and if you’re Carrie Bradshaw the magazine is more nourishing than food (a quote which is plastered across the www as an example of why Cazza is so annoying, but I’m like, let the woman speak). So why is it ok for this long-standing women’s magazine to casually use a phrase which demonises women for having sex? 

Men’s fashion is not as binary as women's. Often what a man will wear out at night won’t look out of place during the day, so if he walks home in the morning after spending the night at someone else’s place we might not even notice, so we don’t need to label him. Even if we do notice, we still don’t need to label him. Flip to a woman and we have a deep-seated culture of calling her out, so much so that we even have a term for her journey home. In a time when the mainstream conversation has shifted to a meaningful discourse on feminism, what does it mean when language which is rooted in undermining and shaming women is casually uttered in the most recognisable women’s magazine?

The phrase Walk of Shame is still commonly played out in popular culture and entertainment. A 2015 episode of New Girl titled ‘Walk of Shame’ followed Jess and Cece after a hard night trying to make their way home; sequined dresses in the light of day, panda eyes et al. The episode has it’s mildly funny moments and it commentates on how the characters are perceived as they try and make their way home. But it doesn’t give us anything new, if anything it just keeps the phrase alive. Let’s face it, New Girl’s appeal was long-lost before this aired, but its protagonist Jess Day frequently aired feminist beliefs, and is played by Zooey Deschanel who founded Hello Giggles, an online community described as a positive, discursive place for women. Someone who dedicates time and energy to creating a positive space for women aired an episode about and titled ‘walk of shame’ which fell firmly into the ‘owning it’ category. By just trying to reclaim the term and not dismiss it altogether, we see how ingrained the phrase really is.

Language is constantly shifting, and in the feminist lexicon words and phrases are open to re-contextualisation. The issue with certain misogynistic language is that a countermovement often forms with the aim to ‘own’ a word or phrase. The success of reclaiming language is a mixed bag. Many contemporary terms have negative histories which have been shifted by the people it affects. Suffragette was originally a derogatory term coined in 1906 by Daily Mail (most unsurprising fact I’ve ever heard) journalist Charles E. Hands. The ‘ette’ suffix acted like ‘ess’ does today and was borrowed from French and appendixed to words to imply diminutive, or in other words, womanly. Women fighting for the vote re-appropriated the word and even emphasised the ‘g’ to represent ‘get’ the vote (get it girl). 

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While suffragette has a pretty noble and nuanced history which isn’t commonly tied to its originally derogatory meaning, I don’t think we’ve always been as successful in contemporary culture. There has been a valiant effort to reclaim bitch. Women have been using it as a term of endearment calling female friends ‘best bitch’, ‘bad bitch’, ‘boss bitch’, you name it bitch. But when a man calls a woman bitch with aggression; it still fucking hurts. The thing is, we don’t need to reclaim everything - it takes a long time for conscious opinion to reverse, and if the word or phrase has a painful past it is respectful to acknowledge it, but not always to reintegrate it into everyday language.

There have been instances of people trying to reclaim ‘walk of shame.’ ‘Stride of Pride’ was something that people tried to get going, and Bustle have given some suggestions that are just really lame: Slut Strut, Just got Laid Parade, March of Many Orgasms. I have just sunk into the floor with embarrassment reading these. But the weird thing is that beyond the few trying to either claim or rename, it still doesn’t bother public consciousness that much.

The 2014 film ‘Walk of Shame’ doesn’t help. Elizabeth Banks who usually is brimming with comic talent and charm can’t save the movie, and while seeing Gillian Jacobs in the first few minutes gives hope, that is quickly dashed too. The basic premise is that after breaking up with her fiance Banks goes on a wild night out with her friends, has a one night stand with the charming bartender (who also writes postmodern romance novels), and tries to make her way home to get to her job as a local newscaster in time. Hilarity is meant to ensue, but really the audience is made uncomfortable from one scene to the next where every racial and gender stereotype is thrown around and Banks gets called a hooker too many times for comfort. The only glimmer is a monologue at the end where she declares that just because she’s wearing a tight dress and heels nobody has the right to cast judgement and shame on her (an old woman actually does say ‘shame’ to Banks on the bus). The premise that women are judged and shamed solely based on their appearance could have really worked, but the movie is ill-conceived, disrespectful of so many people, and just not funny. 

A more successful, and what I consider the most powerful iteration of the walk of shame in popular culture is Cersai Lanaster’s ‘walk of atonement’ in Game of Thrones. For committing acts of ‘falsehood and fornication’ she is made to walk naked through the streets while a member of the faith walks alongside her repeatedly calling out ‘shame.’ The scene is an explicit and graphic depiction of what the phrase stands for, and has the villainisation of female sexuality at the core. 

Frequently featured in Vogue is Russian label ‘Walk of Shame’ founded by Andrey Artyomov. The clothes are beautiful (I particularly want every slip dress), and Artyomov describes his label as ‘a brand for girls, inspired by girls. It's always a mix of feminine and masculine, for example lingerie-inspired items worn with oversized coats.’ The meaning and story behind the name is disarmingly simple:

I love this story, so I’m glad you asked. It was September 2008 and I was still working as a stylist. My friend Charlotte Phillips introduced me to someone important in the art world as a designer. The person asked what my brand was called and Charlotte said, ‘Walk of Shame’. When I later asked Charlotte why she came up with that name she answered, ‘Because it’s so you!’

Why it’s ‘so’ Artyomov is because he connects the phrase walk of shame with his youth in Russia. He is inspired by the nostalgia of rave culture of the 80s and 90s, “We would work and hang out with friends 24/7, dance all night long, then watch the sun rise from Moscow’s rooftops. I’m still inspired by these times. I’m fascinated by the city and its energy.” After researching the social and linguistic meaning of the phrase it was oddly refreshing to find the designer speak about the reasoning behind his brand-name with no gendered agenda (agendered?). If we were to reclaim the phrase, this is the most straightforward, eloquent way I can think of.

TV and film are still lagging behind in their role of dismantling this phrase, and are still solidifying the shame attached to female sexuality, but maybe fashion can do more to subvert or move on from it. British Vogue have just published their first issue under the new editorship of Edward Enninful. ‘New Vogue’, as they are branding it, is more diverse, probing and fresh, so here’s hoping they give their ill-thought out puns and subtitles a rest and leave the phrase ‘walk of shame’ to only feature on their pages when talking about Artyomov and his beautiful clothes. And leave those Saint Laurent angel boots out of it.