Here’s a story that looks like it’s about feminism but isn’t: Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue goes up, internet loses it.
First take. Girl Fucking Power.
Second take. Corporate feminism through and through. State Street Global Advisors commissioned the statue, SHE is a Nasdaq symbol, not a pronoun. They’re using feminism for advertisement. Capitalism is still evil, etc.
First viral piece of the lousy mess, Greg Fallis’s seriously, the guy has a point:
Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.
Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE.
Third take. The power of the image is more important (round two). Second viral piece. Caroline Criado-Perez’s On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point.
No, Greg. Just, no. Like many other men, Di Modica may not realise that rampant male-dominated capitalism already is a symbol of patriarchal oppression, already is an aggressive threat to women and girls all around the world, but that doesn’t make it any less the case. […] But to be clear: rampant unchecked capitalism is a symbol of patriarchal oppression whether Di Modica likes it or not.
I don’t wish to be pedantic here, but in order to represent “the strength and power of the American people,” Di Modica chose a bull. A male cow. He chose to represent the American “people” with an animal that is perhaps above all others considered a byword for male sexual aggression. And my god the balls on that thing. I think we can be fairly certain how Di Modica visualises power and strength — the phrase “grow a pair” comes to mind. Let’s be clear: this statue never represented the strength and power of American people. It represented the strength and power of American men. Fearless Girl does not therefore change the meaning of Charging Bull. She makes it explicit. And for that, I love her.
Criado-Perez is undeniably correct about one thing: the statues’ meaning as art is not to be judged solely by their origin. She’s the only one to make this point explicit, but note that Fallis agrees with this. Everyone agrees with this, and everyone loves the Fearless Girl despite her silver spoon.
Allow me to offer a contrary position: I hate the Fearless Girl, and the only thing that will help women is the origin. SHE is a threat, not an advertisement. SHE comes from a passive investor, which means that SHE isn’t talking to you. SHE is talking to firms, and SHE says: “Hire women or we’ll withhold money.”
She, on the other hand, the part we’ve agreed is “Girl Fucking Power!”, is an embarrassment.
I’m about to say a lot of things you don’t like. Relax, this isn’t about feminism, nor is it about women.
Opening with the debate wasn’t to bring you up to speed (who doesn’t know what the statue is?), it was to make a point: all of the fighting around Fearless Girl (and this is fighting by explicit feminists) is about corporate money (Ron O’Hare) and Di Modica’s statue (kyriarchy or no?). In other words, about men. Fearless Girl is unquestioned – it’s merely reflective of the men around it. Only male actions and intentions get to contextualize this piece. “Oof.”
I’m not shaming the commentators, I’m saying this was inevitable. Fallon argues that Fearless Girl has appropriated Bull’s power and strength. Criado-Perez agrees but retorts that the Bull’s power is bad, and hence Fearless Girl’s appropriation of it is good. So what does it say about Fearless Girl that she only has power relative to what a male image gives her?
Fearless Girl doesn’t mean anything without the Bull, problem #1. More teeth: her meaning is […], provided for her by context, she has no agency. Remove the bull and put in starving children: suddenly her “powerful pose” looks a lot like cruel indifference. Place a cross on the bull and she’s imitating Richard Dawkins. The Bull doesn’t have that problem. Fearless Girl transformed it from “power” to “patriarchal power”, sure, but it’s still power. Hell, it’s the same kind of power, just with a different value judgment: “capitalism” -> “capitalism but bad”. Do you not see that difference? You’ve created an image of “womanhood” that is always only the reflection of what men do. Fearless Girl is a classic image of objectification, her meaning completely at the mercy of how men themselves decide to contextualize. The fact that it’s entirely up to Di Modica to remove his statue (and hence recontextualize Fearless Girl), is just a cruel footnote to whole embarrassment.
Things get worse if you do talk about origin. It being “wall street money” is misdirection, a ruse. The problem is that someone (here, a man) had to allow the artist her fearlessness, had to open a space for her. Fearless Girl could be an ad for Reebok or Planned Parenthood and it would say the same thing: “You, a girl, don’t have the power to do this on your own. Someone has to help you.” Di Modica may be a #patriarchalcapitalist, but he didn’t need anyone else to let him be that. He just did it. That’s what power is – choosing to do something by your own agency. The artist here is a reflection of her work: she was commissioned, she took no power on her own.
Or, to steal a point from from Criado-Perez, the bull has balls. I’ll risk it: Balls = fertitility, “can create, can reproduce, can make grow“. How does that compare to the girl? Fearless Girl is a girl, i.e. not able to generate children, metaphorically incapable of creating. This is Art History 101: symbols for sex are symbols for creating art. The girl can’t make anything, she’s just placed there, waiting to grow up (be grown) until someone can give her an identity.
“A woman’s meaning is determined by the men around her.” Holy Shit, didn’t know you’d become that guy. If Trump tweeted that tomorrow it’d render you apoplectic, so why are you applauding this?
Here’s another iconic feminist image: Rosie the Riveter. Yeah, I know, been a while. Notice the difference? There’s no man. Notice another difference? She’s an adult.
Don’t give me the “it’s for girls to feel empowered, for children to see their own strength” excuse. That’s worse. Children didn’t do anything to you, stop making them your scapegoats. Fearless Girl disappears in February, i.e. too short of a time for anyone currently a child to remember it. Any girl who does is going to ask the obvious question, the implications of which are horrifying: “Why did the bull get to stay but the girl standing up to it disappear?” Images are important, take the logic of the art seriously even on the surface level: When there’s a furious bull, and a child in front of it, and that child disappears, then what happened? And what lesson does that teach our aspiring fearless girls, you fucking lunatic?
This exists only as a battle for the current crop of culture warriors, i.e. all adults. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I do: There’s something genuinely terrifying about a generation that has chosen to objectify itself as – or at least assent to their objectification as – girls. As children, as people without agency, at the mercy of their parents. Even if there was no bull, no metaphorical reflection of male meaning, the regression to childhood should set off red flags. “The piece is pungent with Girl Power!” says Visbal, but “Girl Power” is something you put on the pencil case of a 6th grader. You want to be an adult one day, right? What happens then?
And this is, by the way, how you know that neither “feminism” nor women as such have anything to do with Fearless Girl. It may look that way, sure, but cultural pathologies often mask themselves in ideology. Men are applauding this nonsense as well, and equally blaming their infantilization on their children (“such a good lesson!”). Rosie the Riveter is also a feminist image, but a very different one. “Things have gotten worse.” What, women in 2017 have less agency than they did in the ’40s? Don’t answer that how you want to – it reveals too much.
The question isn’t “What is feminism saying?” it’s “How did the people who identify as feminists change their self-image?” As in: why did humans – as humans – change, such that those who call themselves feminists now applaud… this.
A man commissions a statue of a woman that is only ever reflective of the masculine symbols around it. The statue, moreover, is not of a woman, but of a girl. A girl adopting the characteristically “huffy, bratty, thinks-she’s-so-good” pose of a thousand locker room one-liners.
Sounds like something out of a Henry Miller piece – don’t bother, Catherine Breillat already owns the rights. The scene would become a synechdoche for male gaze, it’d be the subject of three Butler essays. So what happened here? “They don’t know how to read it right.” I don’t buy that for one second. modern feminism is hyper aware of symbolism and sexist undercurrents. Throw a dart at TV Guide and google “[show] is sexist”. I bet you find a dissertation.
So what happened? Did everyone just forget their ideology for a second? Was it the Russians?
Something that you should’ve noticed immediately that I didn’t mention – what is the girl doing? Let’s say you’d never seen Fearless Girl, but someone says: “It’s about a girl in confrontation with a bull.” What’s your first thought? Does she have a matador’s sword and cloak? What about a cage? A net? Guns are bad and we should definitely ban them yesterday, but why not a bazooka? Is she doing anything that implies action?
Fearless Girl is just… standing. Ok – she’s trying to threaten the bull with her ferocious poise. But that means she needs to be seen, her entire power lies not in doing but in being observed. Not as in “it’s a statue”, but contextually – the bull itself needs to see her. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t afraid, and it gores her. The girl can’t impact the bull if it doesn’t notice her first. She can’t stab it, can’t shoot it. Her only power is in it seeing her. “Sounds feminist to me – like a commentary on male gaze!” You people make me feel like I’m going crazy.
This is related to, but distinct from, the above. How was the girl sold to you? And I don’t mean how did The Man sell it to you, I mean how did you hear about it? A friend posted an article decrying it for corporate advertisement – that’s how we all heard about it. “Ooooh – sneaky campaign!” True, but not the issue. I don’t mean to be a dick here, but since when does Wall Street need your money, much less your approval? Yeah, your hourly is super important to them, I know, and you can tell because they chose to advertise to you. You, of course, wouldn’t let yourself be advertised to, you caught them (and isn’t the implication of those breathless exposes that you would’ve been, well, persuaded? Woooh – really dodged a bullet, without [writer’s] take on corporate feminism I almost became a J.P. Morgan quant). But still… there’s something… it’s that…
If they’re advertising to you, then it means that they’re looking at you, right? They see you, Girl Power onesie and all. They almost got you this time, which means they wanted to. I don’t mean this as your standard “wants to be cared for/father figure/[Freudian murmur here]”, nor do I mean it entirely as “narcissism”. Fearless Girl is political, right? And this is “political”. If the Bull sees Fearless Girl, then she has power over it, so if “Wall Street” see you, then you …
This isn’t a conspiracy, SHE didn’t plan this. I already told you: Fearless Girl is no ad, it’s a threat to other firms. You’re unimportant (no one is looking at you). And none of the bloggers screaming are being paid off to super secretly reconcile you to your own uselessness before modernity. This was organic. You (plural second person pronoun) did this to yourself (singular and plural). “They want me to like them!” Wrong, the opposite, you want to like them and you want them to want you to like them, and you chose that interpretation. Why?
“I still think it’s about feminism.” It isn’t. “Then what’s it about?”
It’s about power, and also —
What, am I just supposed to tell you? Didn’t I just point out the problem with being given a place to “be powerful”? “You” could have any gender here – that’s still an issue, feminism isn’t relevant. Assemble the sundry facts: being seen, advertisement, impotence, you. It’s all there. Do you want me to watch you do it?
Final clue: Fearless, fearless, not feared.
How to fail –