Let’s appreciate what the Fearless Girl represents, rather than tearing her down

Is the Fearless Girl statue facing down Wall Street’s Charging Bull a symbol of female empowerment or a corporate cooptation of it?

As women, we have learned to be cautious about celebrating anything wholeheartedly. Today, it feels like praise for a feminist action must always be couched in a mountain of disclaimers listing all of its shortcomings that make it not quite perfect or “inclusive” of every issue in the entire world.

In the weeks leading up to the Women’s March on Washington, I felt like I was going to puke if I saw one more essay titled something along the lines of: “My Complicated Feelings and Deep Concerns About the Women’s March.” Stop everything you’re doing, people! Someone is having feelings!

Self-criticism within any movement is definitely important, but when it comes to women’s issues, it often feels like we’re being suffocated by an ethos of self-flagellation. Nothing ever seems good enough, and it seems more popular for activists to tear someone else’s efforts to shreds online, rather than support the work that is being done or create something themselves.

I had many points of strong disagreement with the Women’s March organizers, but at the end of the day, I still have to hand it to them for making the whole thing happen. It was the biggest protest in US history, for crying out loud. I will never forget that day and will always be proud to say that I was there with my sisters shouting together in the streets of DC.

When I first saw an image of the Fearless Girl statue, I was moved. It is so rare to see any statue of a woman or girl in New York, let alone one standing in such a bold and defiant pose. But I guess I didn’t get the memo about how sincerity is for babies and cynicism makes you sophisticated. (I was also excited about the possibility of having a woman president instead of a rapist with autocratic fantasies who trolls celebrities on Twitter. What a rube I am!)

Many of my feminist friends (and social commentators in the media) have argued that the Fearless Girl statue represents a form of corporate feminism. They have a point, as the statue was commissioned by an advertising agency to promote the “Gender Diversity Index Fund,” which has the Nasdaq ticker symbol SHE. The stated message behind the statue is that it is advocating for the importance of women in executive leadership positions in male-dominated industries such as finance.

But few will see the statues and come away with that message. In fact, the artist who made the Wall Street “Charging Bull” statue, Arturo Di Modica, agrees with me. At a recent press conference, Di Modica explained that he was unhappy with the Fearless Girl because it changed the meaning of his statue, so that the bull now represents a negative establishment power that is a threat to women and girls. Which is true… The two statues together most obviously convey an image of a girl standing up to the forces of male-supremacist capitalism.

Di Modica also claimed that his statue had previously represented “the strength and power of the American people.” If “the strength and power of the American people” is the way you prefer to say, “American capitalism,” sure, that’s what it represented. But it certainly didn’t just represent some sex-neutral “people.” That bull is a raging juggernaut of masculinity, with its huge ball sack, at home in the bro-iest district of the city. (Think American Psycho levels of bro-iness.)

Because of this context, the Fearless Girl also becomes humorous commentary on the ridiculousness of beastly machismo, which her easy confidence mocks. Mirroring gender dynamics in life, it appears that the more self-assured the girl is, the more the bull rages. Really, there couldn’t be a more fun twist on a global icon of masculinity than this defiant little statue.

The Fearless Girl isn’t perfect, but so what? Isn’t having her better than not? Through the eyes of a little girl, will she see the statue and think of corporate boards? Maybe. But mostly she’ll see herself represented with a power and confidence that is usually reserved for males alone. So why not champion the Fearless Girl so that she becomes a permanent fixture in New York, where we really could use more female statues?

As feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez points out, NYC’s Central Park has 22 statues of men and none of women, other than fictional characters like Alice in Wonderland. In Criado-Perez’ native UK, the city of Edinburgh has more statues of animals than women. The few female statues in the UK are more likely to be “allegorical [and] naked.” She writes:

“The representation of a defiant, clothed, non-sexualized female in a prominent work of art is still vanishingly rare — and is therefore a radical act no matter who commissioned it and what the artistic intent was.”

I don’t know about you, but I find fighting women’s oppression exhausting. We are up against an enormous power, and I for one could use a few more symbols in the world that make me smile. When I see that small girl standing in front of that behemoth, I’m reminded of Lierre Keith’s words:

“We’re going to have to match their contempt with our courage. We’re going to have to match their brute power with our fierce and fragile dreams. We’re going to have to match their endless sadism with a determination that will not bend and will not break and will not stop.”

Take heart, sisters.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • Karla Gjini

    “We’re going to have to match their contempt with our courage. We’re going to have to match their brute power with our fierce and fragile dreams. We’re going to have to match their endless sadism with a determination that will not bend and will not break and will not stop.” <<<< this guts me every time I hear it or read it

    thanks Susan for another thoughtful piece that makes me feel better having read it!

    • Susan Cox

      Thanks Karla!

  • Lucia Lola

    Damn right.

  • Independent Radical

    That is one way you could read it, but I’m less interested in what art means (which is largely a matter of opinion) than what it does. Stories impact behaviour. I’m not convinced the statue will inspire collective acts of resistance instead of individualistic “empowerment” centred approaches to feminist activism. At least it’s not an explicit attack on “weak women” like a lot of liberal feminist work. Maybe that’s why liberals hate it, it encourages women to resist the status quo instead of being “strong”and tolerating it.

  • FierceMild

    Hold on. Having a daughter makes it all that much more real. If you want a list of books/movies etc that will at least not tear her down (and possibly even build her up) I’ll help.

  • Independent Radical

    “Well, art’s meaning and what it does are entwined. There is no meaning without the dynamic interaction of the witness to the work. This statue, a hunk of metal in particular shape that is read by humans as a juvenile female human embodying a stance that is socially interpreted as defiant, can be read in a number of ways at different moments in history.”

    This is why I hate the whole focusing on the “meaning” of art, not just with regard to this statue, but with regard to art in general.

    If it’s all subjective than anyone can just say “well to me porn is really empowering and you can’t force your prudish, sex negative meaning onto it” and if it is just a matter of “meaning” then they are right, but it’s not a matter of meaning. We have scientific evidence showing that pornography consumption has the effect of turning men into sexist jerks and making women tolerate abuse (to the degree that any single factor shapes human personality and behaviour). That’s what matters. I’ll let the pretentious, artsy crowd worry about its personal, subjective “meaning”. It doesn’t matter from a political activism standpoint.

    “The fact that it depicts a single person, and not a group does not determine that it will only inspire individual action and never collective action. It could potentially do both.”

    You seem to assume that the two are compatible and it is possible for a person to do both. But the ideological assumptions of individual activism and collective activism are polar opposites.

    Individual action centres on the idea that individuals have the power to overcome social barriers through their individual “agency” and if you don’t, you get attacked. Within this ideology the word “weak” and “victim” are seen as horrific insults, while “strong” women are blindly celebrated. Collective action, on the other hand, is based on the recognition that individuals belonging to oppressed groups are weak (or rather weakened) by social structures and instead of preaching individual empowerment, it focuses on bringing people together to overthrow (or at least) change social structures. Individual action encourages people to believe (falsely) that their personal deviance will somehow change society or that they can succeed within it so long as they’re “strong” enough and don’t have a “victim mentality”.

    “It might inspire arousal in a paedophile and then anxiety in that same paedophile in response to the fact that it does not seem to depict a vulnerable personality or state of mind.”

    I believe many men are drawn to the idea of corrupting innocence (which would involve overcoming the resistance put up by “strong” or defiant, women and girls), but we can’t know the effects of the statue without a scientific study (yes, I think political analysis and activism should be based on objective evidence about the effects of whatever it is we’re examine, crazy right?) and there is little point in doing one for a single statue. All I’m doing is pointing out that these issues may exist.

    I think it’s more useful (from a political standpoint) to create art which clearly shows that women are brutally oppressed (and unhappy about it), which doesn’t naively suggest that an individual women or girl can overcome it with “defiance” as their only weapon. Of course, people have the right to express whatever ideas they want through their artworks (within reason), but they should be aware that art impacts the world and take into account what their art may do (instead of only thinking about what it means or how people will interpret it).

    “…it does represent a small female human, striking a pose of defiance, taking up space, where there was not one before. Surely that’s a positive in a world that systemically keeps females out of the public sphere unless they appear as sexual objects.”

    It’s not that simple. Not every act of defiance is good. A woman can be “defiant” towards (radical) feminists, while siding with reactionaries or endorsing the sex industry and even when a woman is being defiant towards the right people, it is naive to believe that an angry defiant attitude will change the world. Only real, collective activism can do that.

  • Susan Cox

    Love this comment. So true!

  • Susan Cox

    Thank you!

  • Independent Radical

    Liberals somehow manage to argue that pornography is empowering, even while it features (and more importantly, sexualises and therefore celebrates) brutal violence against women (in fact the more brutally violent pornography is, the more “subversive” and “empowering” it’s considered to be) and academics endorse this view and consider it “supported”. Since “social science” isn’t real science, this is the only “evidence” they need. Whatever the experts say goes and they just find ways to justify whatever feelings they already had prior to making the analysis.

  • Independent Radical

    “Oh, they say it, alright, but there’s no way it’d wash if they were actually analysing the average piece of pornography, because as you say, sexualised brutal violence against women. They’ve got nothing to base their ’empowering!’ reading on, and it can easily be shown why they’re wrong, as we do.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the “pornography is empowering” crowd is full of shit, but those are the people dominating discussions about art and gender in universities. That’s the problem with social science and art analysis. You can lay out clearly the reasons why you think they’re wrong, but they don’t have to listen to you.

    Somehow liberals (including academics who think they’re smarter than everyone even though they’re making the exact same arguments as other liberals, just with fancier words) look at the same evidence (the same horrifically violent images) and feel empowered by them. There’s not much we can do about that. The evidence doesn’t matter. People look for it after they’ve already decided that they feel empowered (or whatever they feel). There are no agreed upon standards (at least none that favour radical feminism) for evaluating the content of texts, because no one wants to “force” interpretations onto people and nobody is allowed to tell anyone they’re wrong. I find such environments intellectually stifling.

    “There are some hopeless academics out there, especially in the US (my lecturers were not impressed), being an academic doesn’t mean they’re any good or doing it right.”

    Unfortunately you’re probably describing most academics (in the field of gender studies and art). If people who have supposedly been trained for years to pick out the meanings of texts can’t do it right, it makes me question whether there’s any legitimacy to the endeavour at all.

    To Tired Feminist – I agree that pornography isn’t art, but tell that to art obsessed liberals and if there is pornographic content in art, how does the fact that it’s art make the pornographic content less harmful? Good lighting, character development and intellectual depth (or any other artistic standpoint that texts are held to) doesn’t change the fact that pornographic images encourage consumers to develop misogynistic attitudes and behaviours. So I don’t really care whether something is “art”. Art can be racist, misogynistic or generally reactionary and it shouldn’t be able to get away with that shit just because it meets aesthetic or intellectual standards that have nothing to do with the political content of the work.

    “Interpretation of art is not a purely individual phenomenon – people discuss art with each other, like we are doing, and can change/expand their views and/or influence others. This process is not irrelevant, it’s absolutely necessary for the use of art for whichever social purpose.”

    This process is carried out by a tiny percentage of people who belong to a special crowd that’s somewhat apart from the ordinary masses. If you’re trying to change the world (which is my ultimate aim) it makes more sense to pay attention to how all the non-artsy people walking past the statue are going to be influenced by it, including little girls who aren’t going to have long discussions about how to interpret the artwork.

    The statue is probably not important enough to the general public to make much of a difference to attitudes in either direction, so it definitely can’t be compared to pornography and isn’t nearly as vile in its message. I used pornography as an extreme example to make a point about how academics can find positive meanings in anything, no matter how horrible. However, we should be concerned about the “strong woman/female character” bullshit that is being preached in the name of feminism. This statue definitely isn’t the source of all this, but we should be wary of blindly praising depictions of defiant females and ignoring the reality of women’s vulnerability.

  • Independent Radical

    You’re exaggerating my position. Frankly, I don’t care whether the statue is there. Most people will probably walk past it. I’m just not convinced I should be labelling it feminist.

    I don’t think the purpose of feminism is to create great art (I’m proudly not an artist, at least not in the sense that art is understood by academia nowadays). The purpose of feminism is to end male dominance over women. If art is to be labelled “feminist” it should make a contribution to that process. In other words it should somehow have the effect of reducing the amount of male dominance in the world.

    Many cultural works have the effect of increasing the amount of male dominance in the world and this has been demonstrated through scientific studies (e.g. it has been clearly demonstrated that pornography and other violent media make men think and act in more aggressive and misogynistic ways). Others are probably neutral in their effects. I’m not saying these should be gotten rid of, but we shouldn’t label them as feminist. I will label a work as feminist if it is likely to reduce the degree to which men dominate women (if it’s presence causes a reduction in the amount of harm men inflict on women, either directly through discouraging them from acting that way or indirectly through encouraging women to mount an effective resistance against such behaviour). I’m not saying there’s only one way to do this, but that should be the goal. If you can make the case that a work of art/culture is likely to contribute to that goal, then I’ll endorse it.

    I don’t care about meanings that exist only in people’s minds. Cultural works have the strongest effects on those who don’t think much about them and I’m not the artsy type, nor am I in a position to remove any art from the public space (criticism and lack of endorsement does not equal censorship). I just want to end male dominance over women (or at least reduce it).