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.