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Last night, I spent half an hour with “Fearless Girl,” the bronze sculpture created by artist Kristen Visbal and installed by financial firm State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) on Wall Street for International Women’s Day. I watched people pose for photos with her in nonstop succession — young and old, male and female, literally everyone wanted their picture taken with “Fearless Girl.” I listened to a young man compare “Fearless Girl” to his sister. I got yelled at by a group of photo-takers for blocking the view of “Fearless Girl” confronting the “Charging Bull.” I heard a man who was shooting a long exposure of “Fearless Girl” strike up a conversation with a nearby woman about the sculpture. “It’s complex,” he said. “It IS complex!” she exclaimed. Another man joined the conversation and offered that “Fearless Girl” was “pretty profound.”
Having witnessed all of this firsthand, I do not think it’s a stretch to say “Fearless Girl” represents basically everything that’s wrong with our society.
Here is the narrative being spun about “Fearless Girl”: An advertising firm and a financial services firm got together to drop a “remarkable,” “guerrilla” sculpture of a young girl in front of Wall Street’s famous “Charging Bull” in the middle of the night. The girl is part of a campaign to encourage companies to increase the number of women on their boards. The girl “is a remarkable evolution for Wall Street.” The girl might even represent “the turning point of gender equality in corporate America.” The girl “celebrates all the people who resisted by staying in place.” If installed permanently, the girl would be “a constant source of strength” for women who work in the vicinity.
That’s fuzzy and inspiring and stuff, but here is the truth about “Fearless Girl”: It features a branded plaque at its base. The companies that installed it had a permit. They are advertising firm McCann New York — whose leadership team has only three women among 11 people, or 27% women — and asset manager SSGA — whose leadership team has five women among 28 people, or 18% women. SSGA is a division of State Street, which has a board of directors that includes only 27% women. SSGA is also, according to Wikipedia, the world’s third-largest asset manager, managing more than $2.4 trillion in assets in 2014. And, like any good capitalist behemoth, it has some shady dealings in its history — like the time the SEC charged State Street with misleading investors during the subprime mortgage crisis. Or the class-action lawsuit brought against it for mismanaging retirement funds. Or the over $64 million that the company agreed to pay in January to settle fraud charges brought by the government, as Nick Pinto pointed out in the Village Voice.
But don’t worry about those cheating Wall Streeters who can’t be bothered to take care with people’s investments and lives — “Fearless Girl” will stop them! She has, as a visitor commented last night, “no doubt” and “no fear”!
I spent International Women’s Day on strike and not looking very much at the news or my phone. When I heard about the stunt, sometime in the evening, I felt offense begin to bore a hole deep in my core. Could there possibly be anything more patronizing than two massive, male-dominated capitalist companies installing a branded statue of the most conceivably non-threatening version of womankind in supposed honor of a day devoted to women’s equality that was founded by the Socialist Party?
No, alas, I think there could not.
Here’s an idea: You want to actually celebrate women? Hire them and pay them as much as their male peers. Even if you can only bring yourself to symbolically celebrate women, at least commission some decent art about them. Aside from her awkwardly flat ponytail and her cyborg face, “Fearless Girl” is weak because she’s not real. She’s a glib, easy myth. Women have spent all of Western history being turned into myths. We’re kind of over it.
The best explanation that the best part of me can muster for all the enthusiasm for “Fearless Girl” is that we’re so starved for public images of women that aren’t tied to advertising or sex, we’re willing to laud just about anything. That’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity — for the city, for artists, for cultural institutions and nonprofits. You can count the number of public statues of historic women in New York on one hand. How about commissioning some more? What about exhibiting some truly challenging feminist public art? Hell, I wouldn’t even object that much if it were sponsored by a Wall Street corporation. The great thing about art is that it can thrive beyond the circumstances of its creation — but only if it has something substantial to say.