Art

A Case for Admiring the ‘Fearless Girl’ – and Resenting It

Without Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The ‘Fearless Girl’ statue in Manhattan’s Financial District. Credit: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

I got metaphorically spanked a couple of days ago. Folks have been talking about the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue ever since it was dropped in Manhattan’s Financial District some five weeks ago. I have occasionally added a comment or two to some of the online discussions about the statue.

Recently, most of the discussions around the Fearless Girl have focused on the complaints by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor who created the ‘Charging Bull’. He wants Fearless Girl removed, and he has received a lot of criticism for saying that. Here’s what I said that got me spanked:

The guy has a point.

This happened in maybe three different discussions over the last week or so. In each case, I explained briefly why I believe Di Modica has a point (and I’ll explain it again in a bit), and for the most part folks either accepted my comments or ignored them. Which is pretty common for online discussions. But in one discussion, my comment sparked this:

Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.

Which – and this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m okay with saying the obvious – is a perfectly valid response. It’s also one I agree with. As far as that goes, it’s one that NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees with, since he said it first (although, to be fair, probably one of his public relations people first said it first).

But here’s the thing – you can completely agree with the woman who responded to my comment AND you can still acknowledge that Di Modica has a point. Those aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory points of view.

Let me apologise here, because I have to go into some history – and for reasons I’ve never understood, some folks actively dislike history. It’s necessary though. So here we go. Back in 1987 there was a global stock market crash. Doesn’t matter why (at least not for this discussion), but stock markets everywhere – everywhere – tanked. Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalised citizen of the US, responded by creating the Charging Bull – a bronze sculpture of a… well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7,000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some $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.

People loved it. Those who ran the New York Stock Exchange, for some reason, didn’t. They called the police, and pretty soon the statue was removed and impounded. A fuss was raised, the city agreed to temporarily install it, and the public was pleased. It’s been almost 30 years, and Charging Bull is still owned by Di Modica, still on temporary loan to the city, still one of the most recognisable symbols of New York City.

And that brings us to March 7 of this year, the day before International Women’s Day. Fearless Girl appeared, standing in front of the Charging Bull. On the surface, it appears to be another work of guerrilla art – but it’s not. 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 $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. And finally, along with Fearless Girl, is a bronze plaque that reads:

Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.

Note that it’s not She makes a difference, it’s SHE makes a difference. It’s not referring to the girl, it’s referring to the NASDAQ symbol. It’s not a work of guerrilla art, it’s an extremely clever advertising scheme. This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. The sculptor, Kristen Visbal, sort of acknowledges this. She’s said this about her statue:

“She’s not angry at the bull – she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.”

It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue – but without facing Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes ‘Really Confident Girl’.

Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people” as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls – a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

A camera man films a statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

A camera man films the statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull. Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of the Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would anger any artist.

See? It’s not as simple as it seems on the surface. It’s especially complicated for somebody (like me, for example) who appreciates the notion of appropriation in art. I’ve engaged in a wee bit of appropriation my ownself. Appropriation art is, almost by definition, subversive – and subversion is (also almost by definition) usually the province of marginalised populations attempting to undermine the social order maintained by tradition and the establishments of power. In the case of Fearless Girl, however, the subversion is being done by global corporatists as part of a marketing campaign. That makes it hard to cheer them on. There’s some serious irony here.

And yet, there she is, the Fearless Girl. I love the little statue of the girl in the Peter Pan pose. And I resent that she’s a marketing tool. I love that she actually IS inspiring to young women and girls. And I resent that she’s a fraud. I love that she exists. And I resent the reasons she was created.

I love the Fearless Girl and I resent her. She’s an example of how commercialisation can take something important and meaningful – something about which everybody should agree – and ruin it by turning it into a commodity. Fearless Girl is beautiful, but she is selling SHE; that’s why she’s there.

Should Fearless Girl be removed as Di Modica wants? I don’t know. It would be sad if she was. Should Di Modica simply take his Charging Bull and go home? I mean, it’s his statue. He can do what he wants with it. I couldn’t blame him if he did that, since the Fearless Girl has basically hijacked the meaning of his work. But that would be a shame. I’m not a fan of capitalism, but that’s a damned fine work of art.

I don’t know what should be done here. But I know this: Di Modica has a point. And I know a lot of folks aren’t willing to acknowledge that.

This piece first appeared on gregfallis.com. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.