The business world was shaped by men of means for men of means – and it’s time for women to start sculpting, writes Anna Connell
In James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a fairy falls down dead every time a child says “I don’t believe in fairies.” As I throw yet another log on the fire that’s burning about Fearless Girl and Charging Bull, the two statues literally and figuratively facing off against each on Wall Street and in columns around the globe, I’m hoping there’s a reverse version of this where a woman finds herself in a position to make real change every time someone writes another thinkpiece on the subject. If every word was equivalent to a woman gaining a place on an executive team or board of directors we’d have gender equality at those levels already. But we don’t. Not by a long shot.
I nearly didn’t write this. Just as I was rising to get back to writing it, Liam Dann’s piece on the matter dropped for the Herald on Sunday. I cursed his name (sorry Liam) and wondered if my thoughts would contribute anything new to an already crowded discourse.
But I am from Hamilton, the home of Bob Jones’ gift to the city, The Farming Family, and Molly Macalister’s Little Bull, and therefore it’s my duty to explore controversy surrounding bovine-themed public art. I am also a woman who’s feeling increasingly uncomfortable about “corporate feminism” and the entrenchment of the “business case for diversity” in conversations about gender equality at work. What was once about civil rights is now about productivity and profit.
Fearless Girl was commissioned by investment firm State Street Global Advisors as an advertisement for a fund which comprises companies with a higher percentage of women among their senior leadership. It is placed in front of the bull, staring at the bull with hands on hips.
The plaque at its foot reads: “know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference”. “SHE” rather cleverly reads as both the fund’s NASDAQ ticker symbol and the feminine pronoun. A very shrewd friend of mine described it as “well-executed content marketing.” Which it is, in the guise of public art and, like many such works, it has been adopted by the public, gaining new context through their interactions with it, becoming an emblem of strength, defiance, and encouragement. Pictures of girls mimicking Fearless Girl’s stance have flooded social media.
Charging Bull was installed outside the New York Stock Exchange in 1989 as an act of guerrilla art by Arturo Di Modica and the Bedi Makky Art Foundry. Following the 1987 stockmarket crash, Di Modica created it as a symbol of the “strength and power of the American people”. It was seized by the NYPD the next day but following a public outcry, it was installed two blocks down from the Exchange. It has become a tourist attraction, a symbol of aggressive economic prosperity, and a target of criticism by anti-capitalism protesters. In many people’s minds it represents Wall Street itself.
Di Modica has come out swinging against Fearless Girl. He claims it corrupts Charging Bull’s artistic integrity by distorting the intent of his statue from “a symbol of prosperity and strength” into a villain, and it does so for commercial gain. In response people came out swinging against him, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who tweeted “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”
Blogger Greg Fallis attempted to unpick Di Modica’s point, his blog simply titled Seriously, the guy has a point.
Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez’s rebuttal was titled similarly: On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point.
Not all of what Criado-Perez said sat comfortably with me. It felt like some broad strokes were painted across issues raised by Fallis. My fingers hovered over Criado-Perez’s tweet on the subject as they’d previously done on Fallis’. I wanted to retweet it for balance and affiliation, but I didn’t entirely agree with the sentiment.
Are any and all positive representations of girls and women okay, provided it’s redressing the balance?
And was it okay to ignore the context in which Fearless Girl came to be, in favour of the meaning given to her by the public? All of this went around in my head for a few days leaving me feeling conflicted about my own feminism.
I remembered my Hamilton roots. Although my earlier reference to the ‘Tron might have sounded tongue-in-cheek, my introduction to the wonderfully fraught relationship between public art and the public wasn’t through academic exploration but working for the Hamilton City Council in 2004 and 2005 when the talk of the town was the Riff Raff statue.
“I associate the Rocky Horror Show with Rob Muldoon and fishnet tights and bad make-up. It’s not something that Hamiltonians can feel particularly proud of,” said Councillor Jocelyn Marshall in opposition. Cr John Gower was rapt: ”we’ve got to get out of this bloody cow-town type of look. We have to do something to the central city area.”
Having the fortune to work with an ex-art history teacher-turned arts policy and strategy advisor, I learned early on that controversy and public art go hand in hand, hoof in hoof, like a pair of well-heeled boots on a Transylvanian. Public art is as much about provocation as it is about evocation. It should inspire debate and response with the potential to develop context beyond what the artist may have intended, to be adopted as an emblem of something more and often, as time goes by, be rejected as no longer being reflective of the values we want symbolised and celebrated. The stories of the controversy and the origins of public art pieces are as much a part of the narrative of the works as the artist’s intent or any future significance.
It was through this lens that I watched the debate about the Girl and the Bull unfold. And through that lens, I was troubled by the attempts to shut down the conversation the artist, Fallis and others were trying to have about why he is angry about it. One comment on Twitter that perturbed me the most:
“All those hot takes on how the fearless girl statue isn’t what it claims it is – I don’t care. This is what girls are seeing. This is enough.”
Is it enough? is it enough to accept it at face value? Is it enough to be happy with the context it’s being given without examining the context in which it was created? Many a piece of civic or public art has been re-interrogated and found to be propaganda. Soviet statues, Roman reliefs, even Rosie the Riveter. Is it okay that the company that commissioned it champions diversity on boards because it’s good for business and while they don’t explicitly say this, not just because it’s good? Is business good for women? Is the current system in which companies like State Street exist serving women well?
I agree entirely with Criado-Perez when she says, on seeing a girl standing up to a rampaging bull, anyone who “doesn’t rejoice in their hearts, even a little bit, is dead inside.” There is no doubt the young girls posing with her feel a little less fearful and little more fearless – that’s a great thing – but I think we do an enormous disservice to women and girls by not examining the Fearless Girl in full. If there’s anything we can learn from the study of art it’s that there are often meanings behind meanings and layers and layers of political, historical, and societal context that help us interpret both the work, our representations within it and the world around us. By trying to shut down a portion of the debate about Fearless Girl and Charging Bull we teach young girls and women that’s it’s okay to accept things at face value at a time when the discipline of reading media, art and advertising should be paramount if we want to reshape a fairer and more equitable world.
For centuries, the female image and form has been used, abused, misappropriated, altered, and manipulated for commercial or political gain. And even if it perceived as positive, especially in advertising or marketing, it is still something we shouldn’t let young women and girls accept at face value. Dove was one of the first brands to embrace what’s become known as empowerment advertising, or femvertising. I like their ads, they’re a damned sight better than many others in the beauty category. Dove’s owners, Unilever, are some of the best in the business on walking the talk on gender equality, but they’re still trying to sell me something to meet a need the industry itself created to turn a profit.
For all that might look like progress, we can’t ignore that “empowerment” and “diversity” are measured in terms of their efficacy in driving results within a system women didn’t create and isn’t serving us well. “Women ages 18 to 34 are twice as likely to think highly of a brand that made an empowering ad and nearly 80 percent more likely to like, share, comment, and subscribe after watching one,” trumpets Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. Put your bras back on and the lighter fluid away ladies, we have our strong feelings for brands, and have helped videos go viral.
New Zealanders and Americans are several generations off achieving any kind of gender equality at work or gender pay equity.
A 2016 World Economic Forum report suggested it might take 170 years to eradicate the disparity in pay and employment opportunities for men and women. This is after a report just the year before saying it would only take 118 years. In statistics reported last week by the NZX, 84 percent of board members on NZX-listed companies are men, while 13 percent are women. This is lower than the same period last year, when women made up 14 percent of directors. 79 percent of officers at these companies are male, while 21 percent are women. At least that’s up two percent on last quarter. Pay rates of CEOs skyrocket against those of their workers, pointing to an unequal system that’s clearly not geared towards economic prosperity for women. Research carried out by the New Zealand Work Research Institute, Auckland University of Technology and the University of Waikato commissioned by the Ministry for Women and released in March suggest 84 percent of the reason for the pay gap in New Zealand can be described as ‘unexplained factors’ – citing perceptions, attitudes and bias against women, both conscious and unconscious as possible causes.
Meanwhile in Britain, women are fighting for the right to not be told what they can wear to work after Nicola Thorp, a receptionist in London’s financial district, was sent home for refusing to wear high heels to her job.
Is it time we admitted the system was broken? That something largely designed by men of means for men of means isn’t intended to serve the interests of those outside of that group, and no matter how many statues we erect celebrating a gender-diverse investment fund, or how many times we “lean in” or attend a breakfast for International Women’s Day, it might be time to reject these pretences in favour of the rallying cries heard during the fights to win the vote or to protect our right to choose what we do with our bodies and our lives.
US author Jessa Crispin has polarised women with her book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. In it she suggests feminism has been tamed and lost its commitment to radically changing society. “The feminism I support is a full-on revolution. Where women are not simply allowed to participate in the world as it already exists … but are actively able to reshape it.”
We are awash in a sea of “diversity initiatives” but things aren’t getting better, and we’re living in a fairy land if we think that’s all it’s going to take to reshape the world in favour of fairer outcomes for women, or even a fair fight between the bull and the girl. Fearless Girl is a source of inspiration for sure but she is born of a system that argues for “diversity” as means of improving business performance rather than civil rights.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace Fearless Girl as a feminist icon and embrace Crispin’s call for revolution instead, teaching girls and young women to read the world around them and question the systems that gave rise to how women are represented and the way the case for equality has been framed up thus far. Because maybe, unlike Barrie’s fantastical Neverland where no one grows up or the Fearless Girl who never will, it is time for us to mature beyond platitudes and for women to start reshaping the world so that every time someone says “I don’t believe in the ‘business case for diversity’ but in the civil right, the moral right,” a feminist is born.