“Fearless” Girl

A few remarks on the larger significance of the latest New York silliness.


Foreground: Kristen Visbal, Fearless Girl (2017) Background: Arturo Di Modica, Charging Bull (1989)

New Yorkers can be proud of another swipe at the patriarchy and of another blow for egalitarianism, now that the little bronze sculpture Fearless Girl is facing down the Charging Bull in Manhattan’s Financial District. Except of course that the girl’s fearlessness stems mainly from stupidity, since not even a grown man would stand a chance against a rampaging bull. But presumably the new installment of art is meant to be symbolic, a protest against Wall Street and its male-dominated excesses. If that were all there was to it, one might smile benevolently, even if with a healthy dose of condescension, at the new artwork. But that is not all there is to it. The earlier statue, Charging Bull, does not only represent Wall Street; it represents New York, and it represents American power. Fearless Girl is a stab not only at testosterone-laden executive boardrooms (though Fearless Girl is as much a corporate stunt as anything, whereas Charging Bull was the work of an independent artist), but also an oikophobic attack at the United States. Wall Street no doubt has its excesses, but it also contributes enormously to its city’s and country’s financial success, and thereby to so much of the wealth that we all take for granted here, and which we criticize and consider insignificant precisely because we have come to take it for granted.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)

A culture that is as fragmented and self-hating as ours has become, will always reject not only its actual evils and excesses, but also its greatest achievements, too. After World War I, Europe in its self-immolation began to produce artists that hated not only Europe’s bad sides but also its good and great ones. Fearless Girl is thus a repetition of, for example, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (a French pun, since the letters pronounced in French sound like elle a chaud au cul, which essentially means “she’s horny): both works are meant to spit at something earlier that represents the civilization in question. Fearless Girl deliberately invades the space of Charging Bull and attacks everything that it stands for. That is the diachronic meaning of the newer statue.

"No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I'm free." (From Disney's Frozen, 2013)

Its synchronic meaning is also not difficult to discern. Fearless Girl is part and parcel of a movement that seeks to rebel against anything that constitutes a norm and a higher power. This movement is especially strong in popular culture since it caters to the prejudices of the uneducated, of the young, and of the extremely narrow slice of space and time that is early 21st-century America (as in, for example, the animated movie Frozen, which celebrates against-ness without being for anything very clearly defined). Our American power, our set of principles are beneath me, one will say, and one will embrace a sort of relativism whose greatest motor is personal vanity and self-aggrandizement. A part of attacking the ruling power is now the prejudice that, no matter what, one should never change for others and that one is fine just the way one is. This is why it is also significant that the statue does not simply portray a female, but specifically a young girl rather than a woman. For the dissemination of the aforementioned anti-patriarchal prejudice is a reflection not only of people having become more narcissistic, but also of the increased purchasing power of young people. This prejudice – that no matter what one does or how one behaves, one should stay the way one is – happens to be expressive of a particularly youthful and infantile attitude, and since young people have more money than they used to, or at least a greater access to their parents’ money than they used to, the popular culture is going to change in order to cater to their emotional needs, and so more films will be made, more songs produced, where this prejudice is expressed. Many of these young people will learn over time that it is in fact healthy to change in some respects every now and then, and that some bases of power – such as American power – are better left untouched, although there is, of course, a feedback loop in which the increased stress on this prejudice in popular culture will also, regrettably, come to influence those who might otherwise not have been victims of it. The girl of the statue has the knowledge and understanding of a child, but the conviction of a prophet, and therefore taps perfectly into the self-righteousness of the millennial generation (who feel intellectually flattered and therefore love the statue). The statue – and the politicians who support its presence – thus, opportunistically, dips into that faux-feminism of the young and the angry, who know what they hate but not what they love, and who in any case refuse to understand what they owe to the object of their wrath. That is to say, while Charging Bull defined itself positively, Fearless Girl defines itself through resentment.

The permit for the statue’s presence at its current location is valid until April 2, after which Mayor Bill de Blasio can decide not to renew it, or to let Fearless Girl become a permanent fixture. Let us hope he makes the right decision, even if that would be his first.