A Tale of Two Statues

There are two statues on Wall Street that have been getting considerable discussion lately.

Since 1989, Arturo Di Modica’s “Charging Bull” has stood in the Wall Street district, a “symbol of virility and courage” and “determination and hard work” meant to “celebrate the can-do spirit of America” (quotes from his website).

In March of 2017, a second statue called “Fearless Girl” was installed near Charging Bull. It is not at all questionable that this new statue was a direct response to “Charging Bull.” Without “Charging Bull,” she would be meaningless.

Di Modica has complained that “Fearless Girl” changes the meaning of “Charging Bull” in a way that violates his copyright. This is a legal issue that I won’t address here.

Instead, I will focus on each work’s meaning. From the artistic and sociopolitical perspectives, this juxtaposition and the ensuing discussion have been fascinating.

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Let’s look first at “Charging Bull” in isolation, as it was for nearly thirty years. Di Modica has stated that the statue represents the can-do spirit of America. Especially in the context of the last year, that stirs up the notion of what makes America great.

It is clear what makes America great for Di Modica: Capitalism. He did not choose the eagle, a traditional symbol for America’s courage. He chose the bull—the symbol of a healthy financial market—and installed it on Wall Street. This is the artist’s message.

America’s capitalism has long been dominated by white males. Historically, there has been little place for women or people of color; for instance, while Edison is credited with perfecting the light bulb, it was Lewis Latimer, a black man, who developed the carbon filament… while working for Edison.

Gender inequalities have been strong enough to create a sexist term for female workers (“pink collar”), the basis of the 1980 comedy “9 to 5.” Despite strides in gender equality over the last decades, the chipped glass ceiling persists.

It is telling that one adjective used on Di Modica’s site for his sculpture is “virility”: This is an etymologically sexist word, deriving from the Latin “vir,” “man.”

For America, capitalism is a manly pursuit, and for Di Modica, American’s greatness is in its capitalism.

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Along comes “Fearless Girl,” standing up to the bull, both literally and figuratively.

Some are poisoning the well by pointing out that “Fearless Girl,” herself is an advertisement for SHE, a State Street fund that supports corporations with high-ranking females.

That’s a truthful claim, but I don’t think it need affect the greater interpretation of the piece in juxtaposition with the bull.

Greg Fallis lays out an excellent argument that Di Modica has a valid point: The meaning of “Fearless Girl” depends on “Charging Bull.”
But that reality undermines Di Modica’s claim that “Fearless Girl” makes his sculpture menacing. If people—in particular, those most negatively impacted by unfettered capitalism—weren’t already nervous around the bull, the girl would be meaningless.

Imagine “Fearless Girl” standing in front of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” for instance. She wouldn’t look bold, she would look annoyed and impatient. Or “Fearless Girl” in front of Detroit’s “The Spirit of Detroit”: She would look peevish.

Her defiance doesn’t create the bull’s aggression; her defiance derives from it.

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Regardless of her corporate origins, people have generally interpreted “Fearless Girl” as a new feminist icon. Responding to Di Modica’s complaints, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”

But is she a good icon?

In the Washington Post, Christine Emba notes of the statue, “the empowered woman as a child, reinforcing the idea of femaleness as cute and inoffensive,” while Salon’s Amanda Marcotte calls it “a toothless work that does nothing to confront the realities of sexism,” one that “is infantilizing and places the blame for women’s inequality on women themselves, not on the structural forces of sexism.”

There are two details to unpack here. First is the point that “Fearless Girl” is a child, not an adult—a woman. Both of these articles note that there is some sort of aspect of future optimism intended by the artist, but “girl power” in the absence of “woman power” is meaningless.

The other reminds me of the recent meme involving Elizabeth Warren: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, it is wonderful that Warren stood up to Mitch McConnell’s aggressive rhetoric; yes, it represented excellent role modeling for other women in that position.

At the same time, it is shameful that McConnell supports a misogynistic environment that requires women to have to persist and resist, such as Warren and “Fearless Girl”. Why should women have to “persist” when men, doing the same thing, are simply being powerful men?

To a certain extent, “Fearless Girl” supports the narrative of the meritocracy: She and Warren will succeed through their own grit, regardless of the unfairness of the situation.

This is not to fault the “Fearless Girl” or her real-world analogs. But here’s a cold reality: If that were a real, enraged bull and a real, fearless girl, no amount of grit and defiance would stop her from getting gored.

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Fixed visual art is necessarily limited in how robust its message can be. There is much left to interpretation, and different audiences will interpret work differently.

Nonetheless, both “Charging Bull” and “Fearless Girl” are lacking in crucial aspects of their messages. “Charging Bull” was meant to represent the resiliency of the American spirit, but it more viscerally communicates the aggression of American greed. “Fearless Girl” was meant to encourage the increased presence of female contributions to corporate society, but it panders to the notion that females are still seen like children. And if “Fearless Girl” represents women in this diorama, how are men represented?

Di Arturo has a point about “Fearless Girl” changing the meaning of his work, although I don’t think it’s as radical as he insists. Defenders of “Fearless Girl” have a point, although at this point her meaning is inextricably locked with the bull’s, so moving her wouldn’t likely change that.

More importantly, we need to continue the dialogue embedded in this diorama: Fair or not, the presence of “Fearless Girl” in front of “Charging Bull” has given voice to important cultural concerns.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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