As many are aware, there has been for many years a statue of a charging bull on Wall Street in New York. Recently, another statue has been erected in front of it, called "Fearless Girl". As with any good art, it has generated quite a bit of discussion. Unfortunately for me, most of the discussion surrounding it has been difficult for me to relate to. I haven't seen much said that sounds like my reaction to it, so I thought I would add to the discussion here.
When I look at those two statues, my instantaneous reaction is, "That little girl is in a heap of trouble". I look at the scene again, reflecting on it carefully, and my more nuanced response is "Expletive, that little girl is in expletive trouble!” To which quickly follows: "Why is no one else concerned about the fact that it looks like this little girl is about to get trampled?" I feel a bit like the little boy in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes" here, wondering why no one else seems to notice the most obvious fact in view.
Okay, this is art. This art is not meant to be strictly representational, rather it is meant to communicate a transcendent attitude, a state of mind, a quality of being, bla bla bla. I get that, but I'm not buying it completely and here's why: imagine for the moment that this fearless girl is standing in front of the charging bull, and just to show that she is really fearless, she is smoking. Smoking tobacco, that is, rather than smoking something wholesome and uplifting. If that were the case, the same people who are now proclaiming how wonderful this statue is would be loudly protesting it and demanding that it be torn down. If I were to say to them that the cigarette is not meant to be representational but rather is meant to communicate a transcendent attitude, they would sneer at me and start hurling cups of soda at me. (Since this is in New York, the cups of soda would be microscopic, so they wouldn't do any real damage.)
Note very carefully here that my concern has nothing to do with the little girl's gender, but rather with her relative age, relative size, and relative lack of a red cape.
I am concerned about the message this statue is sending to our children. Little girls (and boys) all around the world are going to look at that statue and conclude that walking into a field with a raging bull is good -- not just commendable, but praiseworthy enough for people make statues showing it. I'm wondering if this statue should come with a warning label: "Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that being trampled or gored by a large hoofed mammal may be hazardous to your health. Regardless of gender."
I'm concerned also that too few people seem to be able to see this problem. I'm wondering if perhaps this statue might serve kind of like a Rorschach blot. Show people this scene and ask them "What do you see here?" If they reply, "I see a little girl who is about to die," then you know they're in touch with reality. If they say "Oooh, female empowerment," not so much. To be fair, you would also need to show people a picture of a statue of a little boy with a stick whacking a hornet's nest. If they say "Oooh, male empowerment," not so much.
My next reaction to seeing this statue is to ask "Where are this little girl's parents?" Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I consider one of my jobs as a father is to make sure my kids stay out of fields with large bulls. Or momma cows, just to be gender neutral here. I try to make sure not to be judgmental about other parent's parenting styles, but I do think that one of the objective tests of a parent's effectiveness is physical safety. And, yes, I say that as one who has taken children to the emergency room; I'm hardly perfect in that respect.
Savor the irony here: Why is that bull seemingly so upset? Bulls don't eat little girls. Bulls eat grass. That bull is reacting to the little girl out of a desire to protect his herd. He's a parent protecting his children, in other words. Okay, I'm not sure I approve of his parenting style, but his motives are commendable.
My final reaction to seeing this statue is to ask "What's up with the expression on that girl's face?" Yes, the title of the statue makes it clear that it is intended to portray fearlessness; however, I'm not sure I use the word "courage" here. Imagine a different statue here; this statue has a little girl standing between the bull and a little dog with a broken leg, and the little girl is saying to the bull, "If you are going to trample Fifi, you're going to have to go though me to do it." I'm picturing the expression on this other statue's face; it is a look of grim determination in the face of inevitable harm. The actual statue has a rather different expression; it's more defiance than grim determination.
Perhaps a more accurate word for her expression is "disrespect". (I'm both a parent and a teacher, so I am pretty familiar with what disrespect looks like.) She looks as though she doesn't really believe that the bull can harm her. That expression would make sense if she had superpowers or a can of Bull-Be-Gone (TM). Even if she had both, though, I don't think she should think that a full-grown charging bull should be trifled with.
As a parent, one of my jobs is to teach my children to treat charging bulls with respect. Not to be paralyzed with fear at the thought of them, not to be scared that there's in a bull in the closet at bedtime, not to scream with terror at the sight of hamburger, but to have a healthy respect for a dangerous animal. Likewise, I consider it one of my jobs to teach my kids to respect flash floods, matches, traffic, drain uncloggers, food poisoning, etc. Perhaps if parents can do this job successfully, then silly warning labels on statues will be unnecessary.
One final note: I'm writing about my reaction to that particular piece of art. I am not calling for censorship; I respect freedom of speech and I consider art to be a form of speech. I will not comment on the discussion as to whether or not the statue should remain at its current location; I just don't think it should be removed because of its message. Besides, if I really wanted the statue removed, what I would do instead would be to start a rumor that the little girl is actually confederate....