First Person

We’ve All Been Forced to Be a “Fearless Girl”

The writer wondered why the statue elicited a strong reaction in her until she realized that everything about it—from the story behind its creation to image itself—evokes what it's like to be female in America.

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Three days after the Fearless Girl statue was installed facing down Wall Street’s Charging Bull in Manhattan’s Financial District, a man dressed in a suit and tie was photographed “humping the statue while his gross date rape-y friends laughed and cheered him on” according to witness Alexis Kaloyanides, an architectural designer from Queens. Kaloyanides took a photo of the horrifying scene and posted it on Facebook, describing the man as being “almost as if out of central casting … [a] Wall Street finance broseph.” 

 The bronze sculpture Fearless Girl depicts an elementary-school-age child, which makes the image of a grown man defiling the statue even more disturbing. The idea behind Fearless Girl—commissioned by McCann Advertising New York—was originally pitched to Ellevest, a financial company led by one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, Sallie Krawcheck. McCann proposed the image of a fearless cow facing off the Charging Bull, which didn’t sit well with Krawcheck, who sensed she would not be the only woman put off by “being represented as a cow.” So the ad agency came back to Ellevest with an image of a girl. “A prepubescent girl representing women?,” Krawcheck said dismissively, rejecting the project.

The new concept was sold to State Street, one of the largest asset-management firms in the world. According to The New Yorker, “the company employed the Fearless Girl statue in part to promote a new index fund that purported to support gender diversity in corporate senior leadership roles.” This, likely in response to the fact that the firm had just been charged by the government for underpaying women and Black employees (claims were settled for $5 million). The New York Times, NPR, Time magazine, among others called out State Street’s opportunism, with Vanity Fair citing  Fearless Girl as “one of the more performative displays of corporate feminism in recent history.” 

Once McCann sold the concept, they recruited sculptor Kristen Visbal on November 30, 2016 to design and create the statue, in hopes that they could launch the Fearless Girl campaign in time for International Women’s Day, March 8, 2017. But that didn’t give the sculptor a lot of time—Visbal had to work through the holidays, submitting 11 sketches to a 30-member committee, and creating a clay model in 31 days. 

In the drafting stages, Fearless Girl was titled Taking A Stand. She stood 36 inches, her hair in braids, her body clad in an old-fashioned dress and sandals. After alterations were made, the plans grew the statue to nearly 50 inches. Visbal created the mold for the bronze using a 6,000-year-old art form of lost wax casting, which involved a two-mold and ten-step process. It was the same method Visbal used on her first commissioned piece, Girl Chasing Butterflies, for Merrill Lynch’s corporate headquarters, unveiled for Women’s History Month in 1998. The sister statues share a strong resemblance.

The campaign—put together on a “shoestring budget”—was a viral success. Originally granted a one-week permit for display, Fearless Girl “generated $7.4 million in free marketing [for State Street],” according to Apex Marketing. But contractual conflicts and ensuing legal battles arose when Visbal created replicas of Fearless Girl to sell to buyers in Australia and Germany, which she had reason to believe she could do because the executed master agreement, signed by both parties in May 2017, granted Visbal the right to sell copies of Fearless Girl, while giving State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) the trademark rights to the name “Fearless Girl” and “a limited license to the copyright use in its business and to promote corporate board diversity.” According to The New Yorker, Both parties committed to using the statue to further an agreed-upon set of ‘Gender Diversity Goals’.”

State Street filed a lawsuit against Visbal on February 14, 2019, claiming they were “safeguard[ing] its interests in New York City’s iconic ‘Fearless Girl’ statue” and “uphold[ing] the important message for which she stands—before it is damaged by Defendant’s unauthorized delivery of a replica statue in material breach of contractual obligations to SSGA.” Claiming they wanted to “uphold the important message for which Fearless Girl stands” is rich coming from one of the world’s largest private money managers who have a history of settling sex discrimination claims and, in 1998, was grappling with at least three new ones. The court date over the trademark for Fearless Girl is set for next month. 

Into this misogynist world came this statue. And for the first nine months, Fearless Girl—with her sneakered feet, pitched chin, and hands on hips—stood unprotected and alone, forced into a dialogue with the three-and-a-half-ton Charging Bull until she was moved in November 2018 to be close to the NYSE. How was this bronze figure of a child—placed in the heart of Wall Street, the site of so much workplace discrimination, harassment, exploitation, and sexual violence—supposed to be a kind of stand-in as a triumphant feminist warrior in the face of bulldozing misogyny?           

We are all expected to be a Fearless Girl in a lot of respects, which is probably why the statue, and the story behind her creation, elicited a visceral reaction in me. On the surface, I wanted to know why, exactly, this statue was considered feminist, and by whom? The image itself isn’t glass-ceiling-shattering. If anything, it is infantilizing, her monumental representation reflecting a gendered ageism—for women to remain marketable, they must be childlike and adorable. The night that broseph defiled Fearless Girl, I thought about the way her lips were locked, holding in a scream so loud it’s inaudible. I was disturbed by the way her bronze likeness portrays a child being tasked with the job of toughness. I recognized in her a figure who was vulnerable and unsafe—she was saddled in metal, unable to say to her attacker, Get off me!      

While the statue itself might not be a feminist image, it is evocative of a female experience, a demand made of girls and women to be tolerant, strong, resilient throughout our lives—to play along. And even then, we remain disrespected, our feelings and words disregarded out of hand. 

Seeing her for the first time dredged up powerful memories for me, transporting me back to my 6-year-old self, seated in a dentist’s chair where an older dentist nearing retirement intentionally rubbed his heavy hand over my paper smock. I flinched. Then he pried open my mouth to conduct the exam, muting me. Afterward, he asked if I was a good girl and offered me a grape-flavored Tootsie Pop. Even at that young age I recognized he was bribing me not to speak. Not that I had anyone to tell, since Mom adored him. “It’s so important to have a doctor as a friend,” my mother used to say about him. 

I never felt safe in my mother’s care, not after I tried to confide in her about my older brother sexually abusing me when I was 7. Then again, in the 1960s and ’70s, inappropriate, non-consensual touching simply was not discussed. It was unspeakable. So I was forced to lock my lips. 

It was little surprise, then, that I left home in Buffalo, New York, first to Ohio in 1982 for college, and then two years later, to Manhattan to study acting at New York University. I secured a theatrical agent who sent me out for commercial auditions. At the time, casting couches—exchanging sexual favors for roles—were practically expected of young women. Though I avoided those situations, those situations didn’t always avoid me: One night, my agent showed up at my front door, drunk. I understood his ceaseless pleas to “Let me in” meant more than just getting inside my apartment. I refused him. The next day, I called the head of the agency, only to be told, “Do you understand that he could lose his job if you tell anyone?” 

I was expected to be a fearless girl. It was demanded of me. Of all of us. 

But what do we get in return?

It’s a question I asked myself when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford raised her right hand to deliver her testimony in September 2018 at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings before 11 Republican men and ten Democrats (four women, six men). “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”

Dr. Blasey Ford attended the all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington D.C. She testified that she met Judge Kavanaugh while they were both high-school students.           

Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was so drunk, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothes. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me. Both Brett and Mark [Judge] were drunkenly laughing during the attack.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, asked Dr. Blasey Ford about her strongest memory from that night. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two [Kavanaugh and Judge], and their having fun at my expense.” That laughter. I thought about the broseph attacking Fearless Girl and the man’s friends cheering him on. 

I know that laughter. So many of us do. It’s seared into my memory. In the early 1990s, when I was working a temp job on Wall Street, I attended the 30th birthday party of my boss, who was dating an arrogant, blow-hard trader. He intercepted me at the entrance of the birthday party venue and, as his friends started to encircle me, began to size me up like I was little more than a conquest. I might have had a waiflike frame, but it was anchored by a pair of combat boots—I was far from a meek and easy target. So when I rebuffed the advances of my boss’s boyfriend, his friends started laughing. I wasn’t sure whether it was at him or at me. 

It only got the boyfriend going—the next thing I knew, the boyfriend grabbed me and thrust his tongue into my mouth. Were they still laughing? 

How about once he let go of me, when I threw my glass of cranberry juice at him? Now someone was jumping between us as he readied his fist to punch me in the face. 

“YOU BITCH! YOU FUCKING BITCH!” he yelled at me as I was escorted to a taxi. I could hear him crying to one of his pals, “She ruined my white shirt!” 

I had to be a fearless girl. Dr. Blasey Ford had to be a fearless girl. 

Girlhood has always been under threat. 

The first time I found language contextualizing what had happened to me was when I watched Anita Hill testify at Judge Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991. Professor Hill alleged under oath to an all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee that her former boss at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—an organization established to enforce laws against job discrimination and harassment—repeatedly asked her out, and “after brief discussions of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. [Judge Thomas’s] conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. … On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.”

Hill’s testimony was the first time a person publicly recounted their experience of workplace harassment. As senators grilled her to repeat the details, she withstood discomfort and maintained her composure as she rehashed his orations about large-breasted women, a porn star named Long Dong Silver, and pubic hair on a Coke can. 

We gain the courage to speak up when we are at our most fearful. We have little choice. But our testimonies—Dr. Ford’s, Professor Hill’s, mine—don’t necessarily lead to immediate change. We’ve been demeaned, our words dismissed whole cloth, and yet we are expected to be resilient, to be strong, to play ball and let it roll off our backs. To be a fearless girl. 

A year ago, I visited the relocated Fearless Girl, moved because the placement permit on city-owned property had expired. Now that the immobilized statue faces the NYSE building, the petite not-quite 50-inch-tall statue gets lost in the crowd. Was that the point? Is that the deeper truth of Fearless Girl, where art reflects reality? 

On the day of my visit, parents were encouraging their kids to pose next to the bronze child. I overheard a young girl turn to her mother and ask, “How do you know this girl?”

The mom told her daughter, “Face the statue like you’re tougher.” The youngster stood still, not daring to confront the sculpture. She’s a tough girl—go ahead, her mom coaxed. But her daughter moved farther away, shouting: “She’s stupid!” 

She isn’t stupid, I thought. I couldn’t stop thinking about how this Fearless Girl has always existed in my mind, misplaced and exploited. Let a girl be a girl. 

I imagine moving Fearless Girl to a playground with a see-saw, a merry-go-round, swings, a climbing frame, and slides. A spotlighted location where she gets to be a kid. A safe space that encourages physical and social activities and promotes emotional and imaginative skills to build self-confidence. An environment that advances coordination and critical thinking through play. Children being able to spot her without shouldering conflicted feelings. They understand false advertising.

When my hands reach for my hips, I don’t do it because I feel confident. It’s out of a sense of feral survival. It’s my way of telling myself I can do this! Though it also regresses me to girlhood—voiceless and stiff. Hip-toughness comes at a cost. It’s a posture that floods my body with superhuman strength to survive. 

It’s also lethal to my existence. The myth that survivors emerge as whole beings sidesteps the lifetime behavior of a person cantering between self-harm and self-protection. A girl put in charge of protecting herself, or a statue tasked with taking a stand for something, will put her hands into a toughened position. Females are required to maintain their composure while under siege. 

Clarence Thomas. Brett Kavanaugh. At their confirmation hearings, they both lacked composure. Unlike Professors Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, neither candidate for the Supreme Court took a polygraph test. For those two hearings, other women were available to testify about harassment and poor temperament to which they had been subjected or witnessed. The defining 1991 and 2018 statements first said aloud by Thomas, then Kavanaugh, were emblematic of the charade hearings. “This is a circus.” They left out that they were the ringmasters. Their circus antics have forever stained, disgraced, and endangered the integrity of Supreme Court decisions. To this day, the contrived victimhood of Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh stands in stark contrast to the poise displayed to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Hill and Blasey Ford.

“No female candidate for a Supreme Court position would ever have the license to speak with such irritation and fury,” Anita Hill said. “We still don’t allow women to cry or to be angry.”

Girlhood has always been under siege.

Bellicose means inclined, or eager, to fight. At 10, savage strength took seed in me as I pushed a floor-to-ceiling light fixture to the ground. Blind rage. I was an undersized, pigtailed fourth-grader who finally silenced Mom. Shards of amber-shaded glass shattered and scattered throughout the living room. The dulled yellowing linoleum floor was bejeweled with my defiance.

Recovering from the shock of my outburst, Mom said, Go to your room. 

Years without safety and having been called a liar had left me a fearful girl. With my hands saddled around my hips in a fearless stance, suppressed anger powered me to enunciate words with clarity and volume. 

Go fuck yourself.

Fearless Girl has brought me an unwanted realization. I’ve navigated my world by pushing people away and, for years, silenced my childhood ordeals. When I did speak up, the response brought me discomfort: You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. Strong has meant being an orphan. To feel safe, I’m obsessed with outthinking, outwitting, and outmaneuvering whatever obstacle is in my path. Acknowledging my experiences highlights how, like Fearless Girl, there was no regard for my safety. The girl who called the statue “stupid” wasn’t being mean; she was scared. 

The exploitative commodification and tokenism of girlhood is a frightening reminder about the many ways I was tasked to be tough. Oppressive, collaborating systems in place disregard women everywhere. Standing atop uneven cobblestones is a girl, not a woman. She faces the perils alone. And we have every reason in the world to be fearful.

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