When my husband and I first tried to see the Fearless Girl statue on a trip to New York last spring, we immediately turned around and left. We didn't have the energy to fight the dozens of other tourists already swarming around her, so we banked on the place being clear by the time we'd had a burger and a beverage and got back.
We were wrong.
Instead, there was a new crowd--similar in size and tenacity to the earlier one, and similarly mixed in age and race and in every other way in which we gauge and label humanity.
This time we waited our turn for a selfie, however, and while we mingled in the crowd, I thought about all the think pieces I'd read about the diminutive sculpture, since she first appeared on Wall Street one morning last winter, without any notice and without City permission. In piece after piece, impassioned writers gave impassioned answers to such questions as: Does Fearless Girl change the intent of the Charging Bull sculpture, and if so, is that appropriate? Also: Does Fearless Girl represent the appropriation of feminist principles by corporate interests, thereby diminishing the work of flesh-and-blood feminists?
I had a while to ponder these things, and to watch the many men and boys ahead of us, trying solemnly and earnestly to get their photos with her. But what really got me--what really put the lump in my throat that day--was watching the girls and women with her.
First, there were the three young women--clearly sisters--who struck the same pose as Fearless Girl and who had clearly, charmingly, practiced all of this beforehand. There was also a tiny preschooler, pressured by her parents for a photo, who seemed unclear what all the fuss was about. (Fearless girls are pretty plentiful in real life, so I saw her point.) Then there was the older woman who lingered by Mr. Ramsey and I, and who whispered to me over and over again: "She's so feisty. She's so feisty!" as if demanding our agreement.
Here's my take on the sculpture, as someone who works in a creative field (and who writes the occasional, impassioned think piece): The goal of Fearless Girl's creators may have been to signal a commitment--on the part of one large financial institution--to dismantling gender inequality in their industry. But those of us who create art are only in control of its genesis and its release into the world; we don't control its meaning in the hereafter. And even in the face of a great deal of public hand-wringing (not to mention protests and defacement), this statue has inspired a collective head-nodding among a diverse set of women. Women who are saying: Hey, gender inequality is a problem for me, too.
So we don't just see the Fearless Girl--we see each other now. More of us are seeing the bigger picture of how gender discrimination is a problem for women far and wide, in ways both obvious and insidious. She is making more of us--with all our strength and struggles--more visible. To our employees and bosses, our leaders and children, and to each other. That's a victory of a sort.
But Fearless Girl's importance isn't just in making our numbers and our grievances more visible; it's also about putting more and better representations of girls out there in the public realm. We women are so starved to see ourselves shown--and shown fairly--as the complex beings we are, both brave and vulnerable, and at varying times fearful and fearless, that when we do find these sorts of representations in art and books and film, we grab them around the neck and we never let them go. This is part of why so many grown women cried during screenings of the new Wonder Woman movie. Such authenticity and visibility is even more rare for women of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
"If you can see it, you can be it" is a bit of a cliche, sure, but the ability to see a bit of oneself in fictional characters and in real role models has real, measurable, important benefits. Research has shown that women make longer, more persuasive speeches, for example, if they're shown posters of powerful, well-known women while they deliver them.
Vigorous debates about public art are essential--absolutely. But we can acknowledge and debate what's problematic about a piece while also celebrating what's good. For example, yes: art has always been brought about according to the whims of moneyed interests--and that's far from ideal. But there was little I saw in Fearless Girl (and in the crowd's reactions to her) that drew attention to her provenance in corporate America. What I did see was a statue that's struck a ringing, reverberating chord with women and girls, far and wide.
Where we go from there? How we undertake the long, difficult, and occasionally ugly work of dismantling gender inequality? A little statue put up by a big bank can't do that. But neither can she can't stop us from doing so--from holding her creators' feet to the fire for real, measurable change. That is--and has always been--up to the flesh-and-blood among us.