The Fearless Girl: A New Symbol for Wall Street

It’s been almost a week since the figure of a “Fearless Girl” was placed in Bowling Green Park in the heart of New York City’s economic center. The bronze statue stands in direct opposition to the “Charging Bull” that has represented Wall Street’s unique culture since 1989 when it was installed in the dead of night by an Italian-American artist, Arturo Di Modica. Originally installed as guerrilla art piece, the Bull became an instant emblem of the spirit of capitalism and the city itself since it was permitted to stay indefinitely.

Much like its predecessor, Bowling Green Park’s newest bronze piece was installed in the dead of night and much to the same effect. In essence, both pieces were installed for the same reason—to draw attention to the defiance and perseverance of the human spirit—an interesting consideration seeing as the two pieces appear to be diametrically opposed.

Despite the fact that some finance-women have said that they never felt alienated or forgotten by the imagery of the Bull on Wall Street, it remains a fact that the place of the bull in our cultural lexicon is one of unadulterated, aggressive, masculine, energy. All over the world the image of a bull has served as a symbol of stubbornness, confidence, stamina, and most importantly male virility (also female fertility which is a nuanced, but important difference). From ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to China, Spain, Ireland, and so on, the bull is almost always used to represent defiance, but a defiance that is specifically and intimately masculine in nature. Those historical meanings were not simply lost in the erection of the Charging Bull, even if the animal was chosen for its reference to the “bull market” as Erielle Davidson describes in her personal statement of her own feelings on the Charging Bull and it’s new playmate.

Fearless Girl From Front

The visual impact of the “Fearless Girl,” on the other hand, flies in the face of all of that. Even though an argument could be made that using a little girl to represent grown women further perpetuates a culture of condescension towards adult women (the infantilization of women is of major concern to modern feminists—more about it here), the choice to use a defiant little girl is undeniably relatable and certainly powerful. The young girl this context represents untapped potential in women and unrestrained femininity.

There has been much talk in the past few months about the impact of gender identity on childhood development—namely that scientists have apparently pinpointed the stage in which young girls begin to internalize patriarchal concepts of their own abilities and talents. Studies have found that girls’ views of themselves begins to shift between the ages of  five and six. Apparently, that is the timeframe in which previously confident young girls begin to understand that the world is not theirs in the same way it is for their male peers. The image of a defiant young girl is powerful in this context because it implies that she is untouched by the self-consciousness that comes with socially engrained constructs of gender–something that she was not (we are not) born with, but learn over time.

The Fearless Girl has not yet learned that she is expected back down in the face of a raging bull. Despite her size, she holds her own and what Ms. Davidson misses in her criticism of the “Fearless Girl” is that the young, defiant girl is a much more inclusive image than the Bull ever could be. It speaks not only to the historically untapped potential of women and girls, but that of all people affected by our cultural institutions.

The Fearless Girl acknowledges the fact that women’s docility is a learned behavior, as is male dominance and stubbornness. The Charging Bull (or, perhaps traditional bull symbolism) puts us all into boxes, while its new counterpart makes an effort to tear those boxes to pieces. Unfortunately, as is often the case with representations of marginalized groups, the inclusion of someone out of the white, cis-hetero, male “norm” raises alarm bells for those who doesn’t consider themselves an “activist,” while the reality is that any power to “alienate” or “divide” are projected onto the representation by others—contrary to popular perception those qualities are not inherent to the piece of art itself. Somehow we’ve come to a place in which anything that shows alternatives to that “norm” must be, by definition, divisive.

Of course, there have been many valid criticisms of the piece over the past week or so. Perhaps the most compelling of these is the argument that it is a purely symbolic gesture, funded and executed by the epitome of masculine Wall Street, “FiDi,” greed: State Street, a financial holdings company founded in the late-18th Century. Although the company has now voted to make gender diversity a priority in their business moving forward, the idea that a major company that has certainly upheld the grossly misogynistic culture of Wall Street and big business for literal centuries is more than a little bit problematic. While they personally cannot be blamed for the rampant sexism that has dominated the corporate culture of the financial sector for most of its history, it will certainly take more than an art installation and a claim that they are trying to do better.

Not to mention the fact that their desire to promote women-owned companies is in pursuit of better profit as they cite the fact that companies with women involved in leadership roles tend to be more successful. While it’s hard to say whether this distinction actually makes a tangible difference (that gets to the philosophical question about whether personal gain mitigates the good intent of an action, which is an ethical dilemma that I definitely can’t tackle in this piece), it does beg an important question: what if it wasn’t more profitable to invest in female-lead companies—would State Street’s commitment to uplifting and supporting women hold or is it simply “for-profit” feminism?

A similarly troubling question: are women who sit on the boards of high-powered corporations and businesses really the ones who need a symbol of defiant femininity?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, they are most certainly a privileged group in comparison to almost all women around the world. On the other, they have borne the brunt of toxic masculinity in one of the most notoriously male-centered industries in existence. The Fearless Girl not only embodies their personal defiance, strength, and stamina, but stands as a testament to the ability of women (and people, in general) everywhere to do the same.

Despite some of the more problematic aspects with the entity behind the piece, the fact remains that the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull are not that different. They, as I mentioned above, glorify and represent many of the same things. Both depict an unbridled force of nature—and that’s what has caused both the discomfort around and the embrace of the Fearless Girl. They both represent stamina, strength, persistence, and potential.

The Fearless Girl just does it better because she actually speaks to the strength and potential within us all.