Art

Fearless Girl Is Not Your Friend

by

When the “Fearless Girl” statue first appeared in Bowling Green the day before International Women’s Day on March 8, staring down the “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street, it did so through a city licensing program that issues temporary permits for commercial activity in public space. It’s the same program that regulates the blight of cookie-cutter “street fairs” and under which, last August, a giant walk-in Prego Pasta Sauce jar was erected in Chelsea to raise public awareness about the company’s new line of “Farmer’s Market Sauces.”

This makes lots of sense: “Fearless Girl” is its own exercise in corporate brand-burnishing, the product of a campaign conceived in the New York offices of an enormous multinational advertising conglomerate, McCann, working on behalf of a worldwide financial colossus, State Street Global Advisors, an arm of the 225-year-old State Street Corporation, which currently manages an estimated $2.5 trillion in assets.

As the investment management division of State Street Corporation, which also includes a custodial bank administering $28 trillion in assets, State Street Global Advisors devises customized investment strategies for institutions with a lot of money to deploy — pension funds, universities, major charitable foundations — and builds mutual funds and exchange-traded funds for ordinary investors.

State Street’s last appearance in the headlines, in January, was occasioned by the company’s settlement of a suit brought by the United States Department of Justice, which alleged that it had defrauded its own customers by charging them secret commissions. In exchange for a deferred-prosecution agreement, State Street agreed to pay a $32.3 million fine to resolve the charges and offered to pay the same amount as a civil penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fearless Girl’s carefully choreographed debut coincided with SSGA’s announcement that it would begin pressuring the 3,500-odd companies in which it invests to install more women on their boards of directors. State Street’s public statement couched its argument in narrowly economic terms, noting that “companies with strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top, which is a 36.4 percent increase of average return on equity.”

In the weeks since Fearless Girl was rolled out, a growing parade of ordinary citizens and politicians have celebrated the installation as a powerful work of public art and a symbol of a critical issue of our day. Pilgrims come to Bowling Green to take selfies with the statue, among them Senator Elizabeth Warren, who paused in her crusade against the unregulated excesses of the financial industry to caption her own tweeted statue-selfie with the slogan “Fight like a girl.”

Misty Allen, a 47-year-old from Portland who works in tech, was so moved by the Fearless Girl that she had it and the bull tattooed on her arm. The sculpture feels like a testament to the sexism Allen has encountered in her own career: “It’s a reminder to myself to put my hands on my hips and open my mouth and stand up for myself,” she told the Voice.

For some, Fearless Girl carries extra significance in the age of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the overlap of financial avarice and violent sexism. “Right after [the election], this miraculous girl appears and created such a powerful sensation because she spoke to the moment,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio last month, announcing that he had interceded to allow the statue to remain in place beyond the limits of its commercial permit. “Sometimes, a symbol helps us become whole, and I think the Fearless Girl is having that same effect.”

The statue’s fans thrill to her apparent gesture of challenge and resistance to the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica’s 1989 love letter to the wild, surging energy of Wall Street and finance capitalism, installed as the market worked to recover in the wake of the “Black Monday” financial collapse of October 1987. In its conception of the newer statue, McCann brilliantly appropriates the iconic image of the ballerina dancing atop the bull, created by the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, that became a foundational symbol of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The notion that Fearless Girl is positioned in opposition to the bull has been reinforced by Di Modica himself, who is driven to distraction by this recontextualization of his statue, spitting out a steady fusillade of angry press releases and threatening to sue State Street for what he considers a profound alteration of his work. “I put it there for art,” Di Modica told the New York Post and MarketWatch last month. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.” The spectacle of an old man raging against an upstart girl for adulterating his celebration of capitalism has only helped cement the perception that the girl and the bull are in conflict. “The sculptor is annoying & the combined image is refreshing & complex,” Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently.

But if the dyad of girl and bull has been cleverly staged to evoke a thrilling frisson of opposition and dissent, that is emphatically not what the company that commissioned it is actually selling. Fearless Girl is intended “as a complement to the charging bull, which represents economic strength,” said Lynn Blake, an executive vice president at State Street Global Advisors, at a press conference at City Hall last month. “She’s not even defiant. She’s not raising her fist against the bull. She’s there to represent her role as a leader, to stand on equal footing and to play a powerful role in expanding economic prosperity for the world.”

Kristen Visbal, the sculptor who created Fearless Girl, also emphasized the statue’s conciliatory ambitions. “She is strong, but not belligerent,” Visbal said at the press conference. “She is proud, but not confrontational.” Visbal echoed an argument at the center of State Street’s campaign: that companies with more women on their boards of directors make more money for shareholders. “Together we make this wonderful contribution,” Visbal said, “these better decisions that result in increased profits.”

The genius of Fearless Girl, then, is that it siphons the growing groundswell of resistance to worship of the golden bull and all it signifies, and redirects that enthusiasm back into a channel of assent. The bull and the girl are not in opposition. They are, in fact, on the same side, two faces of the same thing: capitalism, presented both in its raging, china-shop-obliterating aspect and in its approachable guise, the one that promises that anyone — even a girl! — can aspire to preside over this energy from the Olympian heights of a boardroom.

Let’s leave aside State Street’s own recurring trouble with the law, which includes not only this year’s episode but the great Magnetar pit-trap of the pre-crash bubble, a famous scam in which State Street sold more than $1.5 billion in mortgage derivatives without telling its customers that the product had been designed by a hedge fund poised to profit if the product failed. When the dodgy mortgages underlying the product inevitably went belly-up, State Street’s customers took a bath, and the hedge fund, Magnetar Capital, cashed in its short bets.

Let’s leave aside as well the question, itself the subject of much debate, of whether or not the best application of feminist energy is the Lean-In project of helping already wealthy women ascend the final rung of the ladder to sit on the boards of multinationals, or whether that effort is better spent pursuing economic and labor reforms, like equal pay or maternity leave, that would benefit a wider circle of more vulnerable women, but which might not mesh as seamlessly with corporate profit-seeking.

Let’s table, too, the fact that State Street’s commitment to its stated corporate-feminist goal is transparently thin, considering its own corporate leadership is a catastrophically unreconstructed sausage-fest in which 82 percent of its senior executives and all but three of its eleven directors are men.

With its Fearless Girl, State Street seeks credit for intervening in the amoral logic of the market to pressure companies it invests in to install more women in corporate leadership. But seeking plaudits for pursuing a moral agenda invites ethical scrutiny of the rest of State Street’s behavior, which will lead to some dark and destructive places.

State Street invests its clients’ trillions across virtually every sector of the investment universe and offers them innumerable investment products, most of which are passive funds constructed to meet some investment goal — regional diversification, say, or tracking the overall performance of given market sectors. In this respect, it’s no different from other investment giants like BlackRock or Vanguard. The grand Wall Street tradition is chasing profits wherever they may be found, a pursuit outside of moral distinctions. (Exchange-traded funds, by definition, mirror the activity of the stock exchange itself.) What these companies also have in common is that, with the exception of a handful of small funds designed to eschew particularly ethically unsavory industries, their financial products are all generally designed to fulfill a single purpose: make money.

Through its funds, State Street is deeply committed to an industry whose entire business model is taking as much carbon as possible out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. As of the end of last year, State Street owned $18 billion worth of ExxonMobil, $14 billion worth of Chevron, $1.8 billion of Valero, $2 billion of Kinder Morgan, $2 billion of Anadarko, $2.8 billion of Occidental Petroleum, and $3.2 billion of ConocoPhillips.

And if there is money to be made from tools of war, State Street will make it that way as well. The company owns $12 billion of Lockheed Martin and $5 billion of Northrop Grumman, $4 billion of Boeing and $2 billion of General Dynamics, so it makes money from Tomahawk missiles, Paveway bombs, ICBMs and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, and all sorts of attack helicopters and warplanes, including the one that dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan this month. Through Northrop Grumman, State Street makes money keeping America’s nuclear missiles ready to rain hellfire anywhere our president may direct them. It owns $1.7 billion of Raytheon, which makes missiles, depleted-uranium weapons, and a microwave gun — for use against crowds — that makes its targets’ skin feel like it’s boiling. A recent Intercept report spotlighted three major defense contractors poised to profit from Trump’s push to fortify the border with Mexico. State Street has a stake in all of them, to the tune of more than a third of a billion dollars.

State Street owns $5 billion each of Philip Morris and Altria, and $1.8 billion of Reynolds American, which means it makes money from an addictive drug that kills nearly half a million people a year in this country alone. State Street looks at an industry with a six-figure body count and sees a revenue stream, a valuable component of a diversified fund.

This is not to say that State Street’s executives take actual pleasure in the cancer wards full of smokers, in the slow-rolling annihilation of climate disaster. More likely they view those things as incidental, dissociated through the gray calculus of exchange-traded funds and well-balanced portfolios. It’s a safe bet they view the Fearless Girl in the same way: not as a virtuous cause, but as just another means to the one and only end.

It’s possible that popular resonance of the Fearless Girl can somehow wrest the master’s tools from his hand and re-inscribe the statue with a more hopeful and promising meaning than its creators intended, one that stands outside the closed loop of passive complicity in the status quo. For that matter, it’s conceivably possible that the recently controversial Pepsi commercial — which enlisted a denatured simulacrum of street protest as the backdrop against which Kendall Jenner demonstrated the power of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup to soothe a glowering riot cop — could yet be repurposed in the service of a global movement for social justice. But that sort of jiujitsu is no easy thing. Works born of cynicism have a way of staying stickily cynical. We are better off making our own art, seeking out symbols unburdened by the entanglements that perpetuate the suffering we wish to overcome.