Ever since the “Fearless Girl” statue was installed in front of the famous “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street earlier this year in March, its presence has been polarizing. On the one hand, it seemed a defiant gesture following the inauguration of a president with a long history of mistreating women, not to mention a follow-up to the largest protest in American history, in support of women’s rights. On the other, though, it seemed a publicity gimmick and a textbook example of corporate feminism; one of the most vocal critics, the artist who created the original bull, Arturo Di Modica, called it out as an “advertising trick.”
Of course, by its very nature, public art elicits a response—and at times a very heated one at that. But it soon came to light that “Fearless Girl” didn’t exactly qualify as art in the first place, given that it was not a guerrilla artist that created and installed the sculpture on Wall Street in the dead of night, but a $2.6 trillion asset manager—the world’s third largest—known as State Street Corporation.
The firm readily claimed responsibility, saying the installation before International Women’s Day was to celebrate “the power of women in leadership, and the potential of the next generation of women leaders.” It’s a message that is important for major corporations to support, but it appears to be mere lip service for State Street, as news broke this Thursday that the firm was guilty of gender of discrimination itself—to the tune of nearly $5 million in settlements with its 305 top female employees, who the firm has systematically paid less than men in same positions, as the U.S. Department of Labor alleges.
The Department of Labor, which also found that State Street allegedly paid its black vice presidents less than their white counterparts, first began its investigation in 2012. In 2016, the firm found the “female artist” it was looking to commission in the sculptor Kristen Visbal in the month of the election, November. She soon got to work creating the sculpture they had in mind of a “little girl” with her fists on her hips to personify the message: to give women more leaderships roles and put more women on company boards. (Even though only five of the 28 people on State Street’s leadership team are women, and an overwhelming majority of them white.)
The quickness of corporations to jump on making arguably empty feminist and political statements after the election was enough to cause a backlash after the installation of the statue, with many commenting on the corporate “false feminism” of the gesture. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he wouldn’t just allow the statue to remain, but that he would also extend its stay until the next International Women’s Day, in 2018, citing it as “inspiring everyone at a moment when we need inspiration.”
Many women also stood by the decision, including the city’s public advocate, Letitia James; it is, after all, undeniably a powerful symbol. But the one who’s had to bear the brunt of it has been the bronze little girl herself, withstanding defacement like the time a finance bro decided to hump the statue the day after International Women’s Day, as was captured in a photo that went viral. She has also been vandalized in arguably the worst possible way—being covered in pro-Trump paraphernalia—and joined by signs with messages against immigration and in support of the Anti-Defamation League. Eventually, she was also joined by another sculpture—one of a dog urinating onto her foot.
Would all that have happened to the sculpture if it had been a cow rather than a girl, as the company originally conceived of its symbol of women’s empowerment? Probably not, given the way women tend to be treated in the halls of wealth and power. After all, it took State Street eight months to realize “that a cow sculpture could be conceived as demeaning to women.”
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