What the ‘Fearless Girl’ stands for, I don’t know, but it isn’t bravery

If I hadn’t hesitated at a crucial moment, this column might be illustrated, today, by a photograph of me with the Fearless Girl statue.

Quite by accident, I found myself in the company of the statue for about thirty seconds last week. Someone suggested I might like to have my photograph taken with her. “Why?” I asked, playing for time. Because I was a fearless woman, came the flattering answer. And for the symbolism, came the enigmatic postscript. “Nah,” I said. “Thanks, but no thanks. You’re grand.” Not only am I not fearless, I am fearful most of the time.

So Fearless Girl will move on — she seems to be on a world photo-op tour — and I missed my chance to clutch her around the waist and beam at the camera. In a symbolic way, you understand. I would have had to get down on my knees to do it, because she’s surprisingly short. If you haven’t encountered Fearless Girl yet, here’s her history.

The bronze statue was sculpted in three weeks by Kristen Visbal, at the request of a financial advisory firm which wanted to spark a discussion about the dearth of women on corporate boards. That’s what they say their motivation was. Nothing to do with selling their services and creating brand recognition. Nothing at all. Perish the impure thought.

They popped her in place in the middle of the night in March of 2017, near Wall St, with a sign saying,

Know the power of women in leadership. She makes a difference

Apparently, the plan was that she would be there for about three weeks, if those who planted her opposite an enormous bronze bull got away with it — the Fearless Girl lacked the NY equivalent of planning permission, you see. But the mayor, Bill De Blasio, ensured the statue stayed where it was, thus guaranteeing that a rake of celebs would get their chance to be fearlessly photographed next to the courageous kid.

I’m not sure if the Fearless Girl I met last week is a replica or if she’s been separated from Manhattan to see the world, before returning to her position.

One way or the other, the purpose of the statue is to create an image pointing young girls somewhere other than changing the underwear on their Barbie dolls. The face on the statue is not as aggressive as is the stance, but the question that begs to be asked is this: what kind of role-modelling is it when a female pre-teen is cast defying three tons of enraged and charging bull? It makes no sense whatever to have her standing there with her hair and skirts swishing, dead in line with an angry animal that is synonymous with infuriated demolition.

The status, qua statue, may have set out to celebrate fearlessness, but what its positioning, in the middle of Manhattan, actually celebrates is brainlessness. It immortalises and romanticises an act any responsible parent would severely warn against: Facing down a bellicose bull without a steel-reinforced stone wall separating child from animal.

It’s the equivalent of tossing a four-year-old into the middle of the M50 and inviting it to be courageous in the face of the oncoming trucks. It is a weird projection of adult desires taking the form of a little girl demonstrating pointless bravery.

Pointless bravery is without merit. None of the firefighters who went into the California flames did so because of pointless bravery. They did it only when, and if, they figured they could achieve something. It’s a little like the advice given to young aviators at the dawn of the flight age:

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots

OK, no harm to the Fearless Girl and fair dues to her for fearlessly climbing on an already-rolling, if thus far ineffective, bandwagon: the one that says companies should have more women on their boards. What should worry us slightly, however, is the notion that a particular stance can actually effect change.

Stances and postures tend to satisfy those who are taking them, without demonstrably achieving anything for the rest of us. Let us be wary of stances like the one advocated by some self-help books for job-seekers, in which the idiotic question, “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” is to be answered with the equally idiotic, “I see myself in your job”. An answer delivered with a quirky smile, of course.

Stances and postures and stereotypical “bossy girl” role models were provided also, over two decades, by reality TV shows on which female contestants who got past the audition tended to be the ones promising to eviscerate, emasculate, and generally make mincemeat out of all other contenders, this being the way to prove to male figures, like Alan Sugar, Bill Cullen and Donald Trump, that the young women were fearless and, consequently, not to be fired.

Because they weren’t fired, these fearless girls must have gone on to become internationally valued major figures in business, mustn’t they? No? So much for aggressive posturing.

It has been suggested that the emphasis on macho posturing was what got us into the last recession and that a few fearful women on boards might have prevented at least some of that disaster, but caution never makes headlines. Nor does it provoke statuary.

It could also be argued that positioning the wee, brainless bronze lassie in the lace-up boots in front of the raging bull is, in itself, a false portrayal of what women need courage to manage.

Sure, raging male bulls are part of it. But it’s instructive that in some prominent recent cases, where fearless women who made it to the top of their profession came under — as it turned out — unjustified attack, the silence from other women was deafening. We love courage when it takes the shape of a bronze pre-teen. Real-life women present a rather more nuanced proposition.

Which brings us to the ultimate, nuanced fearless girl: the British prime minister, Theresa May. Here is a politician who, throughout her career, was never a Margaret Thatcher figure, lusting for power. When the leadership contest got underway, May was subjected to appalling comments from another female contender — Andrea Leadsom — who suggested May wasn’t up to the top job, because she hadn’t given birth, the way Leadsom had.

Winning gave May the great opportunity to punish the woman by pushing her to the margins. May didn’t do that, instead finding a spot for Leadsom in her cabinet.

May didn’t want Brexit in the first place, but when a democratic majority decided they wanted out, she took the instructions she was handed and worked them hard, relentlessly, and courageously.

The one thing you have to give Theresa May is that she’s a fearless girl.

For all the good it may do her.

Stances and postures satisfy those who take them, without achieving anything for the rest of us.

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