Many years ago, I had a dream where I was standing in a fenced enclosure with dry, dusty, clay-red dirt below my feet. In the opposite corner a fair distance off stood an angry bull, staring me down and threatening to charge. The threat soon became action, and my own efforts towards any action were futile — I was frozen as a giant bull charged at me. The dream had very quickly turned into a nightmare.
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On March 7, the most recent International Women’s Day, a bronze statue by Kristen Visbal was installed in the Financial District of New York City. The statue, appropriately named “Fearless Girl,” depicts a small girl standing bravely, staring down the Charging Bull statue that has become an icon of Wall Street. The Fearless Girl is a message of support and solidarity for the women who make up a disappointing minority of business leaders. It was a reminder that even the smallest girl could find the strength to face impossible odds, could stand bravely for their cause, and could prove her worth. It was a call to the women and little girls of the world alike that the charging bull that is society is, sadly, not going to stand down and make room for you but instead will keep charging — not at you, but it will not hesitate if you happen to be in its way.
This message — of trampling underfoot society’s women because they happen to be in the way of something else — was echoed with the recent response of the artist behind the Charging Bull statue, Arturo DiModica. saying that it insulted the bull, turning his positive message into a threat. One of his lawyers added, “None of us here are in any way not proponents of gender equality.” He of course failed to state directly that they supported strong women only as long as they be strong women out of the way and not step on any male egos. Somehow, the irony was lost on them how a statue that, by the artist’s very words, represented “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love,” was now the basis for limiting the free expression of another artist — whose message was also about strength, empowerment, and how love is not only for rich, white men.
In my dream of a bull that turned into a nightmare, I did not, like with so many other nightmares as a child, wake with a start right before the bull’s horns met me. Before that point came, I relaxed and found a peace with the situation. I resolved to stand and face my fear (and the advancing embodiment of it). Responding in turn, the charging bull in the dream came to a stop beside me, sat down, and leaned gently up against me as I began to scratch its back.
Today, this seems to me an important lesson that a battle is not inevitable when someone stands their ground. Instead, it is a necessary step towards overcoming inequality even if it is to be done peacefully. A small girl poses no threat to a charging bull, even if fearless — nor does she need to. It is the bull that needs to diminish its threat. The things this particular bull represents, especially, lose their purpose and validity if they are not universal.
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The other day in a Target toy department I overheard an exchange between two young women. They were talking about a particular variety of Disney princess dolls designed not to look like the characters as they were in their respective movies but instead as little children. The one said to the other, “I like these. They don’t objectify girls.” In a way, she was right – they were not the typical toys for little girls whose primary message was “look pretty”. (Even the toys that say “You can be a scientist/president/super hero!” still seem to be saying “…as long as you are also pretty.”) In another way, though, it saddened me that “not being objectified” was an aspiration we still had to hold for our little girls, especially in that it is one so rarely met.
Even the toys that try their best to send a positive message towards young girls often walk a precarious line between “Here are some things for awesome little adventurers who just happen to be girls and like pink and purple,” and “We took these things that only boys are supposed to have but now you’re allowed this girly version.” It is the subtle difference between encouraging and empowering a little girl to be whatever she wants or telling her that she now has permission to be something. It is the difference between strength and subservience.
Feeling that we have to tell girls that they are capable of being scientists, police officers, business leaders, or the president is disheartening, but it seems to me it may even be misguided. Growing up as a boy, no one had to tell me these things — of course I could be whatever I wanted! Why couldn’t I? I was free, then, to dream bigger. I could dream of being a ninja, or a space captain, or a wizard. And although I never grew up to be a wizard (or did I?), I still was free to dream of being whatever I wanted, or doing whatever I put my mind to, unstifled by the limitations society puts on others.
Of course we should keep telling girls that they can be all these things — roboticists, zoo keepers, carpenters, lawyers, whatever they set their hearts to. But why stop there? Why be satisfied telling girls that they can catch up to the boys? Why not encourage them to go further, to dream bigger? You can be an astronaut, sure, but maybe you can be the first woman — indeed, the first person — on Mars, or to find intelligent alien life, or to travel through time! You could be the first woman president, but, more than that, you can be the best president, woman or man, this country has ever seen! You could follow in the footsteps of a charging bull or you could stand your ground and do something even greater!
I have had a lot of strong women in my life. I have seen many of my female friends pursue wild dreams to the distant ends of the country and beyond, becoming programmers, professionals, and performers. Looking back on the fearless girls I have known, I know that I had the luxury of not having to think about how much harder it is for them than it would have been for me. I had the luxury of thinking of them as simply fearless people, when being a fearless girl is so much more than that. I have stared down a fraction of the charging bulls they have and not done as much. My respect and admiration for these women only grows, and I hope to someday be half the person any one of them is.
So, to all the girls and women out there, young and old:
Be kind. Be strong. Be fearless. Do not let anyone ever tell you to step aside to make room for someone else’s charging bull. Most of all, do not ever let anyone tell you that you are not capable of greater things than this world has yet seen.