Have you ever been walking through a busy city street or waiting in line surrounded by people and can’t help but overhear a glimpse of conversation? That is exactly how artist Tara Conley got her inspiration for one of her latest sculptures featured on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans. The sculpture resides on an island that divides traffic on the neutral ground and reads its name from left to right. The work is titled “Bravegirl,” and the letters are written from right to left making the sculpture read as follows: B r a v e g i r l l r i g e v a r B in a funky sparkling plum font.
I was walking on the street parallel to the island looking for a different sculpture when the purple palindrome caught my eye. Soon after reading the letters, I found myself crossing the busy highway to approach the sculpture. While I meandered by other sculptures embedded on the same middle ground, the eminence of “Bravegirl” stopped me in my tracks, her bold letters unignorably distinct from the other sculptures on the Poydras island.
For the first time, I was able to see the tiny sparkles reflecting the sunlight and it was then I realized the looks I received from people stuck in oncoming traffic. I felt like an embodiment of the sign — a brave girl crossing, ignoring the looks of strangers as I perched on a small strip of sidewalk in the middle of the street to ponder the words. With its bold letters, the artwork instilled in me the confidence to cross the street onto a less walked path in the middle ground sidewalk. “Bravegirl” is placed so that one finds themselves metaphorically in the same social position as girls who defy the gender normative expectations of them.
When girls are socialized, they are implicitly taught to associate assertiveness and confidence with masculinity, while the pressure to be feminine results in rewarding soft, timid and pleasing behavior in a way that is destructive to their own success. According to Harvard Crimson, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg, “one of the biggest obstacles to women achieving success and respect is a lack of confidence and bravery to voice their ideas.”11Socializing girls to be afraid of asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs keeps them from reaching their full potentials in academia and beyond. Even women in prestigious institutions who are proud of their intellectual capability have the tendency to undermine their own contributions by preceding or following their statements with “I’m not sure but..” or “If that makes sense?”, these are only some examples of what is known as Uptalk, which is an unconscious way of self-deprecation, it is not due to lack of intellect or credential but rather it is the result of the internalized pressure to be “feminine.”
When women are assertive and speak passionately, their ideas are often assumed to be less valuable than their male counterparts, or they are dismissed as being hysterical. The statue Bravegirl draws attention to herself, and anyone who dares to observe her up-close. This parallels the experience of a girl who to stands up for her beliefs in our society today- she is commendable, in that she stands tall despite the curious looks, and inspires others to do the same.
The artist, Tara Conley, was inspired to make this sculpture in a public place because she didn’t want it to just be observed, but for it to become part of its environment. Bravegirl’s public display invites people to interact with the art, and ignites different interpretations of the words, just as she had been prompted to when overhearing feminist-themed conversations throughout New Orleans. By threading together themes she overheard in different parts of the city, Conley sought to reincarnate these moments by giving them a permanent physical home. According to Conley, “Bravegirl is an inspiration. She is your sister, mother, wife, your daughter, granddaughter, best friend or perhaps, you. Bravegirl decides and doesn’t look back. She is warm, even on difficult days, stands tall for small voices, faces challenges with strength and fortitude, and she is the City of New Orleans.”2
By placing Bravegirl in the middle of a busy street in New Orleans and spelling the phrase forwards and backward, the sculpture literally calls for a double take. This doubletake is insinuated by the fact that the phrase is strung together as though it is a single word, and then on top of that, it is spelled out backward, so that it takes a moment to digest the cursive string of letters. This moment also calls for interpretation; as Conley states in her interview, she wants to get people thinking about these words beyond the surface level, by reflecting on how the women in their lives or themselves embody such a bold statement just as I had when crossing the street.
Conley’s choice to make the words pop physically by using big bold bubble letters and a darker shade of purple rather than a traditional pink, which is often more readily associated with the word “girl,” draws into question society’s notion of girlhood and how it is not typically associated with bravery. In her commentary, Conley states that boys are encouraged to be fearless from a young age, while girls who speak their minds are penalized and considered aggressive. In the workforce, women are often less likely to take risks due to an overall lack of confidence which has been socially prescribed. This is a major contributing factor to the fact that only 24 out of 500 CEOS in Fortune 500 2018 are women- which declined 25% from the previous year.3
While the Women’s Suffrage Movement began as early as the 1920s, Joan Didion writes about how it was still misunderstood in the 70s, and many women feel struggles in the modern day. Didion refers to the women’s movement as a revolutionary Marxist uprising in which the oppressed 51% of society demanded equal rights and envisioned a more active role for themselves where they would no longer be limited by patriarchal subjugation.4
Part of the issue that women were facing in the late 20th century was that they were identifying as an oppressed class while also acknowledging historical factors that contributed to their continuous and seemingly inexorable domination by men. Didion writes, “Even come the revolution, thee would still be left the whole body of ‘sexist’ Western literature. But of course, no books would be burned: the women of this movement were perfectly capable of crafting didactic revisions of whatever apparently intractable material came to hand.” (3) The realization that the Western canon was written entirely by white men promoted extreme bravery on behalf of women who dared to challenge them and draw to light the sexist biases embedded in society through both literature and law. Conley acknowledges the historical struggle for scholarly recognition on behalf of women and chooses to make her sculpture out of these animated letters to reclaim and take ownership of women’s right to literacy, and more specifically the word and concept of being brave.
The goal of the Women’s Suffrage Movement was to free women from their dependence on men as housewives bearing children and being responsible for domestic affairs. Historically, women were prohibited from having their own bank account without the permission of their husbands, and they weren’t allowed to own or inherit land.5 Although society has progressed since then, freeing women of their dependence on their husbands, according to Ethel Colquhoun, “cannot be redressed (as feminists desire) by making her the dependent of the State — an aggregate of men — rather than one man… as the purchasing power of the male increased, the female has been gradually restricted (4)”.6In this interpretation of the historical class struggle faced by women, simply allowing them to enter the workforce doesn’t solve the issues of gender inequality. Men continue to be lawmakers and in the higher up positions of powerful companies. The lack of women currently in influential positions makes it difficult for other qualified women to fulfill these positions as there are few role models for girls with ambitious corporate or political aspirations to look up to. Bravegirl stands tall on busy Poydras Street, located in the Central Business District, a place where power is concentrated in the hands of men. Although this may be a small gesture, Bravegirl purposefully calls attention to herself and reminds the people of New Orleans that brave girls are everywhere, encouraging and uniting us.
In Beyonce’s 2013 single “Flawless,” she quotes Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s words in her book We Should All Be Feminists. In her book, Adiche points out the microaggressions that women face on a daily basis that devalue them, and that since humans are inherently social beings, it is nearly impossible not to internalize the stigmatization that comes with being born female. In Adichie’s words, “We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, vulnerability. We do a much greater disservice to women because we teach them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller… the problem with gender is that it prescribes who we should be rather than allowing us to be who we are.” Although Bravegirl may just be a statue, it seeks to reverse the detrimental effects of internalized gender norms by encouraging girls to be confident in themselves rather than fragile which is how society raises them.
The sculpture spirited sculpture inspires women all over New Orleans and encourages both men and women to challenge the normative gender roles that are destructive to both the sexes. And, it got this girl to cross the street.
For more feminist inspiration, I recommend watching Adichie’s Ted Talk by clicking the link below.
1Carpenter , Julia. “The Problem with the Lack of Female Leaders.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 2017, money.cnn.com/2017/08/21/technology/women-female-mentors/index.html. Accessed on Feb 17, 2019
2D’addario, John. “Brave New Installation on Poydras Marks International Sculpture Day.”The Advocate, The Advocate, 21 Apr. 2017, www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/entertainment_life/arts/article_07f7a92c-. Accessed on Feb 17, 2019.
3Mejia, Zameena. “Just 24 Female CEOs Lead the Companies on the 2018 Fortune 500-Fewer than Last Year.” CNBC, CNBC, 21 May 2018,www.cnbc.com/2018/05/21/2018s-fortune-500-companies-have-just-24-female-ceos.html. Accessed on Feb 17, 2019.
4Didion, Joan. “The Women’s Movement.”The New York Times, 30 July 1972, www.nytimes.com/1972/07/30/archives/the-womens-movement-women.html. Acessed on Feb 17, 2019.
5McGee, Suzanne, and Heidi Moore. “Women’s Rights and Their Money: a Timeline from Cleopatra to Lilly Ledbetter.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Aug. 2014, www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/11/women-rights-money-timeline-history. Accessed on Feb 17,2019
6Colquhoun , Ethel. “Modern Feminism and Sex Antagonism .”Jstor , Dec. 1917, www.jstor.org/stable/20543968?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=modern&searchText=feminism&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffc%3Doff%26amp%3Bgroup%3Dnone%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3BQuery%3Dmodern%2Bfeminism&ab_segments=0%2Fdefault-. Accessed on Feb 17, 2019.