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Opinion ‘Fearless Girl’ and ‘Charging Bull’ are more alike than you’d think

The “Charging Bull” and “Fearless Girl” statues in New York’s financial district. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Christine Emba is the editor of In Theory and writes about ideas for The Post’s Opinions section.

The cliche notwithstanding, life never tires of imitating art. This week's tableau-gone-live: "Charging Bull" vs. "Fearless Girl."

Read on its surface, the visual metaphor makes it easy to take sides. A gargantuan work described as a "talisman for Wall Street traders" vs. a pint-size feminist heroine? No contest. But underneath the bronze, the story is a bit more complex. The bull's demands are easy to demonize, but the girl isn't exactly a perfect foil.

A refresher: Last month, on the eve of International Women's Day, a statue of a small girl appeared in New York's financial district, facing head-on the massive bronze bull that has become a global symbol of Wall Street. Arms akimbo with her skirt blowing in the wind, the girl, designed by artist Kristen Visbal , is meant to represent "the future" — in particular, a call for more women in corporate leadership. The pairing quickly became iconic, and "Fearless Girl," originally meant as a temporary installation, has been given permission by the city to remain until next year.

"Charging Bull" sculptor Arturo Di Modica is less than pleased. He thinks "Fearless Girl" infringes on copyright and distorts the meaning of his own work, and he is suing to have the piece taken down. Yet despite the fact that his statue has been in place and drawing crowds since 1989, he's getting pushback from officials and the public alike. On the day Di Modica announced his challenge, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in with a tweet: "Men who don't like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl."

But Di Modica does have a point. The meaning of “Fearless Girl” is completely dependent on its placement across from his famous sculpture, and it does change the viewer’s perception of “Charging Bull.” However steeped in masculinity his vision may have been, the artist intended the piece as a positive symbol of prosperity and strength. With the unasked-for addition of a new figure, the bull becomes a melodramatic threat to a women’s movement that is finally getting its due.

Even so, the newer statue's defenders rally around it. Young girls find it inspiring, they say, and something needs to stand up to power. But is "Fearless Girl" even as defiant as it's made out to be? The news releases describe it as representing female leadership, but it's more marketing ploy than fact. For all of its calls to action and co-opting of pro-woman tropes, the multitrillion-dollar financial firm that commissioned and installed "Fearless Girl" still has only three women on its 11-member board. Maybe State Street Global Advisors should remove the beam in its own eye before pointing out the bull in another's.

We might accept that the statue is meant as a spur to State Street’s own push toward a more female future, rather than, say, misplaced sanctimony masked as forward-thinking political art. But even so, the “Fearless Girl” vision of female power is more than a little demeaning. Were there no adult women around to model leadership? Real-life fearless females have stepped forward around the world, displaying strength, determination and calm in the face of male dominance and aggression. But instead, the “Fearless Girl” statue portrays the empowered woman as a child, reinforcing the idea of femaleness as cute and inoffensive — a child with potential, maybe, but not all the way there. Maybe that’s why passersby have found it so easy to disrespect the piece: Whether it’s the Wall Street bro photographed humping the statue just a few nights after it appeared or the “patriotic” wags who draped it in “make America great again” gear, a harmless little girl is still all too easy to disregard.

To disregard, or to trick into coming over to your own side. The strain of female success that “Fearless Girl” champions most specifically — More women in the boardroom! More women on Wall Street! More women at the top! — is also the one most aligned with the capitalism-loving, individualistic ethos of the bull itself. Sure, it’s a system that shortchanges women on pay and protection, but the girl still wants to usher us inside. If female power comes from inclusion in corporate success, and corporate success comes from surging valuations and humming markets, the bull and the girl aren’t really at odds. In the end, they’re both celebrating the same thing.

And if so, it may not be worth arguing about which one to favor: on the one side an overweening machismo, and on the other a diminutive, co-opted femininity. Maybe we need a third statue to challenge them both.

Read more on this issue:

Catherine Rampell: Be pretty, but not too pretty: Why women just can’t win

David H. Webber: Big corporations are trying to silence their own shareholders