Insufficient Female Representation Through Art

The phrase "art imitates life" is used all over the world by artists, singers, musicians, and those who draw inspiration from the world around them to create works of art.

The phrase "art imitates life" is used all over the world by artists, singers, musicians, and those who draw inspiration from the world around them to create works of art. Art immortalizes moments, captures emotions, and continues to tell stories years after the events have taken place. However, when examining art pieces that depict important figures such as war heroes, great scientific thinkers, political leaders, or artists and authors, women are often left out of the narrative. If you were to walk around Central Park, you would see 73 bronze statues or sculptures that capture important moments or figures. However, only one of these statues would be of real women.

On August 26, 2020, 167 years after the opening of the park, the first sculpture depicting real women was unveiled. In the sculpture, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth are shown sitting at a table working together. These three women were historical figures who advocated for female suffrage through protests, conferences, and education in the late 19th to 20th centuries. The non-profit organization Monumental Women installed the statue to increase awareness of female leaders in history. Female suffrage was ratified in 1920, but it has taken a century for this statue to stand in Central Park. What does this delay say about how we represent and honor women through art on a grander scale?

Historically, women have always been disproportionately portrayed in the art world in comparison to their male counterparts. This is not to say that there has been no female representation in art at all. We often see artistic portrayals of fictional characters such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. There are also numerous other pieces, ranging from the Louvre's treasured Greek sculpture Vénus de Milo to the swan princess Odette in Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. However, most historical depictions of female figures are based on fantastical, idealistic views of women that focus on beauty rather than the importance of these figures themselves. Real, pioneering women have not been celebrated on the same scale as men have. Nationally, out of an estimated 5,200 public historical statues, only 400 are of women. Paintings like Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans exist to honor the scientific achievements of prominent scientists, yet important female scientists like Marie Curie are nowhere to be seen. While William Shakespeare has been depicted by various artists in many different settings throughout the years, literary phenomena like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson are only known for their one portrait.

It is even more difficult to find examples of historical women of color represented in art. Initially, the new Central Park statue showed only Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaving out Sojourner Truth, a woman of color. All three of these women fought hard for female suffrage and are the first who come to mind when thinking about female voting rights. However, the statue had left out Truth, the woman of color. Female representation through art has been severely whitewashed, further showing how the art world fails to fully honor important, pioneering women.

Today, female representation through art is increasing. Various female-empowerment groups, as well as the media, are raising awareness about understated female heroes. For example, The New York Times posted an article on August 19, 2020 showing photographs of Black female activists leading protests, rallies, and meetings concerning women's rights. These efforts are encouraging the usage of art to uplift women who defy the status quo. However, the existence of representation is not enough. It's also equally important to confront how women are portrayed. Art industries are known to be exceedingly harsh when portraying influential females, including artists, on social media. They often use villainizing terms such as "manipulative" or "calculated" instead of positive terms like “strategic.” Female artists are often examined as a source of drama, and their shortcomings are broadcasted over their artistic accomplishments.

Accurate representation of women in art is critical. Young girls around the world deserve a platform where they can be treated equally for their accomplishments. The stories of women who fought for liberty and those who have made advancements in all fields deserve to be told just as much as the men who dominate our history. "Art imitates life" is certainly true, but only to a certain extent. After all, if barely 8 percent of the United States' public history statues are of women, how accurately can we say that "art imitates life?" If we invest in spreading the stories of these women, memorializing them in art and portraying them in the respected light they deserve, we will begin to see a rise in young female leaders who can look up to these women and see possibilities for their own potential.


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