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Beyond bitch, bunny, or mom: Art intervention challenges (oh-so-tired) pop images

June 2, 2009 – 8:23 PM

By Laura Pappano

Of course being hot helps. Good-looking athletes get our attention, whether we’re talking Danica Patrick or Tom Brady. It doesn’t make them any better on the racetrack or the football field, but it does attract fans and sponsors.

I get that.

But there’s trouble when we consider the broader implications of who gets a hearing and some respect in our society – whether it’s on the field – or on a campaign trail or in a boardroom.

Do we need sex to sell women’s sports? Do women have to be attractive to be listened to? Unfortunately, women are forced to occupy a very narrow cultural space in our society (bitch, bunny, or mom?) that’s tightly tied to our bodies.

Michele Obama may be smart and accomplished, but we are most comfortable talking about her outfits and messages about organic gardening and family nutrition. That’s not as scary as hearing what she thinks.

Isn’t it obvious that we need to expand the depth and breadth of female public images? We need women pioneers (more females on Supreme Court, in Congress, in executive suites, on Little League teams, represented as artists in museums, as directors in Hollywood, etc…). In other words: Normalize female leadership so it’s not FIRST about how you look.

Artist Lillian Hsu has just launched an art action and held a mass event last weekend in which supporters placed 8.5 X 11 posters reading “Beautiful Just the Way You Are” in front of magazine covers featuring all-too-familiar representations of glam-only objectified female bodies. Her point:  Intervene and interrupt the auto-absorption process that makes smart women feel inadequate if they aren’t skinny with perfect teeth and skin.

As Hsu puts it: “Before we are ten, and then without pause throughout our lives, we internalize the lesson that our bodies are how we will be first judged as individuals, and that there is a body type that we must attain to be judged worthy of attention.” And the judging of bodies she is talking about isn’t about what athletic feats those bodies can perform, but how hot they are doing it.

I’m not burning my bra  (‘specially my sports bra!) or throwing out the lipstick. It’s all right with me if Danica Patrick takes a Madonna-like command of her sexuality. But just as everyone knows that because Tom-Brady-the-model is pretty, doesn’t mean Tom-Brady-the-football-player isn’t tough, we need to extend that flexibility to women.

While we’re at it, let’s lose those tramp-victim-slut ads for jeans and perfume and popularize the scent of real female power.

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