I’ve spent the week recovering from Wiscon (short form: it was awesome! totally going back! informal reports on my personal journal), but here is the painting I alluded to earlier which was revealed for the first time at Wiscon’s art show:
“Pedestal” by Heather Keith Freeman
8″x10″, pen and ink on watercolor paper
[image description: A white woman looks nervously down from a pedestal formed of words, backed by a shimmering abstract blend of purple, red, and pink.
Forming the top of the pedestal are the words "GET ME OFF THIS DAMN PEDESTAL."
Forming the column of the pedestal, in myriad different handwritten fonts, are words generally framed as compliments to those perceived as feminine: "pretty, loyal, feminine, bubbly, ladylike, virgin, pure, precious, devoted, demure, charming, sexy, refined, vivacious, lovely, exotic, baby, accomplished, chaste, cute, darling, beautiful, sweet, adorable."]
“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” –Gloria Steinem
I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the idea of a backhanded compliment: where all the words are polite, even nice, but they are used in a context and a manner that actually insults the person being described.
“You’re so much smarter than most girls!”
“What? I said you were smart! That’s a compliment!”
Even more subtle are descriptions that serve to separate and elevate the object; even if it is in a complimentary fashion, it is still dehumanizing. And with that built-in defense of “but it was a compliment”, no wonder it is so frequently used by those with more privilege to keep those below them in their place.
This piece focuses on those words most frequently used to compliment white women (I totally should have worked “delicate” and “fragile” in there too). A few words, like “exotic” and “dainty” are even more frequently aimed at women of color; the gender/race intersection when it comes to language is complex and hideous. (I focused on the language used on white women because that is what I am most familiar with, and I didn’t trust myself to deal with the racial intersection in a non-faily way.)
Because this comes up every. single. time I’ve talked to someone about this painting, I will reiterate that the problem is not with being complimented! The problem is with the context, the connotations, and the strength with which words like these call up the stereotype of a waifish, fainting flower with little intelligence and less willpower.
I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. It’s lonely and cold up here, and I feel so brittle, like I will shatter if I so much as breathe.