It’s a shame to be reporting this story under the heading of ‘The Feminist Week In Bullshit’, when the addition of a single pronoun could have earnt it the full-on respectful doffing of the feminist cap, but nonetheless behold the story of enigmatic French photographer/graffiti artist JR, who this week has covered the entire circumference of Ile Saint-Louis in the river Seine with photographs of women’s eyes. Not just any women, that is, but specifically eyes belonging to women from a range of disadvantaged and oppressed backgrounds in the developing world, from poverty-stricken single mothers, to rape victims, to the carers trying to help the legions of hungry, needy, and war-wearied. All staring out unflinchingly at the affluent Parisians as they sashay past en route to the boulot or perhaps to le MacDo. All exposed to the world in giant, unescapable detail, their many tragic stories writ large along the Seine.
Surely this is not the stuff of feminist bullshit? Not in a world full of plastic surgery, pay gaps, porn culture, rape, prostitution, and Richard Littlejohn? Isn’t this actually a celebration of women and a refreshingly relevant and pro-feminist political statement from a (male) artist? Shouldn’t I be all over this like David Cameron in Rupert Murdoch’s bathtub?
Answer: yes. And I am. Or at least, I very much would be, were it not for the well-meaning but unfortunate title given to the project: Women Are Heroes. See that? That’s a thoughtful and pro-feminist project, immediately scuppered by the flipside of the more usual manifestation of the virgin/whore dichotomy. That’s to say, the romanticization of women as a class is as pernicious as the defamation of women as a class. It’s no different from the chivalric code venerating women in exchange for their own sovereignty; assigning a certain set of values (positive, in this case) to a class of people which then forces them to transcend their status as human beings. It’s simple really. Women as a class are neither heroes nor villains. They’re members of the race homo sapiens, meaning they contain within them the DNA formed slowly over billions of evolutionary years like slow-roasted primordial soup, which DNA allows or causes them (the jury is out, or at least pending publication of the next book by Richard Dawkins) to be decent souls, or dickheads, often both. Just like men, oddly enough. I had hoped that in the 21st century we would be past the whole shackle-rustingly medieval trope of women as visions of moral perfection (when not living embodiments of stinking carnal hellfire filth).
The women whose eyes are currently blazoned across the Ile Saint-Louis are without doubt heroic human beings; had JR only entitled his work These Women Are Heroes, a very different response would have been called for. Such is the power of pronouns. JR take note: one only has to look here to see how annoyingly unheroic women can be.