If This is a Girl, Then What am I?
By Margaret Hawkins
Lisa Yuksavage, “The Gifts,” 2015, oil on linen. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York
I was never a Taylor Swift fan. She seemed bland. Over-hyped and overly cute. And she was so girly – all those costumes – and with a mean gossipy streak, famous for writing songs dissing her old boyfriends. Not that I ever listened to her songs. Swift had blazed onto the music scene in 2006, only three years after both Amy Winehouse and Beyonce released their debut albums. Of the three, I liked Swift least.
So I wasn’t really paying attention to the hype around her billion-dollar-grossing Eras tour this summer. But then three things happened in July.
Beyoncé dressed as Frida Kahlo with Jay Z and daughter Blue Ivy, 2014. Courtesy of Beyoncé.com
1. Seattle seismologists reported that Swift’s concerts at Lumen Field on July 22 and 23 triggered seismic activity equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake. The pop star was a literal earthquake, and the force moving the earth was female.
2. That same weekend, nearly 13 million Americans, most of them women and girls, showed up at movie theaters for the opening of Greta Gerwig’s film, “Barbie.” The instant popularity of this feminist film, about a toy that became the ultimate enforcer of impossible beauty standards, took me by surprise. Trailers made it look like (delicious) fluff. Instead, I quickly realized, it’s not fluff at all. It’s about fluff. The film ingeniously humanizes the doll, making us see her as a victim of the sexist tropes she embodies. And this is not just a clever plot device. It’s the story of many women’s lives.
The movie starts by satirizing Barbie’s cute, bland, synthetic femininity, but it ends up siding with, then transforming her, releasing her into a reality that is more difficult but deeper than the soulless life she’s lived. In this sense, Gerwig’s Barbie is a kind of female Pinocchio, a toy who becomes real through a moral journey. The movie is funny and smart. If you put all the Swifties through a women’s studies program they’d come out like Barbie does at the end of this film, sadder but wiser. And the movie isn’t even scathing, though it must have been tempting to make it so. True, there’s a lot of hilarious ribbing of men and Ken gets dumped, but ultimately Barbie acts like a grown-up woman, not a mean girl, and apologizes to Ken for taking him for granted. Then she launches her newly independent Ken-less life.
3. On the last day of July the New Yorker ran Ariel Levy’s profile of painter Lisa Yuksavage. Yuksavage, at 61, is to the art world what Gerwig, 40, is to the movies — a hugely successful artist who makes challenging work about what it means to be a woman. Very challenging, in Yuksavage’s case.
Like Taylor Swift, who is the youngest of this power-triumvirate at 33, Yuksavage emerged into the limelight in 2006 when she was picked up by German art dealer Davis Zwirner. Now her paintings fetch millions and hang in major museums. No one has ever called her work bland. But girly, yes. That also depends on your definition of ‘girl.’ Yuksavage does not play by any woke rules about how women should be represented.
Maggi Hambling, “Wall of Water, Amy Winehouse,” 2011, oil on canvas, 36 x48”.
Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
If pop musicians tend toward the trite and traditional, and mainstream directors walk the line between popular taste and art, painters usually at least begin as radicals. Why not? They have so little chance of succeeding and there’s nothing to lose. That’s what Yuksavage did, then when her work started to sell she doubled down on raunch. She’s profane, both in word and paint, and loud-mouthed. Chicago painter Tom James describes her as “the Janis Joplin of painting.”
Yuksavage’s paintings are usually about women’s bodies, fetishizing them as sex objects while also considering what it’s like to live in one, what it’s like to be a sex object — pink and soft and bosomy with blurry edges. Sometimes their faces seem made-up to look infantile (like Barbie, like Taylor Swift). These are not the toned bodies of unapproachable pop stars or the hard plastic molds of Mattel. They’re earthy, fleshy, often a little “too much,” as misbehaving women are often called. Dizzy and desirous. The artist adopted the style when she took her then-boyfriend’s, now husband’s, advice to ditch her more reticent style and give the paintings her own bawdy voice.
Taylor Swift in performance, The Eras Tour, 2013. Courtesy of Getty/John Shearer
Barbie looks good but she’s asexual. Yuksavage’s figures look good and they’re sexual. Sometimes they seem enslaved by sexuality. Consider the fearful-looking woman in “The Gifts” (2015) who appears to have been silenced by the bunch of flowers stuffed in her mouth.
Levy describes Yuksavage’s nudes as luminous and lascivious. Notice that she does not say they are meant to arouse lasciviousness, though they probably do, but that they are. They inhabit their own glowing hot pastel worlds of sensation, and Yuksavage erases the line usually drawn between who exists to serve and who is served. It shouldn’t be that radical a concept, yet in the context of art history and popular culture, it is.
Donovan Ward, (left) “Brutalized Barbie,” 2013. Courtesy Association for Visual Arts Gallery,
Cape Town, South Africa (right) “Cannon Fodder Ken,” 2013. Courtesy of Donovan Ward
In her profile, Levy traces Yuksavage’s early influences, citing the illustrations in her parents’ copy of “The Joy of Sex” and the photos in her father’s Penthouse magazines. She quotes Yuksavage on her early efforts to reckon with female stereotypes. “If this is a girl,” Levy says the artist remembers thinking, “then what am I?” It’s a question lots of girls have asked upon discovering what the world expects of them. Yuksavage stirs this question into her paintings, mixing it up with porn, fear, pleasure, ambivalence, and bad habits.
If Swift and “Barbie” play it relatively safe, offering a version of palatable middlebrow feminism and female sexuality that won’t upset the world and may even have a happy ending, Yuksavage goes for broke. She embraces sleaze. Alchemizes porn tropes into highbrow art. But wherever these three artists fall on the continuum of conservativism to radicalism, together they prove there’s a craving on the part of girls and women to see themselves reflected back by other women through the interpretive prism of art. (A lot of men, apparently, want to see this, too.)
Lisa Yuksavage, “Night Classes at the Department of Painting Drawing and Sculpture,” 2018-20, oil on linen, 86 x 120 1/8”. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York
Yuksavage answers her own question, “what am I?”, with a wholehearted embrace of vulgarity, as if to say this too is woman. She takes body positivity to a whole new level, claiming her right even to be retro. And in this sense she’s not so different from the versions of feminism enacted by Swift and Gerwig. One thing they’re all trying to do is to figure out how to live with men. Yuksavage and Gerwig, and Swift too, it occurs to me belatedly, are making art about how to be heterosexual without feeling exploited. Each answers Yuksavage’s question differently but all three agree on one thing: Women own their own bodies and get to make their own choices.
That’s what it comes down to, and Gerwig sums it up in a way that for so many is relatable. The film closes with Barbie trading in her pink plastic world for a muted but more satisfying reality. Dressed in blue jeans and a blazer, she steps up for an appointment with a gynecologist. It’s a perfect ending, a modern woman opting for necessary, not frivolous, self-care. And if that’s girly, bring it on.