arts

The artist behind 'Fearless Girl' wants to spread her message far and wide. A lawsuit is getting in the way

Published 17th February 2022
The "Fearless Girl" statue stands outside New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. The hands-on-hips bronze statue that inspired millions with a message of female empowerment has a new permanent home in front of the NYSE. "Fearless Girl" was intended as a temporary display when the Boston-based State Street Global Advisors installed it in March 2017 to encourage corporations to put more women on their boards. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Credit: Jeenah Moon/BloombergGetty Images/
The artist behind 'Fearless Girl' wants to spread her message far and wide. A lawsuit is getting in the way
Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
Five years after first appearing on the cobblestones of Wall Street, the "Fearless Girl" statue -- a petite but controversial symbol for gender equality -- is taking on a new digital form.
To mark International Women's Day next month, the artist behind the bronze figure, Kristen Visbal, is releasing an NFT collection featuring the now-famous work. Virtual artworks on sale include two different video clips of the statue taking form through "stardust particles" and seven types of celestial-themed digital trading cards. One buyer will also receive a full-sized physical replica of the four-foot-tall sculpture, while others will receive 22-inch versions.
Delaware-based Visbal, who usually works with cast bronze, collaborated with visual effects studio 9ifx to bring her NFT collection to life. Her new digital art was inspired by images of nebula clouds taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
"I had this lightbulb go up," she said in a video interview. "I thought, 'Oh, 'Fearless Girl' is a global symbol. And then I thought, 'Oh, 'Fearless Girl' is a universal symbol."
But while the statue has become a well-known tourist attraction, its status as a feminist symbol has been called into question over the corporate sponsorship that funded it. The artwork is also the subject of ongoing litigation between Visbal and the statue's sponsor, asset management firm State Street Global Advisor (SSGA), over how its image and name have been used.
As such, the launch of Visbal's new NFT collection, titled "Superstar Drop: Free Fearless Girl" is likely to stir further debate, with proceeds from the sale helping to support Visbal's legal costs.

An overshadowed message

"Fearless Girl" was first installed in downtown Manhattan, across from the famous "Charging Bull" statue, ahead of International Women's Day in 2017. It was created as a direct challenge to the "boy's club" of the corporate world, Visbal said.
Stood directly on the cobblestones rather than a plinth, so that she was of equal height to young visitors, the determined figure immediately went viral. Tweets about the bronze sculpture earned 1 billion impressions within the first 12 hours, according to court documents. Since then, the statue has found a new home a few blocks away, across from the New York Stock Exchange, with the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voting to keep her there for another three years.
"Fearless Girl" was originally located across from the statue "Charging Bull" but has since been moved to the New York Stock Exchange a few blocks away.
"Fearless Girl" was originally located across from the statue "Charging Bull" but has since been moved to the New York Stock Exchange a few blocks away. Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA/Xinhua/Sipa USA
"Fearless Girl" was intended to "call attention to the glass ceiling in the Wall Street community that so many women have faced... for promotion and for equal pay," Visbal said. "It was a very clear and simple message."
But that message has been somewhat tarnished by criticism that the statue was used for corporate PR by SSGA, which was promoting its gender-diversity index fund at the time. The week after "Fearless Girl" was installed, an op-ed in the New York Times argued that the figure represented a form of "false feminism."
Ironically, just a few months after she was installed, SSGA agreed to pay $5 million to settle allegations that it underpaid female and Black employees. In an email to CNN, a spokesperson for the firm said that it denies wrongdoing.
"In the interest of moving forward and continuing our focus on what was most important for State Street (SSGA) -- the policies and programs we had and continue to have in place to promote gender diversity -- we chose to enter into a conciliation agreement," read the statement.

The fight for 'Fearless Girl'

Visbal is frustrated that the statue's ideals "have been minimized," she said, maintaining that she created "Fearless Girl" for the public, not corporate sponsors. "She legally stands for equality, equal pay, supporting women in leadership positions, the empowerment of women, education of women, education for the prevention of prejudice, and the general well-being of women," she said.
"We established legal boundaries as to what the artwork would stand for... (she) would never be used for anything that didn't have to do with these diversity and equality ideals," she added of the agreement she signed with SSGA.
Visbal claims she didn't know who was sponsoring the project when she accepted the commission from an advertising agency, McCann. She made "Fearless Girl" in about a month and then, weeks after installation, signed an agreement with SSGA that outlined copyright and trademark for the work.
Visbal has been involved in a years-long legal battle over the use of the name and image of 'Fearless Girl."
Visbal has been involved in a years-long legal battle over the use of the name and image of 'Fearless Girl." Credit: Benno Schwinghammer/dpa/Sipa USA
The artist has since become ensnared in a years-long legal battle with the firm over the use of "Fearless Girl." Visbal owns the copyright, meaning she can reproduce the artwork, but SSGA owns the rights to the trademarked name. When Visbal began marketing replicas using the name "Fearless Girl" -- she has sold full-sized versions for as much as $250,000 -- SSGA argued that she had violated their agreement.
In court filings submitted to New York's Supreme Court in 2019, SSGA alleged that Visbal had created "unauthorized" copies and that some buyers had subsequently used the statue's image and name for commercial gain, thus "weakening and adulterating the Fearless Girl message." Visbal responded with a countersuit, asserting she has the right to make new versions of the work.
"The suit is about how 'Fearless Girl' is used," Visbal said. "I own 'Fearless Girl,' so I can make (it) in any size and any material that I want. I can create derivative works and I can also license the work. The reason I haven't licensed her is because there's a lot of control that's been exerted over licensing."

A conflicted legacy

Visbal says that without owning the name, she can't pursue educational programs related to "Fearless Girl."
"I wanted her to be, essentially, a teaching tool... I really believe that the fastest way to gender parity is to begin re-socializing our youngsters," Visbal said.
SSGA has meanwhile used the name for its own "Fearless Girl" campaign, which aims to improve diversity and increase the number of women sitting on corporate boards, according to the suit. SSGA's website says that, since the campaign began in 2017, the firm has identified 1,486 companies without a woman on their board, of which 862 now have a female director.
SSGA declined CNN's request for comment on the legal proceedings or Visbal's forthcoming NFT sale, but said the artist had not approached the company about pursuing educational initiatives.
"We would consider any request to use the 'Fearless Girl' name in connection with educational programs as we would any other request to use the trademark," SSGA said in a statement.
Visbal says she would like to see "Fearless Girl" realigned with her initial, broader vision of gender equality.
Visbal says she would like to see "Fearless Girl" realigned with her initial, broader vision of gender equality. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Visbal said that she is allowed to use the trademarked name in her NFT collection "Superstar Drop: Free Fearless Girl," through the legal doctrine of "fair use." She hopes the sale will help recover some of her legal costs, which she says total nearly $3 million so far -- including an estimated $700,000 of her own money.
"Do I have an option to profit greatly from 'Fearless Girl'? Yes, I do," Visbal said. "But have I put every blessed cent I made into the legal expenses? Yes, I have."
Visbal said she has offered to cast a new version of the statue so it can become a permanent fixture in the city (the original work is still displayed using a temporary permit). She also wants a plaque placed at the girl's feet to explain the ideals she had in mind when she created her. The artist is unhappy with the current signage, which she said too closely associates "Fearless Girl" with SSGA's diversity initiative.
"This is my work, and I made it with integrity, and I have integrity," Visbal said. "And I would like to see her used properly."
Motion image: A digital trading card from Visbal's forthcoming NFT collection.