Art vs. Stereotypes

The American journalist Walter Lippmann was the first writer to define the concept of stereotype as it is understood today. In his 1922 book, Public Opinion, he writes “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” He continues, “The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society. They are an ordered more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. […] It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense or our own value, our own position, and our own rights. […] They are the fortress of our traditions, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.”

Pigeonholing someone from a race, or a social category, or a profession that is different from ours makes us feel that the world is simpler than it actually is, thus making it easier to blame them for their perceived failures, and to persist in eventual social inequalities. Social movements can change that, and they have. However, in my opinion, they can change social injustice at an intellectual level, or in the best case scenario, at a legislative level, but not at a fundamental, individual, human level. People who see other people as “lesser” than them will agree with the idea or law that all are equal in theory, but in their heart (and in practice) they will continue to think as before. What can really change their heart, what can really hit them emotionally is art. Art can change people’s perception on current problems. It can raise awareness on important issues. It can fight stereotypes; it can give a face and a voice to the disenfranchised. It can humanize people[1].

One artist who tried to do just that is Susan Meiselas.

USA. Essex Junction, Vermont. 1973. Lena on the Bally Box.
Susan Meiselas. “Lena on the Bally Box, Essex Junction, Vermont”. 1973. Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 11 3/4″ (19.5 x 29.9 cm). © 2016 Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos (Source)

Between 1973 and 1975, young photographer Susan Meiselas (b. 1948) spent her summers taking pictures and audio recordings of women performing in striptease shows for small town carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. This was her first major photography project (she will later be better known as a war photographer, especially for documenting the 1970s insurrection in Nicaragua). The final result materialized as a book, Carnival Strippers, first published in 1976 (with a transcript of the audio recordings of the women, some of their boyfriends, the show runners, and some audience members), then reedited in 2003, with a CD of the recordings[2].

The photograph presented here is on the cover of the book. It was not the first picture taken of the series, but it was among the first ones that felt important to Meiselas, marking a moment when she realized that she could tell a story, that she could maybe make a difference, trying to change people’s perception of these women. We get an idea of what that perception was from one male member of the audience, who says[3]: “I mean, none of these girls couldn’t possibly have a good education or a good background or else they wouldn’t be here. Number one they’re not intelligent enough to know that they could be doing something else.” – “Such as?” (Meiselas asks) – “Well, such as just working in a restaurant or getting married and having a family, working in a factory…”

The women did not see themselves much differently. In Lena’s own words, “I don’t think that we are supposed to be sex symbols, I don’t think that’s what we are, because we’re not. What we are is we’re a symbol of something dirty and vulgar. … This business isn’t professional showgirls, we aren’t showgirls we’re prostitutes pretending to be showgirls.” Why do they do this, then? Lena tries to provide an answer:

“The people that I’m associated with when I’m dancing are essentially more liberated and free than the people that I associate with or would associate with in any other job. I mean, their moral standards are different, they’re isolated from the rest of society. Being a carny you’re isolated, being a stripper you’re isolated, therefore you have to stick to your own, the people that you are more like. Everybody needs to belong to somebody or something and most of the people in the business don’t have anyone or anything to belong to and therefore it fills that need in their life.”

Another young woman says in the background, “This is not my life, this isn’t what I want to do, you know, this isn’t really what pleases me, but until I find what I really want, I don’t really know what my life is, right now this is it.”

Meiselas was a fresh college graduate when she started following the strip show, fascinated by the women who were, in a way, the complete opposite of who she was. One cannot help thinking that in the beginning, Meiselas herself probably saw these women with stereotypical eyes, as perhaps anyone with her highly educated background would see them. They were something of a curiosity to her. However, with time, she grew close to them, and true understanding emerged. As artist Martha Rosler pointed out, “…it was extraordinarily difficult to produce a work that was about women whom she didn’t know, who were in an unappreciated, unloved class of women, who were certainly not admired for their profession, at a time when women were exploring what it meant to have a body, and to have a profession, and to have a job.”[4]

In this scene, Lena is not performing for the camera; she’s performing for the public. However, she seems distant, as if she’s there only with her body. In her words again, “I’m completely withdrawn. I mean, I am not looking at anybody in specific, and I’m not speaking to anybody in specific, and nobody is touching me in specific.” Maybe she’s just trying to avoid judgement. Maybe she’s just trying to get it over with, and get back to her friends, the other strippers, the carnies, the ones who make her feel like she belongs with them. And, who knows, maybe Susan Meiselas helped her with her art. Maybe people will look at Lena and see a person, not a stereotype.

More information on Susan Meiselas and her work:

http://www.susanmeiselas.com/early-years/carnival-strippers/#id=intro

https://www.moma.org/artists/45094

https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/performing-arts/carnival-strippers-by-susan-meiselas/

Hacking, Juliet (editor). This Is Photography. 2012, London: Quintessence

[1] Philosopher Richard Rorty had some interesting ideas in this sense. He talked about the so-called “sentimental education”  – that people should be taught not only to reason, but also to feel, to learn to see other people as equal human beings. You can read here a synthesis of his views.

[2] Meiselas, Susan. Carnival Strippers. 2003, Steidl; Revised edition

[3] Susan Meiselas carnival strippers audio, https://youtu.be/3z4illGQFbQ

[4] Human Interest: Martha Rosler on Susan Meiselas, https://youtu.be/irrgyBdW9Pg

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