White Girl Culture Print
Art - Reviews
Tuesday, 29 April 2003 18:00
On Sunday afternoon at the Davenport Museum of Art, teenage girls stood three deep in some places, scrutinizing text at least as thoroughly as they absorbed Lauren Greenfield’s photographs. Most pictures were accompanied by engaging interviews, usually with the photographic subject. It was fun to watch their thirtysomething dads sidle up to sanitized images of Vegas strippers and porn stars, too. Astutely cross-marketed with revealing comments (“Community Voices”) by local schoolgirls, the exhibition Girl Culture attests to the museum’s renewed relevancy.

There’s something about photography that brings out the voyeur in everyone and the exhibitionist in some (when the subject is human), and the atmosphere in the main gallery was suitably charged with voyeuristic anticipation. Greenfield’s humans are of course females, including the aforementioned strippers in baroque showgirl costumes, and porn stars in the inevitable big platinum hair, but mainly adolescent girls struggling with self image. The girls are dressing for parties, posing like big girls, trying on clothes, or submitting their baby fat to Greenfield’s hungry lens. They join a long line of self-conscious performers, including the painful subjects of the late Diane Arbus, or the later Robert Mapplethorpe, and the latest Cindy Sherman, who substitutes her costumed self in the relative comfort and privacy of a study.

Greenfield is a voyeur with a PG rating. Nipple hunters went home disappointed. Her images are scrumptious but pristine. Her subjects are mainly Caucasian, and her audience on Sunday was, too. The entire exhibition could be safely mounted in a church, which is sharp marketing, in this reviewer’s opinion. It’s entertainment for the whole white family, a must for today’s budget-crunched art museums. There are few piercings and little self-mutilation beyond tight bustiers and excessive shaving – no zits, and no deformities. Even the heavier girls at a weight-loss camp are ripe rather than grotesque.

A photograph of a handful of African-American prom-goers is accompanied by an irritating interview with a Nigerian girl who presumes to speak for the Black American experience. The weirdness of growing up female and black in this country is a vast and compelling subject. But Greenfield has apparently concluded that black girls don’t worry about their weight like white girls do and hence aren’t as tortured. I offer here a standing invitation to walk my neighborhood and visit with our less-tortured sisters.

I’m harping on this race thing because the opening line in Greenfield’s handout suggests that the influence of “Eastern religions and philosophies” has curative value for American females. Foot-binding and clitoridectomies immediately come to mind. I guess that Nigerian chick, who was skinny as a rail and the winner of a modeling competition held in Compton, California, really bugged me.

The complex issues Greenfield seeks to explore include fashion, the cult of celebrity, “commodified womanhood,” and the not-so-different worlds of the “girlish” and the “girlie.” The broad concept here is that prevailing notions of beauty and sexuality are inflicted in a culture (ours) that sets impossible and improbable standards for girls. Missing were photos of JonBenet Ramsey and Princess Diana, whose images tell the white girl’s story better than anyone’s. Also missing was the slightest editorial hint that the relationship between females and their bodies, and their mirrors, may be a solitary and enchanting pursuit. But you can see that in the photographs.
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