Friday, May 16, 2014

Actually if you read the thing

I was at the Mint Museum the other day, enjoying their photo exhibit Women of Vision, centered around a lineup of great female documentary photographers, when a group of high school students came through.

The teacher, a gnomic woman old enough to be their grandmother, led them to a picture of two teenage girls in a piercing parlor who had just gotten tongue studs and were considering their new ornaments in the mirror.

"These girls just got their tongues pierced," the teacher thundered.  "Do they look happy?  Why would they do something like that to themselves?"

"Maybe it was for art, an art thing," a gentle voice said.

"What's artistic about getting your tongue pierced?" the teacher retorted.

They moved to a picture of a toddler pageant contestant, an infant with heavy makeup and big Loretta Lynn hair.

"Look at this girl.  This girl is two years old and she's dressed this way to be 'beautiful.'  Is that beautiful?  She's standing there wearing a wig..."

"Actually if you read the thing, it says that's her real hair," spoke a shy voice.

On to the next picture: a man in heavy winter clothing stands by a pair of severed reindeer heads.

"Here is a man who's hunting reindeer," the teacher said.

"Actually if you read the thing it says he found them, they had gotten their antlers locked in a fight and starved in the cold.  He cut them apart after he found their bodies."

I got the impression this was part of an ongoing conflict.  The girls had learned to respond to the hectoring sermonettes with close reading, fact-checking, and gentle counter-narratives.  Throughout, the teacher sounded like a brat on the edge of a tantrum, and the students sounded like endlessly patient caregivers.  Gives me hope for the future.  No boys involved in the struggle.  They probably respond by carving insults in desktops.

(I should mention that I'm sympathetic to the teacher's skepticism regarding "Beauty," but there were other photos in the exhibit that showed other sides of beauty.  Costumed revelers at Venetian Carnival, barely-costumed revelers at the beach, cheerful women meeting at the hair parlor... positive social functions exist for beauty.  I can't blame Teach for wanting to police the borders of her young charges' behavior and presentation, but her hasty generalizations and sloppy confabulating probably don't help her cause.)