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Guy in the Sky – Look up! It’s a Bird, a Plane, a Monument of a Man!

<v ->Earlier in the course, learners heard definitions</v> of public visual and historical culture and saw examples in Downtown Detroit. In this video, we are going to revisit those sites and evaluate the value systems that these historical and cultural representatives convey, including a tacit, but monumental perpetuation of gender bias. Reminder here on perspective, with these examples, I’m speaking about visual and historical culture from a Western perspective and a specifically American one. Knowing that we have a global audience of learners engaging with this course, I want to acknowledge that your perception and understanding of what I’ll be sharing maybe different than mine, due to our cultural differences.
Rest assured that it next discussion, we’ll be inviting you to share historical visual culture from your part of the world and are keen to hear your regional insights. On location in Detroit, I noticed that visual culture is all around, including signage, advertising, buildings, landscape, the human imprint on an area. Those streets sign names, Jefferson, Lafayette, Washington, all reference men, white men of renown in the United States, such as Jefferson, or in the Detroit region, such as Lafayette. Research from my project, Visualizing Women’s Work, reveals the following tally of monuments in three US cities, Boston, Detroit, and Washington DC. In this first graph, we see presentation by gender, with male dedicated statues above and female dedicated statues below.
In the second chart, we see the distribution of monuments by category, with the military being the largest, followed by politics and then history, with a smaller distribution in sports and significantly smaller distributions in religion, activism and art. On our trip to Detroit, we also visited several sites of historical culture. Of the monuments, all our male military and political leaders placed high atop pedestals. Let’s assess the messaging implicit in the single individual as hero, placed in highly visible public areas, such as parks and streetscapes and what that conveys about the value system of the region. We see a clear gender bias and a focus on military and political leaders that were victors, though also oppressors.
We might ask, what is missing when every monument in an area is of the same one or two categories of representation. In the forming of the United States, values of Liberty and justice were fought for in the war of independence and perpetuated through the formation of government, focused on individual rights. Those who were leaders rose in stature and in statuary, yet in their victory, the American colonists oppressed others through slavery and genocide. African-Americans and indigenous peoples are occasionally represented in monuments. Women who are members of all communities, colonists, slaves and indigenous peoples are also only occasionally represented in monuments.
You might remember the one female figure at the Russell Alger Fountain, an allegorical representation, not an actual person. Have you heard of the Statue of Liberty? Sometimes referred to as Lady Liberty? Also an allegorical representation in female form. There are instances of notable women figures as monuments and those too follow the individual as hero form. The use of vertical elevation also indicates an hierarchical bias, indicative of patriarchy and paternalism. We look up to the male in most these cases in the United States, a white male. The preferencing of white male individuals across eras and generations, then builds a legacy of male centrism. Those in power are able to nominate themselves and their brethren.
Their perspective is a pinhole camera version of a society. Buildings, street names, towns, counties and extending even to the natural world, names of lakes and even trees. The generals in the Giant Sequoia Forest, General Sherman and General Grant. It needs to continue devaluation of women’s participation and contribution to their respective communities and to nations. If women are not permitted to participate in legislation, professional or military jobs due to cultural, religious and even legal norms, then how would women come to be seen as heroic in those categories? And if heroism is defined only by individuals in leadership roles and monuments reflect this, then, well, you see the cycle.
Families and kids visiting parks are surrounded by gender preference in these towering monuments in signage, giving import to men, with women all but erased, except as draped mythological figures.

Returning to the monuments that were viewed earlier in the course, this video begins to evaluate them as part of a male-centric, white male dominated (US) landscape of historical visual culture.

Explore more at Historic Detroit, particularly in regards to Detroit’s Monuments.

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Visualizing Women's Work: Using Art Media for Social Justice

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