We are living in the era of the selfie: the average person is more aware of his or her self-presentation than ever before. Almost all of us carry around devices with cameras that will automatically flip to face us. We are constantly clicking through our photos on Facebook, deciding what to keep as part of our personal narrative and what to omit. Though the Internet and technology have made us all much more self-conscious (in the literal sense), they have probably had an even more dramatic effect on teenagers, who already feel like the world is watching their every move. Particularly for teenage girls, who are constantly being bombarded with an infinite set of ideals they are told to simultaneously achieve (be sexy but not too sexy, cool but not too cool, care but don’t care too much), the unblinking eye of the Internet must be a constant source of stress. But the effects of this aren’t all bad: a recent wave of artists, and regular girls online, are using this shift in self-awareness to take control of the narrative and expose the sometimes amazing and sometimes awful experience that is being a “teenage girl.”
Los Angeles artist Kate Durbin deals with the ways teenage girls both conform to and subvert their societal role in her projects Girls, Online and Women As Objects. In a two part interview with Hyperallergic, she gives a fascinating example of a surprisingly sophisticated bit of cultural appropriation she noticed being documented online, highlighting
the way the teenagers there have hijacked the Chanel logo, but not like fake bag makers in China who create “realistic fakes” in order to profit off of people’s blind devotion to a brand as a status symbol. On Tumblr, the teens are all about the Chanel logo as more valuable when obviously fake — scribbling it, for example, on a brown paper bag and then using that as a “purse.” This very rebellious teenage move reveals the inherent hollowness behind branding — branding is just a shared fantasy we put energy into. It’s not simply mockery though, what these girls are doing — it’s also a celebration of the spirit behind fashion, which is invention and beauty.
Durbin is interested in the aesthetics of being a teenage girl in Western culture, and how separated these ideals can be from the real experiences of young women. The instability of and girls’ dissociation from symbols like the Chanel logo begin to get at the undercurrent of darkness that is evident in a lot of recent art focused on what it’s like to be a teen girl today. Twenty-one-year-old art student Kelley McNutt explores these themes in her thesis project, BEAUTY NOW 2000, which is currently on display at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
The exhibition includes giveaway zines of her work, a surreal and creepy video of a frustrated girl trying to talk on a candy cell phone, and art made with supplies from cosmetology schools. In preparation for the show, McNutt researched the beauty industry, and her work is an intentionally unsettling celebration of the superficial. One image that stood out showed a nail art-embellished hand holding a hot-pink rose against a cloudy sky. The picture immediately evoked the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, and McNutt’s work, though practically the aesthetic opposite of the typical Lynch creation (he’s never been into pink hair extensions), evokes a similar uncanny feeling. The artist has several portraits of girls with hair done up in ways that resemble what a ten-year-old with unlimited access to dollar-store beauty products might create. In each, the subject faces away from the camera. McNutt tells me that these pieces have been mistaken online for “being real, like someone just did their hair that way,” an idea that excites her. She also mentioned that many of her fans are young girls who seem genuinely interested in the things she does with hair, adding another fold of self-referentiality to her work. The chopped-off bits of neon fake hair and photos of rows of rubber lips and labia mirror young people’s detachment from what we have considered “real” in the past.
Another piece that stood out in McNutt’s exhibition was a tribute to the now deceased actress Brittany Murphy, who epitomized teenage girlhood for a certain period of time. As the artist told me, the show has much to do with the images and ideas we idolized as children and how these images linger through our lives as beacons for our continued self-reification. It’s fitting that this show pays non-ironic homage to a celebrity who was best known for her role in Clueless, a film that similarly both exalted and satirized superficiality.
Though McNutt’s art is reminiscent of much of what’s currently popular on Tumblr among teenagers, and at least a few other Internet-based artists, she doesn’t see herself as necessarily part of a movement or existing aesthetic. This is worth considering, when so many girls (and people of all genders) are currently participating in this kind of self-expression. Without a cohesive artistic movement, this art seems like evidence that many different artists have come to similar conclusions about technology’s effect on our self-perception, and our simultaneous proximity to and detachment from our culture and each other.
One of the most encouraging parts of this non-movement is how it’s helping to destroy the longstanding cultural view of teenage girls as worthless in every way but as objects of scorn or sexualization. Especially in music, the teenage girl is stereotypically a screaming fan or groupie, and in the past, to purposefully employ the aesthetic of teen girls would have to be a joke. As we’ve previously discussed on this site, the rapper Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde) has been subject to massive criticism and general disregard because of her (actually very self-aware) female adolescent perspective, and her Millennial status. The fact that Kitty has succeeded in lasting more than one news cycle on the zero- attention-span Internet, especially as part of a hip-hop world obsessed with hetero masculinity, demonstrates the power that girls can access to create art that is interesting and influential, even while giggling. Just as third-wave feminists fought for the freedom to be a feminist without rejecting femininity, artists like Kelley McNutt and Kitty are demonstrating that being young and having an awareness of — and even an appreciation for — the superficial world of image that adolescent women are raised to worship are valid perspectives from which to make important art.