Worth a Look - at the Houston Center for Photography / by Michelle Cowan

I visited the Houston Center for Photography today and saw a thought-provoking exhibit that hit home for me. Beauty Knows No Pain features images by O. Rufus Lovett and Leah DeVun that examine the expression and perception of femininity in contemporary American culture. Lovett’s work follows the Kilgore Rangerettes, a well-known drill team that dresses in boots, hats, and cowgirl-style skirt sets typical of Texas cheer or drill teams. DeVun has photographed young girls dressed up in Hannah Montana gear, complete with the blond wigs, flashy jewelry, and black leggings girls beg their parents to buy them at Wal-mart.

I first made my way through the Rangerette photos, a group of images dating from 1989 to today, and the smile would not leave my face. The joy in those girls’ expressions combined with the unbelievable contortions some were performing reminded me of the strength within all of us. Although some might say that the short skirts and even the entire idea behind drill teams in general pigeon-hole women into a negative female stereotype, I found the images satisfyingly wholesome. I could tell these girls worked hard and did their best to put on an amazing show.

I also connected with what I imagined might lie behind those pasted-on smiles. It was obvious that the girls loved what they were doing. Nonetheless, what they do is ultimately a show, and the performers have real lives beyond the kick-up-yer-heels routines. In those photos, I saw real girls demonstrating their strength, teamwork, and beauty in a forum acceptable to our society.

I have little doubt that eventually drill teams like the Rangerettes will be phased out as old-fashioned. But places where women can work together as a team and show their strength while being appreciated for their beauty will always exist. These elements are critical to almost every woman’s maturation. Entities like the Rangerettes provide a place for women to express their femininity, and they serve as one portrayal of femininity in our culture.

Is this portrayal positive or negative? Probably a little of both. The main thing is not to see it as a whole. The Rangerettes and the images of them represent one version of femininity (although that version may be multi-layered and different for every girl depicted in the photos and every person who sees them). Viewing possibilities for women through a narrow scope limits everyone in our culture. There are many more ways to be a woman.

Speaking of those many different ways, I moved on to DeVun’s portion. I expected my smile to continue. I usually adore seeing happy little girls playing dress up. Instead, I walked through with a slightly troubled feeling in my stomach. The girls didn’t seem happy, and they didn’t seem like they had chosen their outfits to dress up in. Society had chosen their outfits. Their very self-expression had arrived pre-packaged in a cardboard box labeled “Hannah Montana.” No doubt these girls are finding their way through girlhood in America, doing the best they can to express themselves with the tools given, but in their wigs and bangles, they seem prematurely adolescent. Seven year olds draped in scarves and already projecting the slightly bored expression worn by too many fashion models makes even a cynic long to gift these girls with a childhood—a childhood not branded with Disney.

Granted, I have a slight resentment against Disney. After I worked for them, the Walt Disney synergy so overwhelmingly diffused throughout American (and global) culture became too downright creepy to enjoy anymore. I still haven’t completely rid myself of that “ick” in my belly.

More than that, though, the juxtaposition of these two ways of expressing femininity (the Rangerettes and Hannah Montana) made me consider all the other ways women are portrayed and how I want to portray myself. What tools are given to me for the purpose of self-expression? Do I use those tools? Do the portrayals society gives me affect or distort how I view myself as a woman? Have these images limited me? Did they at one time? How can I transcend popular representations of women and assert my true self, loving every bit of it? Can I dissect those popular representations and determine the truths they hold from the lies?

In any case, the exhibit is certainly worthwhile. And at the astoundingly reasonable price of FREE, Beauty Knows No Pain serves as yet another example of why the Houston Center for Photography is one of my favorite places to go.

In this same vein, photographer Shelley Calton will be giving an artist talk at the Houston Center for Photography on March 25th at 7pm. She’ll also be signing copies of her new book Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls. This collection and her last one, Invisible Thread, offer more images that remind viewers of feminine strength and the things that tie us all together as women. She’s worth checking out.

Best wishes, love, and strength to you all! Men and women alike.