A couple weeks ago, I (Karley) had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the Frieze Art Fair. The panel was about female attractiveness—how does society assess who’s “hot,” and what gives a person value? The most powerful part of the panel, in my opinion, was when Grace Dunham (sister of Lena) gave a speech so perfectly breaking down the culture of self-worth, so I wanted to share her speech with you here.
The panel was led by comedian and artist Casey Jane Ellison, and included me, Grace Dunham (writer and activist), Reina Gossett (activist, writer, artist), and Leilah Weinraub (CEO of Hood By Air, filmmaker). If you want to hear the audio of Grace speaking, you can click this link, which includes the mp3 of the panel discussion, and fast forward to exactly the 1 hour mark. Or, you can read the transcript of Grace’s speech below:
“At the beginning of an episode of Touching the Art, Casey Jane Ellison’s talk show, Casey asks the panel, “Why am I hot?”
When Casey asks why she’s hot, no one answers her, because asking other people to analyze and break down your value—something our culture already does for us every day—is uncouth, taboo, uncomfortable. It’s not something that we ask of other people, even when we’re wondering.
But Casey asked an honest question—one of the most honest questions she could have asked. Why is Casey hot? Why am I hot? Why are Reina, and Leilah, and Karley hot?
In this context, hot means “value”—value as determined by a market, a market which breaks down, assesses, and evaluates people as commodities of power and social capital. A system of evaluation that determines people’s worth.
So, if you ask me why I’m hot—or why I, Grace Dunham, got asked to be on this panel, I could actually break that down quite easily for you. I can tell you some of the logics that culture, and this particular market, used to assess me as having worth in the context of this panel.
Some things about me are that I’m white, that I have relatively famous parents, and that my sister is a celebrity. I also have a vagina, which makes people think I’m a woman, and I’m attracted to women, which makes people think that I’m gay. I have an intimate relationship with a hot black trans activist, Reina, who by being in a public collaborative relationship with me validates my perspective and—despite my whiteness, my class, and my proximity to fame—makes my critique of power seem legitimate in ways it otherwise might now. In other words, as a commodity, I have a public connection to social capital and fame which gives me power through association, and I also hold a set of marginalized identities, as well as relationships to marginalization, which give me intellectual authority and increased use-value because of the perspectives I bring to “the panel.”
Frieze paid me $500 to speak on this panel, which is very little money compared to what the objects in this tent sell for, but a lot of money for a 23 year old trans person with a vagina to get paid for sitting on stage for an hour.
So, in the eyes of this market, the market meaning this system of evaluation, those are the reasons I’m hot. This is why I’m hot, and that’s how hot I am.
And, of course, because this is the system we live in, because this is the system in which I came to know myself, sometimes it feels good to be hot. Sometimes it feels good to be told I’m valuable, to believe that I’m special.
But this type of validation—validation through systems of evaluation, through the lens of power, through the lens of markets—is not the same as feeling known, and not the same as being loved.
It’s very different than when someone—a loved one, even a stranger—reflects something back at me that feels like the core of myself, rather than the sum of my evaluated parts.
Like last month, in Los Angeles, at a bar in the valley, when an older trans woman I didn’t know touched the side of my face and told me I was a pretty baby boy. Or when my girlfriend touches the back of my neck. Or when someone stairs at me on the train because they can’t tell whether I’m a man or a woman, and can tell that they like what they don’t know. Or when my mother tells me I’m her beautiful little girl, the same way she always has.
And, of course, these moments of feeling seen are not always outside the systems through which our value is assessed and appraised. Like I said, this is the system we live in, this is the system in which we come to know ourselves. This is the system in which we’re trying to be loved.
Sometimes a beautiful woman wants me—maybe she likes that from certain angles I look like a boy, that I’m sweet and honest, well-spoken and self-aware, and maybe she also likes that I am the way I am despite, or even because of, my proximity to power, to money, to fame. And maybe she tells me she wants me, and I sense all the reasons, and it still feels good, and I want to be wanted.
So, again, the ways in which we are evaluated are not always separate from the ways we might want to be seen. How could they be? There’s no purity in capitalism, as Reina taught me, no purity in this culture of assessment and evaluation.
And in this culture, it’s real—as Casey asked—to wonder, “Why am I hot?” Hot, as in evaluated; hot, as in deemed valuable. And it’s real to ask what about being evaluated, what about being deemed valuable, makes people think they feel good, makes people want to continue being deemed valuable.
From having grown up surrounded by artists, I know what it does to their sense of self-worth to have themselves—their work—evaluated, priced, and consumed in a competitive monetary market. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between yourself, your “work,” and the ways that you’re evaluated.
From being close to fame, I know that—in some capacity—fame harms everyone. I know that fame isolates those who hold it, that fame pains those who long for it.
People like to complain about art fairs. They like to complain about the blatant economy of buying and selling, and the social life that exists around it, or because of it. But I think this fair is interesting. I think it lays bare an economy of competitive evaluation, of pricing, selling, and buying, of social life through inclusion and exclusion. I think it lays bare the many ways that people try to fill the big holes in their hearts that result from and, in turn, reproduce this economy.
I wonder if the artists here at the fair, maybe some of you in the audience, feel like being recognized—your work being recognized as valuable, through praise or press or money—makes you feel like you yourself are worth more. And I wonder if, whether or not you’d like to admit it, being priced and sold, having your work sell well or not sell well at all, has affected your sense of your own worth more than you’d like. I wonder if you’re jealous of other artists, who sell more or sell better, who are more known, more recognized, more appreciated.
If there are dealers and collectors in the audience, I wonder how selling art and buying art makes you feel about your own worth. Does it make you feel less boring, more relevant, more powerful, more attractive? Do you feel some shame about the fact that you sell or buy, instead of make? Do you wish more people knew your name? Do you wish more people loved you or wanted you?
I don’t ask these question because I hold judgement, or because I think that you should be judged. I ask because I think that these emotions are the logical result of a culture that breaks us down and assesses us, makes us feel like we’re worth more if we’re powerful, if we’re rich, if we’re known. A culture that makes us feel like maybe we’ll be loved more if we have those things, and if we are those things.
So if the question is, “Why am I hot?” I think what we mean is, “Why am I valuable?” and “How valuable do you think I am?”
I wonder what different answers we might get if we asked ourselves, “Who do I want to be?” and “How do I want to be loved?” – Grace Dunham