Reclaiming ‘Bimbo’ with Biz Sherbert and Carol Li
Biz Sherbert is a writer who focuses on fashion theory and history. She is also the creator of the Bimbo Theory Book Club. Much of her latest work follows Gen Z online-based aesthetics and subcultures. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a BA in Art History. You can find more of her work on Instagram and her website.
Carol Li is a multidisciplinary artist and writer from New York. She works with themes of collection, image-hoarding, and treasure through sculptors and jewelry making. She holds a BFA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of Visual Arts and is currently a resident of SPUR.world, exploring avatar-building and extensions of online personas. You can find her work on carol-li.com and jankyjewels.store, and lurk through her social media at @bamboo_killer and@janky_jewels on Instagram.
Tyler Nicole Glenn (they/them) is a visual artist and writer based in Tampa, Florida. They are a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, where they received their BFA in Fine Arts with Honors. They've invited Sherbert and Li to conduct an interview-style “studio visit” to foster community through virtual space. Their goals are to expand the notion of what is classified as “art” and connect other people to like-minded creators. You can find them online through their Instagram or their website.
Tyler Nicole Glenn: What experiences influenced your trajectory and brought you where you are today?
Carol Li: As cliche as it is, growing up in New York has really shaped the way I operate in my jewelry and other studio practice. A lot of it is inspired by landscapes that exist in New York. For example, my silicone sculptures are inspired by Chinatown basement malls. All the objects and trinkets from when I started making jewelry are just toys that I found in the claw machines. I was taking apart toys from the claw machines and quarter machines outside the laundromat. Those are important landmarks that follow me and are a big influence on how I work and look at creation.
And of course, the Internet. Just having been on the Internet since I was 6 years old, I was viewing a lot of the Internet imagery parallel to the way that people view religious imagery. They hold this sort of magic to it. A lot of it is recognizable, in a way that transcends religion.
Biz Sherbert: So for a lot of my life I was trudging through the mud. I was a very confused person. In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn't feel like I was an artist and I didn't feel like I was a writer. I didn't feel like I was anything. I’ve always been very observant and found a lot of joy and nuance in the way people dressed.
Then I started studying art history. FIT has a really cool museum, the only strictly fashion museum in New York. I was exposed to fashion theory and history through the museum and a really cool group of academics and scholars that work there.
I was thinking about fashion all the time but I didn't understand what to do with those thoughts. Then I started getting into Mark Fisher, and thinking about fashion criticism in a different way. Especially how it relates to the economy and culture. I started seeing fashion as a way to assess, analyze, and critique the effects of neoliberalism. That was when things started to click for me.
TNG: Biz, in your book club, Bimbo Theory Book Club, what kind of books have you been reading? Is it more theory-driven or narrative driven?
BS: Well, I put her on a big hiatus a couple months ago. I felt like there were other things to focus on.
A good place for people to start with about fashion in a more critical way is Anne Hollander. That's the OG. She's an amazing fashion historian and theorist. We read Seeing Through Clothes which is a massive book that changed my life. The rest of it is rare fashion history or fashion theory pdfs. It's more of a resource than an active dialogue right now, but it has been really fun and cool!
CL: There was one quote I remember racking my brain on.
BS: Was it the Renee Barts one? “If dress is a social form, as surrogate for the body, it also partakes of the body’s relation to psyche and form. As a surrogate for the body, it also partakes of the body’s relation to psyche and desire.
Clothing is a compound medium and critical axis of the social (law), the sexual (fantasy), the figural (representation) and the individual (will and desire)”
CL: It really reminded me of something that I was working on for a paper. Angela McRobbie writes about disguise as a form of protection and a way of getting what you want.
“The new masquerade draws attention self-consciously to its own crafting and performance, and this space of reflexivity is also suggestive of deep ambivalence. The post-feminist masquerade is a knowing strategy which emphasizes its non-coercive status, it is a highly styled disguise of womanliness now adopted as a matter of personal choice. But the theatricality of the masquerade, the silly hat, the too short skirt, are once again means of emphasizing, as they did in classic Hollywood comedies, female vulnerability, fragility, uncertainty and the little girl’s “desire to be desired.”
TNG: Who are your influences?
BS: My influences are Mark Fisher, Anne Hollander, and Tansy Hoskins. [Hoskins] writes about fashion culture through a Marxist lens. On a visual level, I'm really inspired by two of my friends. One of them, my friend Win. Then, my friend Riley Hanson, who is a painter.
CL: Hannah Levy does really awesome silicone pieces. I went to see her show and she is a master at what she does. Donna Harraway and Angela McRobbie are the women I read and live by. Harraway writes a lot about cyborg feminism and I always translate that back and forth in my work. Online, one of my favorite people to look at is a friend of mine, Ali Bonfils. Her work is sort of gaudy. It’s uncanny but it's also really beautiful, magical, and wonderland-ish.
In real life, my dad's a jeweler so I grew up watching him make jewelry. He makes wedding rings and really pretty dainty necklaces. I think that I’m most inspired by his setup and his ethic. It's also the way he talks about and looks at jewelry. It really reflects how I operate.
BS: That's a great one. I feel like parents are big on our lives.
CL: We didn't have that great of a relationship until I started making jewelry. It's a really funny relationship that we have now.
BS: It’s a craft and praxis based relationship!
CL: Yeah! He sometimes has a hard time understanding because it's very kitschy and it's mostly costume jewelry, but I think he understands the appeal there. He didn't really start taking me seriously until I started making money from it.
When you're growing up you never want to be like your parents, so it was never something that I was interested in, but my first job was making jewelry for this company at one of those Chelsea Market places. I started selling vintage jewelry and then I started making jewelry for other designers. It was something that kept falling into my lap. At a certain point, I was like ‘maybe the universe is trying to hint something to me.’ I kept doing it because it is something I'm good at, and of course, I love it.
TNG: So you both are recent grads. Did you have a peer group in your institution who were exploring these concepts with you? Did your professors get what you were trying to say when you would speak to them about these things?
BS: The short answer is, not really. But it was kind of my own fault because I was really shy in school. My peers were more interested in traditional art history mediums and they weren't that into relating that to fashion or pop culture. The only people I was really able to explore these concepts with were people I met online. That was really big for me! The professors I worked with were great, and a huge influence on the way I think. I would roughly explain what I was [doing] to them every once in a while. I think they were really interested in hearing my voice but because this was a field that I was so unfamiliar with because of its limited size and scope, I didn't feel very confident expressing ideas.
CL: I have a similar experience! I was also very shy but only inside of school. I don't consider myself a shy person. I think I was insecure about where I stood academically and how my interests aligned. I never felt quite as smart as people I went to school with. I think every school and department has its flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. My school’s department tried really hard to move forward in this new way of educating and teaching, but the art history references and art criteria were still very antiquated. I wouldn't say I got a lot from school, if I'm being completely honest.
It was through the Internet and Biz's Bimbo Theory Book Club that I was met with a successful peer group. I asked a question really relevant to my thesis and I got a lot of good feedback.
BS: Oh my god! Yes! That really was the moment I felt very connected to that project.
CL: It was really really amazing for me because I was struggling so hard just talking to my professors! They were really understanding. Like, at least they were trying. It was speaking to a specific culture that you can't even begin to understand unless you're immersed in it. How do you explain "I'm baby" to a middle-aged man?
BS: They don't know how to talk about Gen Z Culture!
CL: Yeah! They don't have a lot of knowledge on the theory and the cultural critique behind it. It was really interesting being in a forum with like-minded people because I tried posting it on Reddit and it got taken down byr/feminism.
BS: I was so amazed about how people were going off in response to that prompt. That probably boosted your confidence to know that people were like ‘yes this is a thing that's happening and here's how it affects my life and here's how I perpetuate it.’
CL: I also personally felt a lot of shame through perpetuating this “I'm baby;” infantilizing myself. I felt like I was being anti-woman for a really long time. When I asked the questions at the book club, the responses came in quickly and people were giving really in-depth responses! It was just something you never get at school! There wasn't much conversation between me and my peers at school. Everybody stuck to their own little nook.
TNG: Do you believe there's power in self-infantilization; "I'm baby," culture?
CL: While it's easy to say no, it's harder to say yes, and then no. Angela McRobbie talks really in-depth about how we're entering a cultural domain where if you walk into a workspace you will see women working in the same caliber as men. That threatens a lot of men. McRobbie talks about using one’s femininity as persuasion and protection. Making yourself seem weaker, more infantile, a little ditzy in order to save yourself from men. Men are more likely to be kinder because they feel they’re in control. It’s a form of taking control in a very covert way.
We're seeing a moment where a lot of young women are using straight cis men's obsession with the infantile to get money, to get jobs. I think there's power in that but there's only power in that if you decide you are okay with being treated like you’re subservient. Too often we see people being pushed and pressured into this realm of sex-positivity when they're not comfortable with that. If you're not comfortable with it, then it really demolishes the entire premise of reclaiming the power. Power doesn't necessarily mean you are obviously on top. Historically, the real power is always behind the scenes. It's a complicated answer that is not one-size-fits-all.
BS: I really like what you just said about people feeling they have to be sex-positive rather than being sex-neutral or sex critical.
CL: Elaine Showalter talks about this thing called a three-phase taxonomy within feminism. Neoliberalism is third-phase feminism, disguised as progressivism. It describes the moral responsibility that many women feel to enter traditionally male-dominated spaces and opportunities. Right now we’re in the land of sex-positivity which is great but also really hard on a lot of teenage girls that feel this is the rite of passage. That's not necessarily a passage for everyone. Growing up, I was feeling a lot of pressure to be sexually active to participate in the sex-positivity but I was fifteen. It's really different now where I'm a lot older and I feel a lot more comfortable. But 15-year-olds should not be --
BS: Encouraged to pursue sexual pleasure with no critical thought about the potential emotional or physical consequences. That's how I very much feel as well.
CL: It’s really what gives you peace of mind.
BS: Peace of mind is really important. I don't think its discussed enough when people talk about sex-positivity, body-positivity, and self-care. Self-criticism is very normal and can lead you to a place where you have peace of mind.
CL: Precisely! Something I forgot to bring up is that sometimes self-infantilization can be pointless if you're just constantly perceived as infantile. I'm a very small person and I don't necessarily have the choice of whether or not to be infantilized. That was sort of where my research began- when I decided I would succumb to this oppression. Regardless, I will feel like a baby no matter what. With the choice to self-infantilize, you’re at least reclaiming it and using it to your fullest advantage. Otherwise, I'm just letting ‘them’ take, with no reward. I'm usually very certain when [the reason] a man is into me because I'm a small Asian woman. It used to bother me, only because I thought it should. That's really difficult to admit. It's shameful, but the best way to have peace of mind is knowing that it is my choice to self-infantilize.
If you’ve read Lolita, Lolita, in some instances, chooses to participate. There's one incident where Lolita wants her allowance and Humbert won't give it to her. She uses her ‘babyness’ to get her allowance. It's that moment where she realizes she still has power over the situation. She could either be upset that he holds this power over her and not get her allowance or she can suck it up a little, partake in the fantasy and get a little something for herself.
TNG: “I’m baby,” as a cultural phenomenon, is sort of passé in the digital space but has left an undeniable impact. Do you think anything else, past or present, comes close to that?
CL: Incel culture.
BS: Yes! That's something I think about all the time. I joke about being an incel advocate but there’s truth to it.
If you're going to support a departure from capitalism, you need to realize that downwardly mobile white men deserve access to resources that they've also been denied. It's a fallacy to try to exclude them from this vision of the future where people have access to things that make our lives much more livable and pleasurable. Mainstream media has portrayed incel culture as a symptom of incurable derangement. I don't think that's true. In a lot of ways, it’s a product of late-stage neoliberal capitalism.
Just thinking about fashion, Gen Z's influence via online fashion is massive. I've seen cottagecore and dark academia, which are trends that started on Tik Tok with teenagers showing up in trend reports from big trend forecasting companies. I think that the e-girl/e-boy thing really reached a level of cultural notoriety. It broke the glass ceiling. After that, we realized Gen Z was in control of fashion and culture.
TNG: What kind of styles do you like to wear? And are there any styles you hate?
CL: My style really makes no sense. I dress like a slutty grandma who is really into the early 2000s. Right now I'm really into pre-craftcore which is just different layers in clothing. I don’t know if I hate styles. I'm not a big fan of e-girl culture and e-boy culture, but I don’t know if I hate it. I am starting to get a little sick of sexy Willy Wonka.
BS: Mismatching to the extreme.
CL: I think I’ve had enough of it.
BS: I feel like it takes a lot of effort for the average consumer to understand, which is inherently pretentious. Would you say it's avant-garde like Brandy Melville?
CL: One could say! I actually really love Brandy Melville. I think I think they're kind of geniuses, filling the void that American Apparel left.
BS: I love American Apparel. Their influence on fashion and aesthetics is underrated.
CL: They set the foundation of what Cafe Forgot tries to do. It's using the influence of Tumblr models to promote their clothes that otherwise probably wouldn’t sell.
BS: I don't like boho fashion that much even though I do indulge occasionally. I think it's bad for the culture. I like American Apparel pre-2013. I also like corsetry and I love clothes from the 1940s. I like a full 19th-century get-up. I think about how clothing has changed and how that relates to women's role in society. There's this great quote from Valerie Steele, the Director of the Museum at FIT. "The external corset was replaced by the internal corset; diet, exercise, and plastic surgery." I'm obsessed with undergarments of antiquity.
TNG: Nostalgia fuels so much of what we consume culturally, from movies to fashion to food. Do you find this to be positive or negative?
BS: Short answer, bad. Nostalgia is the dominant influence on almost every part of our culture. It also relates to “I’m Baby” culture. You can see “I'm baby” culture in our obsession with nostalgia-based everything, from film to fashion. This feels comforting in a time where many people are expected to live much more precarious lives than their parents and grandparents. We keep this anxiety about our futures at bay by wearing and buying things that are either in your face cute, childish, or nostalgic. That has a lot to do with how we all want to be taken care of. Since that's not our reality, we revert back to a lot of behaviors and styles and interests that we participated in childhood and adolescence. It's really bad for any sort of innovation or creativity. Nostalgia is very profit-driven.
CL: I definitely agree. I think about nostalgia inspired fashion. It's usually co-opted by big corporate brands like Urban Outfitters. It's all about marketing. They just remarket an unoriginal idea or item and produce it in mass quantities, to the point where everybody looks like they're cosplaying an era.
When I am looking at nostalgia-based jewelry and clothes by independent designers, I think it's interesting because a lot of it is anti-design and anti-fashion. We're moving away from jewelry where you need industrial machines or a “proper education” to make. Look at craftcore. This is the type of stuff that is really accessible to so many different kinds of people. The problem is just when it gets co-opted by fast fashion.
BS: I feel like things that are deliberately made to look handmade but were actually made in a sweatshop are very morally corrupt to wear, but I don't judge people for wearing fast fashion. It exists for a reason.
For a lot of people that grew up without any money, once you are able to buy your own clothes, there's an aversion to thrift shopping. You spent your childhood having to wear things from thrift stores and not being able to keep up with fashion.
CL: I also think that trends are probably the most detrimental thing to the planet and to the psyche. You're trying to keep up with something that will never stand still enough for you to afford to do that. They come and go so quickly that the environment can’t keep up and workers can’t keep up. Something that I always look at is Fashion Nova. I'm obsessed with them. I think we're really always hypercritical of Fashion Nova, but Fashion Nova is just a product of its environment that probably would not exist if we weren't buying these things left and right because we love it. We love to see it! I personally would love a Fashion Nova gift card. The demand is there. It’s one of those things where you participate or you don't. It’ll exist either way.
BS: The hierarchy of fast fashion is so arbitrary. The very bottom is Forever 21; the most uneducated about fashion ethics. I kind of stan Forever 21, even though they're bad for the world. Their products slap and as long as we need to look good to go forward in society, we're going to need cheap things that slap.
CL: Also, the idea of sustainable fashion just isn't real. It's all words on paper. There's no such thing. Just don't make things. I don't usually believe brands when they claim sustainability, because it trickles down so many different levels. For example, when I make jewelry, I do try my best to source my pearls as carefully as possible but there are so many levels to where I will never get down to; where they’re produced, who's producing them, who's getting paid for them. Gold and silver, they're being mined by God knows who in God knows where.
BS: That's one of my main critiques of the multinational fashion system- it's so contracted and subcontracted, It's intentionally impossible for the very top of a company to have full accountability for the very bottom. It's subcontracted to the point there's literally no linear path. The supply chain is often incomprehensible.
CL: A really good example of this is the fire that Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner have been under for not paying their employees.
BS: In Bangladesh.
CL: I highly doubt that they have control over whether or not these people are getting paid.
BS: That's something I haven't thought about because it's easy to see really rich people as villains in these stories.
CL: It's all Hocus Pocus when I see “sustainability.”