At the height of the art world’s rendition of the feminist movement, gender theorist Lucy Lippard declared that, “It is a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult”.
It is within this subtle abyss that Cindy Sherman’s seminal photographic series’ Centrefold/Horizontals and Untitled Film Stills reside. In both series Sherman acts as both photographer and model and transforms into what film theorist Laura Mulvey would describe as, stereotypically, “to-be-looked-at” representations of women. In her now well-cited work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey submitted that, “Woman is object and man is beholder of the look”. Captured in 1981, in the twelve photographs that comprise Centrefold/Horizontals it is woman’s conventional ‘object’ identity that Sherman subverts from within the ‘look’ of the male voyeur.
Recumbent and supine, each woman in the series appears in a state of reverie; contemplating future romance or mourning a lost one. These victims/heroines are passive, and the tightly clutched lonely hearts letter and resigned stare at the silent telephone indicate that they are awaiting activation by a male presence to lift them from their liminal moment.
In Untitled #93 she is in bed, beads of sweat gathering around her eyes and nose and clad in a lace nightgown; semiotics that point to a post-coital scene. Her hands pulling the covers tightly around her body and her empty gaze signify the shame and vulnerability the encounter has left her with, perhaps having given herself to a man unworthy. In all twelve works the high angle shot positions the viewer to look down at the model, a vantage point that evokes a male point of view and suggests the woman’s vulnerability. The women are always at the mercy of another’s gaze and it is with this unseen observer that the viewer identifies; the distant lover, the abusive husband. Within #93 although the man is absent from the frame the viewer can intuit his oppressive look, transforming this woman into an object he has just taken as his own.
In Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, created between 1977 and 1980, the viewer is confronted with the plasticity and socially constructed nature of gender in a critique of man’s desire to fix women into a stable identity in the same way they are expected to fit themselves into bras and girdles. In Untitled Film Still #14 Sherman appears impeccably stylised in a black cocktail dress with her hair and make-up exaggeratedly done. Likewise, in Film Still #6 Sherman is in lingerie, splayed theatrically and seductively on a bed with the light catching the gloss and shine of her made-up lips and her eyes widened and darkened by mascara and eye-liner. Through these women’s carefully ‘put-on’ and ‘done-up’ costumes and make-up Sherman self-consciously cultivates a hyperbolic, dissonant and excessively feminine performance in order to denaturalise and subvert the myth of femininity as natural and essential.
This series links closely with feminism’s intellectual heroine Judith Butler’s notions of femininity’s incoherency, instead characterising gender as a, “stylised repetition of acts…whose appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity”. In Sherman’s work, although the viewer is able to recognise that it is always Sherman-the-model that appears, the fact that she is never depicted the same calls attention to the artifice of femininity, emptying it of its essentialism and interiority.
Critic Margaret Iverson illustrated a common line of critique of the works when she submitted, “The photographs present the female body in the third person: ‘she’ poses as object of the gaze in relation to ‘he’, actively taking up a passive, exhibitionist aim”. However this surface analysis is ignorant to Sherman’s engagement with Roland Barthes strategy of demystification whereby, “The best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its return, and produce an artificial myth”.
Sherman does invite both male and female viewers to partake in the explicit and oppressive male gaze, yet this is precisely what disrupts that same voyeurism, what Mulvey describes as a “trapping”. In the process of the ‘look’ the viewer becomes aware that Sherman-the-artist has manufactured the materialization of the gaze upon Sherman-the-exposed-model and in doing so she simultaneously exposes male conditioning to view the female as solely existing for their own pleasure, subverting woman’s identity as ‘object’ from within.
Yet, as is often the relationship between artist and critic, the academic habitually invests work with a meaning and a politics the artist may not espouse or never intended to convey. In response to the outpouring of feminist interpretations of her photographs, Sherman rebutted, “My intentions are neither feminist nor political. I try to put double or multiple meanings into my photos, which might give rise to a variety of interpretations”. She does allow that within the photographs there is meaning beyond her own image, “I’m trying to make other people recognise something of themselves rather than me…but maybe the work is about me maybe not wanting to be me and wanting to be all these other characters. Or at least try them on.” But it is precisely Sherman’s desire to be ‘other’ and her ‘dressing-up’ as aid to this endeavour that I, the viewer, identify with. What I recognise is my own trying-on of the character and accoutrements of femininity; a concept that is both political and feminist, regardless of Sherman’s intent.
Judith Butler stated that, “becoming gendered involves impersonating an ideal that nobody actually inhabits” and in assuming these fetishistic costumes and poses Sherman invites the viewer to simultaneously see the manufactured nature of femininity through the overtly constructed nature of the photographic depiction. In assuming the costume of femininity in excess to expose the identity as precisely that, a costume that must be actively performed. Thus, when one Art News reviewer wrote “Can the real Cindy Sherman to please stand up?” they missed that this confusion of identity is precisely what Sherman intended, for it is the notion that there is a one ‘real’ version of female identity that is upset.