“Popular culture has the ability to define our understandings of femininity; howeve these are nothing more than constructions, a series of performative acts."
During the late twentieth century, non-essentialist feminist and cultural theory arguing that gender is a sociocultural construction began to emerge. As a part of this, the art historical canon was heavily criticized for its lack of female artists and widespread use of stereotypical images of women. Feminist deconstructionists argued that such pictorial representations have perpetuated Western society’s conventional understanding of femininity. At the forefront was Simone de Beauvoir, who believed that gender and female identity are not the expression of biological sex, but rather are constructed within a particular cultural framework (Beauvoir 52). Some female artists began to use their work as a means of re-representing female identity and deconstructing prevailing cultural expectations of femininity. One of these was contemporary media artist Cindy Sherman who, in her photographs, assumes the role of various female identities found throughout Western culture. Although Sherman asserts that feminists do not inspire her photographs, many have adopted her works as the visual manifestation of their social constructionist tenets (Doy 258). These photographs portray struggles over women’s identity and the way we come to know and understand ourselves through cultural mediation, and can be critically analyzed using feminist social constructionist theories that challenge the notion of a fixed femininity.
Sherman’s career was launched with her Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980). The series features Sherman posing as various female stereotypes from generic black and white Hollywood B films of the 1950s. She is unrecognizable from one photo to the next, changing her appearance as she tackles the different identities, each an illustration of a cultural representation of women. In Untitled Film Still #2 from 1977 (see fig. 3.1), Sherman plays the role of a young woman studying her own reflection. The photo visually portrays a woman assembling her identity, caught in the act of construction. It implies the lack of a fixed identity. Though Sherman is both the woman in front of the lens and behind it, she appears masked through make-up and costume, disguised to resemble familiar female stereotypes; her women are images of women, “models of femininity projected by the media to encourage imitation and identification” (Owens 18).
Because Sherman’s tableaux are so detailed many viewers are fooled into believing that the photographs are imitations of existing movie stills. In reality, each one is completely invented by the artist. Drawing out this idea, Judith Williamson argues that Sherman’s photographs are simultaneously “a witty parody of media images of women” and “a search for female identity” (40). Perhaps not surprisingly then, viewers tend to project stereotypical female qualities onto the women in the photos in accordance with the costumes and surroundings chosen by Sherman. Viewers are thus able to create their own fantasies by drawing on the way women are portrayed in Hollywood movies. Popular culture has the ability to define our understandings of femininity; however these are nothing more than constructions, a series of performative acts.
Feminist social constructionists are heavily indebted to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that one “is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one” (Beauvoir 51). Beauvoir’s distinction establishes a difference between biological sex and gender, suggesting that while biological sex is stable, femininity and masculinity are ambivalent. For Beauvoir, cultural understandings of femininity are imaginary constructs. She foreshadows Jacques Derrida’s argument that language structures are thought through a series of dualities so that concepts arise not by virtue of anything intrinsic to themselves but in relationship of difference to one another (Derrida 123). For Beauvoir, the gender binary positions the male as the subject and the woman as the “other.” Woman is defined and differentiated in reference to man, however, not he with reference to her. “She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential; he is the subject, he is the absolute – she is the other” (Beauvoir 52). Woman, she argues, has come to be “constituted as ‘sex,’ in terms of her body (her organs) but also as the sexual object of men, in her perceived ability to be objectified, possessed and finally mastered” (Ibid.). Beauvoir sees gender as something made in culture and not fixed by nature; to become a woman is to assume a culturally established corporeal style. Sherman acts out femininity according to Western popular culture and challenges the notion of a fixed female identity. Her photographs explore, imitate, and confront various female representations that, according to social constructionists, have the power to construct a stable yet false femininity. For Beauvoir, gender is constituted through the assemblage of female representations; representations that seem to inspire Sherman’s works.
Like Beauvoir, Judith Butler has been incredibly influential in exploring contemporary notions of identity. Butler similarly proposes that gender is not the expression of biological sex but a performative act constructed within culture:
Butler argues that gender is a performance, and therefore not the imitation of “real” sex but the imitation of a gender ideal that exists and is repeated throughout a particular cultural milieu. There is no universal basis for femininity, and moreover, identity does not transfer intact cross-culturally; it is an ongoing, discursive process (Butler 43). Butler argues that what we take to be an immutable essence of gender is manufactured through repeated images of women. These images have stressed the need for women to reconfigure their bodies in order to fit the constructed mold of femininity. In contrast to such images, Sherman’s photographs evoke both Beauvoir and Butler’s argument that femininity is not “real”; it is the artificial product of images, cultural expectations, and ingrained behaviors. “The body is a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed,” affirms Butler (12). Women put on femininity, and conform to a cultural ideal that dictates what it means to be a woman.
In Sherman’s Hollywood-esque stills, she alters her identity using filmmaking tools such as costume, lighting, setting and composition (Williamson 40). Mulvey describes how in the above-mentioned Untitled Film Still #2,Sherman “[uses] cosmetics literally as a mask,” and her character “makes visible the feminine as masquerade” (142). Much like the social constructionists’ argument that culture defines appropriate female behaviour, categories, or ways of understanding sex that has little to do with biological fact (Butler 12), the Untitled Film Stills address a woman’s ability to lose herself through traditional female performative behaviours that Sherman highlights as artificial. She uses disguise in order to expose the ways women identify themselves with the images of women in popular culture (Owens 19).
According to Butler, femininity-as-masquerade is what women do in order to participate in man’s desire (Butler 60). Mulvey argues that performative acts prepare the woman for the male gaze. In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”Mulvey writes that Classical Hollywood cinema is problematic for positioning the spectator as male and positioning woman, onscreen, as the object of desire (170). For Mulvey, cinema is pleasurable in two ways: through scopophilia (pleasure in looking) and through narcissism (Ibid.). She uses psychoanalytic theory to suggest that, just as a child’s first instance of awareness as a unified self is a misrecognition according to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, the cinema spectator recognizes and misrecognizes his or herself onscreen (Mulvey 171). The scopophilic instinct allows the male spectator to gaze at the women on screen. As Mulvey writes, “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen” (171). The male viewer fixes his gaze on both the male figure on screen to satisfy his narcissistic pleasure, while also gazing at the sexualized female for erotic pleasure. The latter confirms the female as primarily a sexual object. Mulvey expands on Butler’s performativity theory by arguing that succumbing to these behaviours positions women as the subject for the male gaze. As we have seen, Sherman’s attempt to re-represent femininity confronts gender performativity as well. “The accoutrements of the feminine struggle to conform to a façade of desirability haunt Sherman’s iconography. Make-up, high heels, hair, clothes are all carefully ‘put on’ and ‘done’…her photographs reiterate the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of femininity” (Mulvey 71). Culture prescribes normative behaviors that construct our ideas of femininity; Sherman confronts these acts and exposes them to her audience.
In 1981 Sherman created a series of centerfolds, double spread color photographs, initially commissioned by Artforum magazine. The untitled Centerfolds borrow the horizontal form and sense of vulnerability found in magazine pin-ups. As in her other works, Sherman adopts the format of stereotypical female roles. However, her characters are unlike those found in magazines. “Instead these women suggest awkward adolescents or young women uncomfortable with their sexuality” (Heartney 173). She interrogates the format and photographic genre of the centerfold and aims to destroy dominant notions of beauty and eroticism (Goy 268). The spread offers no context before or after the image, meaning that audiences must construct their own narrative, generally based on texts already embedded within popular culture. In these photographs, Sherman portrays herself as the fetishized woman positioned towards the spectator. Artforum ultimately chose not to print the series, arguing that they actually reinforced existing female stereotypes (Heartney 173). This critique is picked up by Mira Schor, who suggests that Sherman’s “negative representations are disturbingly close to the way men have traditionally experienced or fantasized women. Sherman’s camera is male. Her images are successful partly because they do not threaten phallocracy, they reiterate and confirm it” (qtd. in Heartney 173). However, Sherman’s intention was to foreground how the audience’s ability to recognize the woman in the image emphasizes the way we construct femininity through social and cultural knowledge (Williamson 40).
When the viewer is able to make the connection between the woman in the photograph and women in popular culture, he or she should feel compelled to ask what makes this recognition possible. “The stereotypes and assumptions necessary to get each picture are found in our own heads” (Williamson 40). By recognizing the female character from popular culture, audiences are invited to interpret her as an existing stereotype:
Sherman is rejecting and criticizing the media images of female stereotypes by constructing herself as a gendered subject (Doy 259). She is not perpetuating the stereotypes but is assuring female audiences that there is no fixed femininity. Defending Sherman, Mulvey argues that as the gaze behind the lens, she is not perpetuating the objectification of women, but rather subverting the gaze (Heartney 174). In each photograph, Sherman explores contemporary ideas about female identity – one being the trope of a sad female longing for a male companion. The male spectator engaged in scopophilial pleasure should feel as though he has interrupted a private movement. As the woman behind the lens, Sherman exposes the role of the male gaze in an attempt to make those who objectify the constructed woman feel like the violators they are (Mulvey 74).
Artforum’s rejection changed Sherman’s approach to her photography. Beginning in 1985, Sherman began shooting an Untitled series commonly known as the Sex Pictures. Marking a departure from her earlier works, Sherman creates increasingly grotesque photographs, often using vomit, menstrual blood, hair, and body parts as the subject. With these photographs, Sherman again displays the accoutrements of femininity, this time literally breaking down the socially manufactured parts of “woman.” Untitled #175 (1987), features the remains of female performativity with food and vomit in an outdoor beach setting. Amongst the bodily fluids are a beach towel, suntan lotion, and a pair of sunglasses that reflect an image of a distraught woman. This particular photograph represents binge and purge disorders. Writes Mulvey:
The reflection of the individual in the sunglasses suggests the absence of any real essence in women participating in performative acts. No longer feeling worthy of the gaze, the figure is only a distant image. The desire for physical perfection has eliminated authentic female identity and replaced it with behavior and appearance that has come to define what femininity is. Her images critique the idea that femininity is coherent, beautiful and idealized. She parodies the glamorization of the body and attacks woman’s fear of undesirability (Doy 271). A lifeless figure represents the possibility that society constructs femininity but will ultimately destroy it (Mulvey 76). Sherman shows her audience that women who take part in these performative acts are killing their own identity and eventually perhaps their physical selves. While her earlier works suggest femininity as masquerade and socially constructed images making up our ideas about women, the Disaster Series focuses on the corporeal body (Heartney 178). Once the performative behaviors are taken away there is no fixed femininity.
In 1992 Sherman debuted another untitled series commonly known as the Sex Pictures. The series responded to religious and political conservatives who were censoring controversial artists who were working in the early 1990s (Heartney 181). Writes Eleanor Heartney:
In these works, Sherman used dolls and prosthetic body parts in highly sexualized poses. The photos parody female imagery that is normally geared to erotic consumption. For the first time, Sherman is not photographing herself. Instead, she uses fake body parts and masked faces – hiding the presence of any real female at all. Untitled #264 features female body parts confusedly pieced together to represent a nude woman lying on a bed with a masked head, referencing how in popular culture women are commonly defined through physical appearance rather than individual identity. The use of prosthetic body parts is indicative of a new kind of femininity emerging in popular culture – fake body parts and plastic surgery are growing trends. As the use of vomit in Sherman’s previous pieces demonstrated the performative act of binging and purging, these images highlight how plastic surgery is also a performative act, adding a new dimension to the constructed gender and sexual ideal. Furthermore, the Sex Pictures series is a play on photographed pornography – a genre where the male gaze is necessary for success. For Mulvey, the male fixes his gaze on the woman for erotic pleasure, thus objectifying her. In these photographs, the male cannot fix his gaze for erotic pleasure. The images are threatening and the masked heads gaze out at the audience, parodying the anticipation of pleasure when viewing pornography.
Another facet of gender construction is manufactured through fashion choices. Clothing presents the wearer with a choice of images in the sense that the difference between clothing items is “not just one of fabric and style, but one of identity” (Williamson 39). Fashion is an aspect of performativity, a way to construct an identity through clothing choices. In the 1980s, Sherman produced a series of color photographs inspired by fashion houses and magazines. “I’m trying to make fun of fashion,” she said. “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful, I’m much more fascinated with the other side” (qtd. in Doy 268). Sherman was able to respond directly to fashion’s feminine identity with the help of designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and fashion magazines like Vogue. In 1984 French Vogue commissioned Sherman to do a series of photographs. She says of these:
Sherman deliberately eschewed the conventions of fashion photography, causing French Vogue to ultimately reject the works for their magazine. However, other fashion editors and designers received her works enthusiastically.
This series deliberately attacked the industry as a system for the subjugation of women (Heartney 177). Women in traditional fashion images are glamorized and positioned for the male gaze, but Sherman deconstructs this stereotype and the conventional codes of female allure. “They suggest that the binary opposition to the perfect body of the fashion model is the grotesque, and that the smooth glossy body, polished by photography, is a defense against an anxiety-provoking, uneasy, and uncanny body” (Mulvey 72). Again, she subverts the male gaze taking control of her character and its representation. Furthermore, Sherman exposes the fluidity of femininity in these images too, revealing the techniques by which women in fashion magazines and advertisements are imagined and constructed (Williamson 46). Her photographs debunk the founding ideologies of fashion magazines by openly criticizing and opposing their ability to construct a stable femininity.
Sherman is able to change her identity by adopting performative behaviors that have come to define femininity. Through the photographic series I have examined, Sherman’s photographs visually describe the feminist social constructionist argument that there is no natural identity behind the mask of gender. Women affirm their gender identity through performative behaviour; gender is constituted through the ongoing and repetitive assemblage of female representations depicted in culture. These behaviours position the male as a spectator, fixing his gaze on the sexualized female. Sherman’s photography is a depiction of the different ways culture defines “woman.” Her art plays on the feminist idea that gender arises exclusively within culture and deconstructs dominant gender ideologies, representing the underside of popular culture’s definition of “woman.” She exposes the arbitrariness of performativity and presents a variety of female identities that are found within popular culture, and reveals that these are nothing more than constructions. Behind each character there is no central identity. Each is a series of manipulations according to cultural conventions (Williamson 46). There is no essential femininity; the whole self is an imaginary construct that can be changed through performativity.
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