Deconstructing “Woman”

The works of Cindy Sherman: JULIA PAOLI

I seem incapable of avoiding the work of Cindy Sherman. I stumbled upon this MA paper written by Julia Paoli. It is well written and makes some interesting points that read directly across to my work.

Whilst her work relates directly to feminism, I have included myself and one other male in my body of work. Not too sure how the male “avatar” fits into the feminist dialectic…?

One “is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one” Simone de Beauvoir

During the late twentieth century, non-essentialist feminist and cultural theory arguing that gender is a sociocultural construction began to emerge. Simone de Beauvoir,  believed that gender and female identity are not the expression of biological sex, but rather are constructed within a particular cultural framework. 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. 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.

Judith Williamson argues that Sherman’s photographs are simultaneously “a witty parody of media images of women” and “a search for female identity.”

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.

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: “Distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex.” There is no universal basis for femininity, and moreover, identity does not transfer intact cross-culturally; it is an ongoing, discursive process.

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.

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. There is no essential femininity; the whole self is an imaginary construct that can be changed through performativity.

The above a selection of central extracts from a much longer paper. However it does appear to me that as a male, that much of what is said about “female” role is similar if not identical to the role a “male” performs within society.

The male gender is constituted through the ongoing and repetitive assemblage of male representations depicted in culture. There is no essential masculinity; the whole self is an imaginary construct that can be changed through performativity. There is indeed no natural identity behind the mask of either gender. Men affirm their gender through perforamtive behavior as well.

This whole question and topic could form the basis of an MA?!?