Rejecting Media Constructed Identities in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills
This paper proposes an analysis of some of Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits included into her larger project entitled Untitled Film Stills, developed during the ’80s. The project was meant to draw attention upon the gender roles generally ascribed to women by media – mostly by cinematographic and advertising industries – but also to postmodern redefinitions of such concepts as authorship, originality and identity. What she basically suggested was a total revaluation of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed which almost took the artistic American and European worlds by storm.
Key Words: stereotypical identities, photographic authorship, self-portrait
Seeing comes before words
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (Berger 1987: 7)
In a period when images have come to dominate our lives and to determine the way in which we picture ourselves and the world we inhibit, they seem not only to prolong the never ending fascination they have always given rise to but also to provoke a new type of anxiety. The apprehension related to the power of images and to the way in which we gaze and are gazed upon has acquired a new intensity at the advent of photography and, most importantly, at the moment of its landing into a postmodern realm of boundary annihilation. When set against other arts, photography – though very young and having struggled hard to ascertain its aesthetic values – seems to be the best suited to demonstrate the inherent playfulness, irony, self-reflexivity and demolition of the meta-narratives that characterise postmodernism.
Either appropriated by high culture or banished to the margins of popular culture in its metamorphoses as advertisement, cinematographic shots, book illustrations or newspaper documentary, photography re-discusses the problems of contemporary society, re-educating the viewer towards a new aesthetics of active contemplation. The same tendency for strange associations and references, break with conventional codes and blurring of distinctions between high and low culture, relates postmodern photography to painting. Essentially paradoxical as it can both represent a consecrated work of art and a possible matrix for endless multiplications, copies and collages, seen as a synthesis of the artist’s personal contribution and that of the technical device he uses, at the same time material and elusive, the photo can be treated as one of the emblems of postmodernity. Theories, debates and arguments have brought new dimensions in the understanding of photography; it was by turns assigned and denied the role of “matrix of truth” in reflecting reality. The 60s and 70s imposed the priority of the concept over the visual to contradict the previous tendencies when colour and shape were deemed to hold supremacy; whether asked to mirror reality or to reinterpret it by defamiliarising and distorting it, photography followed the sinuous trajectory of painting.
Linda Hutcheon treated photography as one of the major forms of discourse due to its critical power coming from the capacity of illustrating ideology as a means of representing individuals and their world, tradition – whose images it borrows – and fine arts whose motifs, metaphors and techniques it uses. It makes the link between art and social structure, being susceptible of politicisation by the interaction of visual and verbal discourses, between photographer and viewer. Playing upon the etymology of the term, coming from photo and graphie, Hutcheon sees photography as a critical treatment of the past as it both uses and criticises it through an ironic revaluation, as a parodic game and a form of “art of complicity and criticism” (Hutcheon 143) as it plays upon documentary representation of reality, self-referentiality and parody. Without negating the role of technical devices the photograph still remains the photographer’s interpretation of the world in two-dimensional coordinates, raising questions instead of offering answers and inciting the viewer to a re-reading of reality.
If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation with the past: that is to say the experience of seeing to give meaning to our lives, or trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.
The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. This touches upon questions of copyright for reproduction, the ownership of art presses and publishers, the total policy of public art galleries and museums. A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and this is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue. (Berger 1987: 33)
This new language introduced by photography also brings along a new manner of regarding the world around us and of re-theorising postmodern issues, including the complicated problem of seeing. From the perspective of the relation it establishes between the viewer and the object of his/her gaze, photography has been theorised in terms of “aggressive” invasion, as a tool of ascertaining and imposing power, a voyeuristic device or as a “pseudo presence and a token of absence” (Sontag 1977: 17) whose use implies both a sentimental and a magical feeling and a means of awakening desire and consciousness.
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the world in our heads – as an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world. (Sontag 3)
Film stills and other not so still matters
If you’re new to the work of Cindy Sherman, you’re in for a treat. Think back to the last time you were repulsed by an image but could not keep your eyes off it – and actually laughed at it, hoping no one would notice. Ever happen? It will now. (Abrams 1999: 5)
One of the most prolific and inspiring photographers of the 20th century, Cindy Sherman, resumes some of the hotly debated issues of postmodernism – including the challenge of the central position of authorship in the production of the visual “text”, the myths of originality, verisimilitude and stable identity – and gives them disturbing interpretations. The “anthology of images” she proposed to the American and European public, the world she “collected”, if we were to stick to Susan Sontag’s definition of photography, is in fact a collection of portraits inspired by media representations of women.
Stating that she did not have in mind the contemporary debates when she started staging her self-portraits, the ongoing discussions at the time found very good illustrations in her photographs. Her work gave rise to conflicting interpretations that had in common the tendency to relate it to the theories of the gaze. Sherman enlarged upon this topic, photographically commenting on the construction and de-construction of gender roles, identity and self-representation. She achieved this goal by producing, over a considerable span of time, a gallery of self-portraits which questioned the very essence of the genre of self-portrait in photography, by casting Sherman herself into a multitude of media generated and perpetuated recognisable roles that promoted a certain type of femininity.
In each and every such photograph making up the series Untitled Film Stills – somehow placing them at the border between photography and cinematography – she struck a different pose evoking female characters generally featuring in 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s Hollywood films by John Ford, Roberto Rossellini, Roger Vadim or Jean Renoir. She started the project in 1977, at the age of 23, as a collection of glimpses into the life of an imaginary blond actress placed in different circumstances that visually commented upon women’s representations. She continued inventing other characters – the luscious librarian, the chic starlet, the vamp, the ice-cold sophisticated woman etc, mainly focusing upon the image of solitary teenager of the ‘60s – trying to demonstrate the artificiality of such “ready-made” identities. The entire project was meant to be an ironic way of reworking upon the idea of reflexivity and verisimilitude, generally taken for granted in the case of photography, of referentiality and of the gaze – in possession of the absolute power to create and impose fabricated identities.
Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, popularised at the end of the 70s, met with a similar theoretical background that emphasised in various artistic fields the same problems they brought forth. The idea behind Sherman’s photo-cinemato-graphic project was not entirely new as the Los Angeles group Asco promoted a series of “No-Movies” made up of film stills taken from imaginary films they never actually shot or produced. As in Sherman’s case, the Asco project was “an ironic joke about the function of the film still, an entity that requires no referent or “real” film to exist” (Sturken & Cartwright 2001: 254). Designed solely for advertising purposes such film stills challenged the idea of referentiality in a similar way in which the deceiving self-portraits did not actually send to their real referent since this one used a disguise in order to make a problematic social or aesthetic point.
On the other hand, the idea of demolishing the Author’s myth as the centre irradiating the meaning of the text, be it literary, photographic or of any other nature, was also used by another photographer, the American Sherrie Levine, who photographed famous pictures and recommended them as her own. This conscious act of visual plagiarism and abusive appropriation was intended as a blow applied to the notion of originality, to the dichotomy opposing the ideas of the uniqueness of art and the postmodern “mechanical reproduction” and last, but not least, to the identification operated by the patriarchal system, between the Author and self-sufficient masculinity (see Connor 141). Though Cindy Sherman’s characters are imaginary and feature in imaginary film stills the fact that they take their inspiration from a multitude of media sources makes them instantly recognizable. Luring and disgusting, beguiling and repelling, these series of photographs exercise a strange fascination upon the viewers, who feel urged to discover the hidden meaning behind the portraits and the author who constantly disappears into her characters which she defined as “almost expressionless” (Sherman 1997: 5).
Death of referentiality
By using and abusing the idea of referentiality and applying it upon visual representation Cindy Sherman theorises in her own manner the thorny problem of the gaze in media that assign different gender roles, disregarding their real referents. Playing upon referentiality, denying it or simply distorting what we usually took for granted in terms of what has been long time considered to be the unquestionable reality and undeniable presence of the referent, was meant to be seen as a critical approach of playing with identities, representations and self-representations.
Sherman’s choice of female impersonators of mostly film noir heroines or typical media representations of housewives, nurses, teenagers etc, goes along with an entire range of theories of the gaze on the one hand and feminist criticism, on the other. Theorists such as Judith Butler, Jane Flax, Alice Jardine, Patricia Mellencamp, Charlene Spretnak, Laura Mulvey and so many others, have drown attention upon the marginal discourse of feminism situated at the periphery of a patriarchal world that perpetuates stereotypical representations and biased ways of constructing female identity.
In certain regards, Sherman’s disturbingly deceiving self-portraits seem to intersect part of these theories in what concerns the advocated effort to reject media-constructed female identities. Alice Jardine suggested the term gynesis for this exploration of particular spaces of representation (Jardine 1985: 73) which try to theorise the discourses of “marginalised alterity” (Flax 1987: 626) in their written or visual forms.
By placing herself as both author and subject, Sherman invites the viewer to challenge the traditional way of envisaging self-reflexivity and identity by using and abusing the very nature of her craft and by playing upon imitation, stereotype and parody. The general differences established in media representations of both men and women have been vividly discussed and censored by theorists coming from various artistic fields. John Berger is only one of these theorists who have stressed the stereotypical expectations we have generally been trained by a long visual tradition to develop, related to a gendered reading of the visual text.
According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependant upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell, or aura. (Berger 45 – 46)
Though focusing upon women and their, most of the time, unfair representation, Sherman offered her bitter comments upon the dangerous processes of idol-creation, gender stereotyping and “identity mimicry” by unquestionably copying media representations. She plays a lot upon intertextuality, illustrated in her black-and-white portraits and photographic essays, by taking various stereotypical images of actresses of old film-noir and B-type movies, motifs of classical paintings and advertisements and using them in a parodic manner so as to suggest the way in which these “glamorous” impersonations came to shape women’s representation about themselves; using a feminist “apparatus” Sherman offers a critical view upon a patriarchal gaze and discourse that transform women into “untitled stills”. The trick of the project consists in the rejection of these media imposed roles by placing herself in front of the camera, in recognisable settings (surrealist films, film noire and Italian neo-realist productions) emphasising the voyeuristic side by consciously submitting herself to the gaze of the viewer and by ironically and playfully undermining or even annihilating the cinema spell and the visual suggestion automatically attached to it. In recreating the image of the femme fatale, the angelic virgin, the run-away, the rebel, the docile housewife, Sherman plays upon the concept of identity as a construct, drawing her material from a diversity of discourses and visual “texts”.
Artist’s sketch of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #13, reproduced purely for academic purpose; the original version is here.
Film Stills #13 and #21 are typical examples of visually playing with stereotypically, fully recognisable gender roles: the luscious librarian, supposedly sexy and charming, hardly disguising the “wild” nature under a plain bandana, retains some of the features generally ascribed to her by B-rate movies butalso introduces some unexpected, undermining details.
The close framing deprives the viewer of an entire image of the woman, focusing instead upon the rows of books (the figure hardly covers half of the image). The woman’s position, tensed by the gesture of reaching a book on a higher self, foregrounds her impressive chest but this sensuous impression is somehow spoilt by the plain, full-covering shirt and by the woman’s look which is obviously ignoring the gazer, being directed upwards and outside the frame of the photo.
Artist’s sketch of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #21, reproduced purely for academic purpose; the original version is here.
Film Still #21 can be taken as an example of visual female victimisation generally used in film-noirs as the character seems to be crushed and intimidated by the urban, depersonalised landscape behind her. The representative of the “fragile ingénue”, the “docile housewife” or the “naïve schoolgirl” susceptible of being engulfed by the big bad City succeeds in this image to suggest a particular type of resistance to this kind of gender role once again by averting her eyes and avoiding to meet the direct gaze of the viewer, thus rejecting the conventional representation. These two stills might be taken, as so many other self-portraits signed by Sherman, as instances of image-resistance.
Artist’s sketch of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #16, reproduced purely for academic purpose; the original version is here.
Untitled Film Still #16 portrays a French film noire female character all dressed in black sitting in an armchair under the stern gaze of a painting on the wall representing an old, male figure. The woman is placed right in the middle of the photo in a self-possessed, authoritarian pose, holding a cigarette in one raised arm and an ashtray in the other, fully-stretched arm.
She seems to look to her right to a spot beyond the frame of the picture while the viewer’s gaze, coming slightly from below, is only met by the eyes of the man in the picture, symbol of a patriarchal authority now banished to a neutral background. Cindy Sherman starts from the “film noire” type of woman and the recognisable “context” but her photographic reworking on the hypotext offers a slightly different text enriched by a multitude of other discursive elements; the woman seems to escape a conventionally imposed representation by violating a number of “taboos”: she is defiantly turning her back to the male authority now represented by a motionless image on the wall whose caducity is emphasised by the old age appearance; she is smoking, holding both the cigarette and the ashtray (psychoanalytically seen as masculine and feminine modes of representation), she is evading both the viewer’s gaze and that of the man in the picture, escaping the frames of the photograph through the intense gaze she casts on something hidden to the spectator and she is finally placed on a higher position than that of the viewer. Even if the lateral spotlight is directed toward the portrait on the wall, above the woman’s head, her figure is fully bathed in light. Male authority and discourse is literally “put to the wall” and undermined by means of a combination of cinematographic and photographic elements endowed with political, feminist and literary allusions. The allusion to Browning’s “last Duchess painted on the wall” who in this case becomes the “last patriarch painted on the wall” is present and ironically orients the viewer’s interpretation of the photograph.
Artist’s sketch of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #323, ———–, and ————— reproduced purely for academic purpose; the original versions are here.
Other photographs represent parodic reworkings upon iconic figures easily recognisable due to certain particularities or idiosyncrasies which are, of course, exaggerated and ironically commented upon. Cindy Crawford, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly and many other symbols of feminine beauty and grace offer the viewer a disturbing critical representation of femininity whose main goal is that of denouncing the artificiality of media constructed identities. Strident, unmatching colours, ugly make-ups, weird hair-styles, artificial poses, over-sensual attitudes and a general grotesque appearance comment in negative tones on the general idea of female sensuality which has been promoted by visual culture and to which ordinary women have to conform. The woman in the mirror is a leit-motif denouncing the duplicity and duality inherent to our postmodern consumerist society.
Finally, Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits can be interpreted not only as a powerful scream of liberation from the insidious constraints of a visual patriarchal culture; they represent a warning against the types of images that are generally consumed by the average public and which threaten in their turn to consume their viewers by forcing them to adjust to a media constructed identity, but also as a rediscussion of the status of photography and of the Photographer as mediator between reality and its bi-dimensional representation.
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Flax Jane. Postmodern and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory in Signs, 12: 4. 1987. p. 626 – 642.
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Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism, London and New York: Rutledge
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Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking. An Introduction into Visual Culture. Oxford University Press. 2001.
Originally published in Cultural Dimensions – Multilayered Cultural Identities (Centre for the Research of European Linguistic and Cultural Identities), Craiova: Universitaria. 2009.