Thursday, August 20, 2009


Cindy Sherman is one of the most controversial feminist photographers of the 20th century. She started her carrier in 1977 with the series called “Untitled Film Stills” where she recreates the clichés of conventional Hollywood cinema. She was focused on how women were portrayed in the film industry,-and in every art form in general- and wanted to re-build the dominant 'male gaze'. Through the history, women were always the main object of the art -painting, literature...-, but except from examples like Jane Austen or Brontë Sisters in literature, they were rarely the subject - the author- of the art. These objects were important for the art for their aesthetic values, hence for their physical appearance. Feminist theories like Laura Mulvey argues that the whole reason to make art is to create new ways to satisfy men's fantasies. For that reason, we always see women figures in art as one stereotype or other: exotic, femme fatale, dangerous, naive, or as their roles in the society: mother, daughter, wife, whore... The classical art, especially before the 19th century, never portrayed women as different individuals, the main focus were always on their roles or how men see them. This is the creator of a very stressful topic that would be startedi n the 70's by the Feminist Movement in America and that would be discussed to this day: the Male Gaze.


Cindy Sherman wanted to make her statement about the male gaze and the role of women into the art. She was interested in the use of women in the male fantasies and the ways these are transferred to the art. Cinema is the medium that concludes every use of women and women body; visually, written and sociologically through the story, hallucinatory or imaginary, starting from the fantastic figures -either classical fairies or Science-Fiction 'creatures-, until even the fairy-tales (which will form the base of her 'modern interpretation of Cinderella, in her self-portrait titled “Cinderella”. ).

Films use certain codes, replaced into the conventions, to convey their messages and their ideology. These codes are always masked in the cinema, to be able to form a false sense that the message appears to the viewer as their own ideas. What Cindy Sherman did in her 'Untitled Film Stills' Series is to use these codes in order to make them 'visible'. In a way, using them to their margins made their masks off, in order to show the viewer their true nature. In Film Theory, the Male Gaze is always present with the sense of voyeurism, yet they are hidden to the audience to save them from the guilt they may have cause. According Freudian-Film Theory, they give the audience the satisfaction of their fetishes without being noticed and without the guilt.

The essence of visual arts is seeing. The relation between the viewer and the exposed person forms a power relation of 'Voyeurism-Exhibitionism'. In theater, this relation is more visible, because the two parties are at the same place and at the same time to form a relation of Voyeurist and Exhibitionist. Photography and cinema altered this relation, because in a photograph or a film, the portrayed person and the viewer can never be at the same time and place, therefore the viewer is free from every possible way to be caught and condemn with being a 'pervert'. In this way, the desires, fetishes and fantasies that would not be approved by the society can be fulfilled securely. Cinema is more being a medium to tell stories and create images, it's an arena to form these hidden desires into a form appropriate for the society.

The problem that arises from this role is that a film or cinema itself cannot fulfill various individuals desires, so it picked himself the dominant figure into the society as the target. This means that cinema is purely trying to fulfill men's desires. Cinema is seeing and in it, women can only be the 'objects': the-ones that will be seen. Even in the viewing experience of women, according to many film theories is to find the 'Ideal-Self' and identify with it. This also means that by identifying with the object, the women viewer also becomes an object and have a passive role in the cinema; as actresses, as characters and as spectators.

Cindy Sherman's experiment to use the cinematic clichés work at the first look as this. We see a beautiful woman at a cinematographic environment, costume and framing. But then, it became apparent to the viewer that this photo is not a replica of cinema, but a parody over them. According to Amelia Jones, in “The Eternal Return”: Self-Portrait Photography as Technology of Embodiment”, she sees that point as the details on Cindy Sherman's face, like 'the gleam on the lip' in 'Untitled Film Still #30' . Jones calls this 'uncanny' details as Barthes' term 'punctum' . For me this 'punctum' is the way she always glances back to an unknown Off-Screen Space.

In cinema, in order to make a Point-Of-View Shot of a Character -which is of course, most of the time, the Point-Of-View of a man-, the character stares directly to the camera. In this way, the viewer can understand that the next shot will be a subjective shot of this character. Because the classical cinema is founded for the male gaze, these subjective shots are the ones of a man, and often the viewed 'object' is a woman.

By not directly looking at the camera, Cindy Sherman forms an uncanny feeling, which is unusual for Portrait or Self-Portrait Photography, and refer to the passive female role by not even being able to look directly to the camera. In this way, she points out the relation between camera and women. Also, her glances to the Off-Screen space often have some meanings that the viewer cannot easily explain. In 'Untitled Film Still #13' and 'Untitled Film Still #3', her glances seems unnatural, because by looking to that direction with her posture is making the chance of her seeing what she wants to see lower. For example, in 'Untitled Film Still #13' , she has to move to the right to be able to have a good view of what she is looking. Also, the viewer can never have a change to know what she is looking to, because of the fact that there is no indication into the frame to point to something in Off-Screen, but also we know through cinematic conventions that because she isn't looking to the camera, we cannot see in another shot her subjective Point-Of View. This and the uncanniness created by how she is looking to the Off-Screen space forms the 'punctum' in the photographs, in order to form another cliché women characteristics; the mystery of women. We cannot know what she is looking at, and we cannot know why she is looking that way. Everything seems posed and unrealistic, even though we may accept this shot as a reality, if it were showed in a film.

With this, Sherman does not only state that the dominant gaze in cinema is always of the men, but she also states that the women in the cinema will always stay in a mysterious position, without being able to be discovered or analyzed by the cinema, because of the male gaze.

Jones, Amelia. 2002. “The “Eternal Return”: Self-Portrait Photography as a Technology of Embodiment, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 27, no. 4, p.961
Metz, Christian. 1975. “Der imaginäre Signifikant .Pyschoanalyse und Kino, Geschichte/ Diskurs, Münster: Nodus 2000, p. 73-78
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. “Weiblichkeit als Maskerade”. Visuelle Lust und narratives Kino, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer 1994, p. 48-65
Vernet, Mark. 1983. “The Look at the Camera”. Cinema Journal 28, N. 2, 1989. p. 48-63

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