A Brief History of Cindy Sherman and Feminism

Despite the hundreds of portraits toying with female stereotypes that Cindy Sherman has produced throughout her career, the artist is resolutely noncommittal when it comes to analyzing her work through an academic lens. “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work,” she once said. “But I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

Sherman would rather leave the theorizing to someone else, and there have been plenty of critics and academics willing to take on the task. Her roughly 40-year career has spawned countless texts, particularly in the realm of feminism. The discussion centers around two of her earliest series—the “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80) and the “Centerfolds” (1981)—although even her chosen medium could be read in a gendered light. As Sherman came of age in the art world, the prevailing visual mode was painting dominated by “bad boy” expressionist and figurative painters like Julian SchnabelDavid Salle, and Eric Fischl. Photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums, but it granted women artists a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas. Louise LawlerSherrie LevineLaurie SimmonsSarah Charlesworth, and, of course, Sherman all adopted the camera. “There was a female solidarity,” Sherman said of the group.

Sherman’s big artistic break came with the “Untitled Film Stills.” To make the series, the artist served as both photographer and subject, transforming herself with makeup, wigs, and elaborate costumes into figures that recalled the movie stars of an earlier generation: Monica Vitti, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot. These photographs of women by a woman quickly gained traction within the feminist community. In the 1991 essay “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” theorist Laura Mulvey contextualized Sherman’s work within the prevailing feminist modes of thought at the time. When Sherman arrived on the scene, it marked the “end of that era in which the female body had become, if not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through theory,” she wrote. “But rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the agenda. She … recuperates a politics of the body that had, perhaps, been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of ’70s feminism.”  

Even at a glance, it is easy to see some of the ways Sherman’s representations of women avoided the proclivities of the day. The heavy pancake makeup, high heels, and bullet bras of the film stills harken back to the ’50s rather than the au naturel look favored in the ’70s. And as such, “it is not just a range of feminine expressions that are shown but the process of the ‘feminine’ as an effect, something acted upon,” wrote Judith Williamson in a widely cited essay about Sherman’s series.

It wasn’t until 1981, however, when Artforum’s editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy commissioned a series for the publication, that Sherman’s work truly took hold of the feminist imagination. The artist planned to riff on the Playboy centerfold with a pair of horizontal photographs showing women in intimate states of repose. Unlike Playboy’s women, though, Sherman’s were all clothed. These works were never printed in Artforum; in fact, it was the only time Sischy refused to print a commission, worrying that the series would be misunderstood by militant feminists since they looked “a little too close” to the pinups in actual men’s magazines. Metro Pictures showed them instead, and, as Calvin Tomkins noted in the New Yorker, they were, in fact, “misunderstood by a number of political-minded art students (male and female), who accused Sherman of undermining the feminist cause by depicting women in ‘vulnerable’ poses.”

Others have explored the idea of Sherman appropriating the “male gaze” and the voyeuristic feeling of the works. Sherman twists the traditional formula of pin-up shots. She “plays into the male conditioning of looking at photographs of exposed women, but she takes on the roles of both (assumed) male photographer and female pinup,” Eva Respini wrote in the catalogue for Sherman’s 2012 MoMA retrospective.

Yet, throughout these moments, Sherman remained unwilling to directly tie her work to feminist theory. This tension became particularly clear with her Untitled #93 (1981), a centerfold featuring a tearful girl drawing her bedsheets close. Many critics interpreted the girl as a survivor of sexual assault. For Sherman, however, the inspiration was a woman who had gone to bed moments before the sun rose, following a night of debauchery. Respini writes that the example “is typical of the debates that have surrounded Sherman and her work: The artist’s accounts of her own intentions often conflict with the scholarly debates about feminism and the role of women in her pictures.” It’s occasionally easy to spot the frustration this inspires in academics—take feminist scholar Mulvey, who once wrote: “It is necessary to fly in the face of her own expressly non-theoretical, even anti-theoretical stance.”

Sherman herself, speaking about this reading of her work, said: “I know I was not consciously aware of this thing the ‘male gaze.’ It was the way I was shooting, the mimicry of the style of black-and-white grade-Z motion pictures that produced the self-consciousness of these characters, not my knowledge of feminist theory. I suppose, unconsciously, or semiconsciously at best, I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women.” Perhaps one of the reasons Sherman’s work feels so relevant to this day is that she’s restrained herself from pigeonholing it. As the artist once said, “There are so many levels of artifice. I liked that whole jumble of ambiguity.”

—Abigail Cain