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Femininity as Masquerade in “Untitled Film Stills 1977-1980” by Cindy Sherman


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

In 1964 Jacques Lacan introduced the psychoanalytical term of the “gaze” and its separation from the eye. Recasting some central Freudian concepts, such as Scopophilia, Voyeurism and Fetishism, Lacan states that the gaze is the lack that constitutes castration anxiety resulting from the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect is that the subject loses autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child reflecting himself into a mirror become conscious of his external appearance. Lacan identifies four drives: the oral drive (the erogenous zones are the lips, the partial object the breast), the anal drive (the anus and the faeces), the scopic drive (the eyes and the gaze) and the invocatory drive (the ears and the voice). The first two relate to demand and the last two to desire. The gaze alienates subjects from themselves by causing the subject to identify with itself as the objet a, the object of the drives, thus desiring scopic satisfaction. Hence the subject is reduced to being the object of desire and, in identifying with this object, it becomes a stranger to itself. Over time the notion of gaze has become a central tool for interpreting film in terms of gender, sexual identity and human relations; it has been particularly useful to study how film controls images and consequently the ways of looking, revealing a socially established interpretation of sexual difference. In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey launched the second-wave feminist concept of “male gaze”.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1989: 19)

Mulvey’s main argument is that Hollywood narrative films use women in order to provide a pleasurable visual experience for men. The patriarchal society influences the narrative film’s structure. As a result, the woman is always the object of the gaze, not the bearer of it, as her entire existence depends on the castration (the absence of the penis) by which she is physically characterized. Using a feminist critique point of view to re-employ some of the concepts explained in psychoanalysis by Freud in Three essays on Sexuality (1905), Mulvey identifies two manners in which Hollywood cinema produces pleasure, both meant to represent the mental desires of the male subject. The first, scopophilia, involves the objectification of the image, where visual pleasure is the result of subjecting someone to one’s gaze and being sexually stimulated by this sight. Furthermore, the contrast between the darkness of the room in which the auditorium is placed and the brilliant lights of the screen promotes the “illusion of voyeuristic separation” (Mulvey, 1989: 17). The second form comes from the narcissistic aspect of scopophilia, which is the identification of the ego with the represented character. As the child in Lacan’s mirror stage theory, the spectator puts himself into the position of the male protagonists of the film, thus projecting his look onto that of his screen surrogate. According to Mulvey, the female cinematic figure is an indispensable presence, yet a paradoxical one. She combines attraction with playing on deep fears of castration, hence displeasure. The male subconscious has two ways of escaping his fear of being castrated by the woman. One is the demystification of the female figure (in films: she is punished or saved by the male figure). The other approach is turning her into a fetish (in films: the cult of a female star) so to prevent the danger and the anxiety she originally signifies.

Nevertheless, if a woman’s appearance depends on the masculine gaze, she then has the possibility of manipulating the manner in which she is “surveyed”, becoming herself the one who controls this visual economy. Many postmodernist women artists, especially photographers, in the 19th century were already critically engaging with this cultural fetishisation of femininity by portraying themselves, their nude bodies or the common stereotypes that society ascribed to them in order to visibly increase the viewers’ awareness of these prejudices. For instance, photographers such as Diane Arbus or Germaine Krull play ironically with the split between the woman photographer and the self-portrait. In doing so they negotiated this visual economy, making visible the impossibility for a masculine gaze of a totalizing appropriation of the feminine body. Some other female artists investigated human relationships through the use of documentary photography or portraiture, with a special regard to the theme of the human bond (mother-son). One further possibility of refiguring the traditional female identity is performing the self explicitly as a masquerade. Once again, it was psychoanalysis that studied in depth this attitude of treating and performing femininity. Firstly, Jacques Lacan, who meticulously developed the notion of sexuality as the realm of masquerade. For Lacan, “femininity is precisely a masquerade because it is constructed with reference to a male sign.” (Rose, 1986: 33) However, the very relation between the masquerade and the woman’s gender identity was conceived by Joan Riviere in her famous essay published in 1929 in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Womanliness as a Masquerade, by which the psychoanalyst meant that femininity is a mask that women wear in order to be better accepted in a social world codified by men. The concept was developed from a case-study which involved a professionally successful female patient publicly performing femininity (which typically means dressing in fancy clothes and flirting with men) in order to reduce her charge of masculinity. The main point of the essay was “to show that women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared by men”. (Riviere, 1986: 35) Women wear masks as a defense, “defense in this system of male identities, and consequent identifications”. (Heath, 1986: 45) As Riviere states:

“Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it — much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods.” (Riviere, 1986: 38)

According to Riviere, there is not any particular difference between the “genuine” womanliness and the masquerade, they are both part of the same thing. In fact, Stephen Heath points out that “in the masquerade the woman mimics an authentic womanliness, but then authentic womanliness is such a mimicry, is the masquerade; to be a woman is to dissimulate a fundamental masculinity, femininity is that dissimulation” . The masquerade is a representation of femininity but at the same time femininity is a representation of woman, therefore the masquerade shows that the woman exists and simultaneously doesn’t exist. Eventually the only way a woman can appear is behind a veil, which reveals the lack of what identifies a man, the penis. Other feminists investigate the strategies of masquerade in the masculine order starting from Lacan’s theory. For instance Judith Butler claims that “gender ontology is reducible to the play of appearance” (Butler, 1999: 47), whereas Luce Irigaray thinks that “woman to become a normal woman, has to enter the masquerade of femininity […], into a system of values that is not hers, and in which she can “appear” and circulate only when enveloped in the needs/desires/fantasies of others, namely men”. (Irigaray, 1985: 133-134)

Women photographers took this notion of femininity as a distortion, a disguise, as their point of departure for restoring the tradition of female self-portrait. They transformed their own bodies in order to proclaim that their femininity, as any other public identity, can be thought only in terms of disguises. The self is always concealed behind an ambivalent and ever-changing play of masks. That is exactly what Cindy Sherman, also known as “The Heroine with a Thousand Faces”, had in mind when she produced her first series of sixty-nine black-and-white photographs between 1977 and 1980, titled Untitled Film Stills, where “untitled” is meant to preserve the ambiguity of these works and “film stills” to enclose aspects of the film, even if not real films, for advertising purposes, not definitely for art, as she stated. Sherman appears as fictitious characters recalling old Hollywood B movies, neo-realism, Hitchcock, and film noir, thus re-creating that “fifti-ness” atmosphere. She addresses her works to that generation of women who had grown up absorbing those apparently attractive images on their televisions, taking such portrayals as suggestions for their future. The artist operates as actress, director, wardrobe assistant, set designer and cameraman at once. She uses vintage clothing, wigs and make-up to create a range of female roles stereotyped by the Western patriarchal society, which she then shoots in apparently solitary, unguarded moments of reflection, undress, or in conversation with somebody off-set and outside of the frame. Most of them are realized with a high contrast through which the figure can stand out from her surrounding, conveying her vulnerability in the external world.

Sherman eventually completed the series in 1980 when she used up all the clichés. Since Sherman’s characters in the Untitled Film Stills are not specified, we are free to construct our own narratives for these women. We can only recognize that the artist is staging socially prescribed roles such as housewife (Fig.6), lover or film star, making us aware of how artificial these “simulacra” are. In Untitled Film Still #11 (Fig.2), for instance, a woman lies diagonally across a made bed and wears a typical dress from the ‘30s made with lace and pearls: everything seems arranged as if the scene has been meticulously and artfully rehearsed before. By performing herself as a gendered subject Sherman actually rejects all these stereotypes she herself represents. Her use of cosmetics, make-up, costumes or high-heels connotes the masquerade of femininity that her characters make visible. What is hidden behind this farce is only a “fractured being (is) defined by a phallic lack” (Heartney, 2007: 173), or at least this is what the cultural external world thinks. However, in doing so, Sherman is not perpetuating the objectification of women, but rather subverting the male gaze as through this play of masks she makes it almost impossible for the male viewer to fix the woman in a steady identity. Rather, the male spectator engaged in scopophilial pleasure feels as he has violated a private moment. Judith Williamson defines Sherman’s photographs as “a witty parody of media images of women” (Williamson, 2006: 52) in search of an identity. By looking at the pictures one can build up an image of femininity which simultaneously falls apart as all the female identities played by the artist (which are not self-portraits) destabilize a rigid notion of femininity, as we see in the front cover image (Untitled Film Still #2), where a young woman is seen in the act of composing in the mirror a self-idealized image of herself for an implied gaze.

Interestingly Cindy Sherman stated:

“When I prepare each character I have to consider what I’m working against; that people are going to look under the make-up and wigs for that common denominator, the recognizable. I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than me.” (quoted in Schulz-Hoffman, 1991: 30)

The identities she performs may result passive and scared. But she, as photographer, is in control of them. She explores the myths of femininity from the outer of the body to its inner, unsettling the relationship between authentic body and its pictorial representation, between original image and body masquerade. Eventually she leads the viewer to a world of female phantasmagoria, in which the female subject dissolves yet is truly able to elude the male gaze.

Sherman encourages our participation by suggesting, through the voyeuristic nature of her poses, that she is the object of someone’s gaze, advocating in some way the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of femininity”; yet, at the same time, the multiple and various depiction of herself is a statement of power. As a result, she appears as a hybrid being, ranging between masquerade and vulnerability, between empowered subject and disempowered object of the gaze. Zdenek Felix observes that Sherman’s works subliminally hide a sort of latent horror: as Hitchcock’s films, these photographs conceal more then they affirm.

Today among Feminist theorists the possibility of a corresponding female gaze is being largely discussed. As Sherman’s works clearly demonstrate, the function of the female gaze should primarily be a parodic exposure of the traditional image repertoire assigned to women by the patriarchal perspective. Deconstructing the vision of the male gaze means actually subverting its power and blurring the gender boundaries. The only solid conclusion we can draw is that femininity is not fixed and should be not enclosed in cages, as the stereotypes are. A woman may not own the notion of the gaze, but she can control and maneuver it at her liking. That is what she definitely has in her power.

Stefania Sorrentino


Stefania Sorrentino is 24 years old, originally from Rome (Italy). She graduated from La Sapienza University of Rome with a BA in History of Art conducting a research into the Art market, with a special regard to auctions and their link with the primary sector, mainly represented by commercial galleries. Because Rome is too much involved with its history and not very open to embrace the emerging artistic scenario, Stefania decided to move to London, seeking to take an active and critic role in the production and shaping of the contemporary culture. She is in fact currently enrolled in the MA Curating the Contemporary at London Metropolitan University taught in conjunction with the Whitechapel Gallery. What most fascinates Stefania about Contemporary Art is its postmodernism research on new unstable definition(s) of identity and otherness; its ‘power’ of raising questions and leave them open to a diversity of interpretations. Stefania is also a big fan of Conceptual Art and the idea of unfolding a narrative behind the merely physical presence of an artwork.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Burton, J. ed., (2006), Cindy Sherman, The MIT Press Butler, J., (1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, New York Heartney, E., (2007), ‘Cindy Sherman; the Polemics of Play’ in After The Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, Prestel, Munich Heath, S., (1986), ‘Joan Riviere and the Masquerade’, in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan eds., Formations of Fantasy, Methuen, London Irigaray, L., (1985), Speculum of the Other Woman, Trans. by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press Lacan, J., (1978), ‘The Split between the Eye and the Gaze’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Trans. Alan Sheridan, Norton, New York Lippard, L., Lahs-Gonzales, O., Sandweiss, M., (1998), Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century, The Saint Louis Art Museum Mulvey, L., (1996), Fetishism and Curiosity, Indiana University Press Mulvey, L., (1989), Visual and other pleasures, London: Macmillan Academic and Professional LTD Olsen, V., Cindy Sherman: Monument Valley Girl, in Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009 Owens, C., (2002), ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism’, in Foster, H. ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, New Press Print, New York Pollock, G., (1988), Modernity and the Spaces of Femiminity, Routledge Riviere, J., (1986), ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’, in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan eds., Formations of Fantasy, Methuen, London Rose, J., (1986), Sexuality in the field of vision, Verso, London Sherman, C., Bronfen, E., Hamburg, D., Luzern, K., Konsthall, M., (1995) Cindy Sherman: photographic work 1975-1995, Schirmer Art Books, London Schirmer L. and Bronfen, E., (2006), Women seeing women, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH; New edition Williams, L., (1994), Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, Rutgers University Press ________________________________________________________________________ ‘Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy Sherman’ in Cruz, A., Jones, A., Sherman, C., (2000), Cindy Sherman: Retrospective, Thames & Hudson http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/sherman/sherman_articles3.html (accessed 4 January 2014) http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=5392 (accessed 3 January 2014) Manchester, E., (2000-2001) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sherman-untitled-film-still-17-p11516/text-summary (accessed 6 January 2014) Paoli, J., Deconstructing Woman: The Work of Cindy Sherman http://www.uwo.ca/visarts/research/2008-09/bon_a_tirer/Julia%20Paoli.html (accessed 3 January 2014)

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