Culture October 4, 2016
In a world where male bodies are viewed as neutral and non-gendered while female bodies are transgressive, it is common to find that women (including trans and gender non-conforming) must be labeled as such. Femaleness is a deviation from the norm and is demarcated accordingly. That is why an all-male music group is not necessarily called a “boy band” even though an all-female one would almost certainly be deemed a “girl band.”
Even in more progressive industries, such as art and design, women can fall victim to the label of “female” preceding a title that for a man would not have a gendered identifier. The same type of labeling happens to people of color. For example, Nicole Byer, the star of the new MTV show “Loosely Exactly Nicole,” has denounced the fact that because she is a black woman with a TV show that the show itself is seen as content for a black audience. “This show isn’t black-specific. I’m a black female, but these are just stories.”
But in the new age of growing awareness around issues of social justice and diversity/inclusiveness in media, not only are these labels still used, the individual who does not fit white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered normativity is seen as a spokesperson for the entire group in which they have been categorized. Byer also addresses this expectation in a feature by The Ringer. “She is insistent that her show is not the Next Great Woke Sitcom, but a specific coming-of-age story told by a nonwhite person — a glimpse of a pop culture utopia to come. The tricky part, it turns out, is waiting for everyone else to catch up.”
Enter contemporary artist Cindy Sherman, known best for her photography, specifically her “self”-portraiture. (“Self” rather than portraiture are in quotes as the figures, which Sherman transforms herself into, are not representations of her own being or personhood.) “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-80) is her most famous series of works, all of which were shot, styled and posed for by Sherman. Within the 69 photos in the series, each captures her in archetypal female (or better, feminine) roles common in the visual culture landscape, especially film and television. ENTITY writers from Los Angeles had the opportunity to view a selection of the series at her recent exhibit at the Broad Museum, “Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life.”
Many of these photos portray the media’s obsession with and objectification of women regarding their youth and beauty. This visualized presentation of normative standards for womanhood as grotesque could be read as a feminist critique of these standards and the institutions working behind them. Many scholars (see research from Julián Daniel Gutierrez-Arbilla and Georgina Colby) have written that there is a more insidious undercurrent in these photos. By choosing to represent women who exemplify this normativity as abject, Sherman effectively denounces any performance of femininity or womanhood that falls within these bounds. Women who do present themselves similarly to the women in the portraits become easily vilified as part of the problem. This fails to put the onus of female objectification on the system propagated by the oppressors, rather, choosing to limit individual choices of gender performance in the process.
As we move from feminism as understood by the Third Wave definition to the hotly contested Fourth Wave, our understandings of what can still be deemed feminist will change. The same sort of shifts happened during the transition from Second to Third Wave, calling into question so-called feminist art that is trans-exclusionary. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s 1972 installation and performance piece “Womanhouse,” being one such example contemporary with Sherman.
In the house, which was an exclusively female collaborative project utilizing the skills and works of over thirty women, various rooms became installation works. In one of the house’s bathrooms, Judy Chicago’s piece “Menstruation Bathroom” was installed, featuring a number of boxes of feminine hygiene products alongside tampons and pads that had been soaked in faux blood and dripped on the floor. The house’s exclusive focus on the female body in its installations such as “Menstruation Bathroom” leaves no room for women who may not get their period or may not have secondary sex characteristics or reproductive organs that match their gender. (See the room “Nurturant Kitchen” where eggs become breasts and an apron with attached breasts is featured for a now-regressive understanding of sex versus gender.)
Further, this piece only addresses the societal concerns of a certain type of woman, namely, a domestic, middle-class, white wife or mother. This is now seen to be a narrow view of femininity and womanhood, as various women are confronted with differing forms of sexism and gendered expectations. “Womanhouse,” then, can be contemporarily understood as an embodiment of the failings of white feminism and need for intersectional feminism to be represented in the canon of feminist art.
The same sort of shift should happen within the cultural perception of Sherman’s work. It may not be feminist anymore. It is definitely female and may speak to a certain sort of woman, but all the women that now exist do so openly and proudly. So why do we still label her as a feminist artist rather than just a female artist, or even better, an artist? Some scholars, like Jessica Sprague-Jones, have suggested that Sherman’s work has been deemed feminist—despite her own insistence that her art is not inherently pushing conceptual notions of feminism—due to the male-dominated sphere of art criticism. In other words, that nasty notion that men are seen as people and women are seen as female people comes full circle, leading male critics to see her explicit interaction with questions of representation and gender identity as feminist.
Art that engages with issues that address women specifically isn’t always feminist and such an assumption only shows how far we have left to go within the feminist movement before we reach gender equity. None of this is to denounce Sherman’s work, its significance within the feminist movement at the time it was made or its lasting impact on the art of abjection. Nevertheless, the feminist art canon is changing and with that in mind we must be willing to recategorize works accordingly. Sherman will deservedly live in that canon forever, but may not meet our newest standards of feminism.
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