Cindy Sherman and what she taught me about clumpy mascara
I’ve often found my interest in all things to do with beauty to be hard to reconcile with the fact I identify myself as a feminist. There is something inherently sexist about something that is not only exclusive, but the norm, to the female half of the population. Makeup is probably the most direct and everyday aspect of the obsession with the need for female self improvement. Do my occasional weeks of an egg-only diet in order to pay for a new tube of ‘They’re Real!’ make me a slave to the patriarchy? In engaging with this do we in some way legitimize the objectification of women?
I feel like questions of self-representation are positively addressed in Cindy Sherman’s work, and it’s part of why I enjoy it so much. Sherman is a hugely successful, contemporary artist, who’s work deals with gender stereotypes and representations. Over her extensive career, she has created numerous portraits of herself embodying different characters. Her most famous series to date is probably ‘Film Stills’, in which she poses in different roles- reminiscing Film Noir of the 40s, 50s and 60s or else Italian Neorealism. She poses as sex objects, vixens, housewives or damsels in distress.
Using makeup, costume, set and acting she changes entirely from one frame to the next. The transformative nature of these photos is arguably intended to reflect the objectifying nature of gaze directed at women, especially within the film industry. In her work Sherman drifts between different roles, without giving away any sense of her real persona. Image is ephemeral, the artist can be every cliché within one series.
In the piece Untitled Film Still 27, Sherman poses as a teary eyed victim. Is her weepiness not all the more heartbreaking because her mascara-d tears have cut through her over-bronzed face and left a white line?
In Film Still 35, the sassy stare and defiant stance of a housewife who is really, really good at ironing is buttressed by oh-so defined eyebrows and the perfect amount of curl to her golden blonde hair.
In Film Still 6 the Blonde Bombshell is shown sprawled on her bed, her doll like eyes gazing up, her glossy mouth slightly open. The back of her hand is pressed against her heavily (and not so elegantly) contoured cheek in a perfectly adorable/dozy fashion.
Whilst the images as they stand alone might focus on the objectification of women, as a body of work, I think that there is a more positive overriding tone. Ultimately, in these works, makeup, amongst other things is a tool for manipulation. Sherman uses it as a device which allows he to dictate exactly how she is perceived by the viewer.
Quite apart from that, the images themselves are funny, engaging, interesting and occasionally silly. Many have a comedic, light-heartedness in their exaggerated tone, that ridicules the idea of strict roles or clichés. As Sherman’s later work expanded, she posed as centrefolds, Renaissance icons and corpses. All of this builds up to a sense of play – her transformations are all part of having fun. She challenges you to pin her down, flitting between personas and moods.
The images may be about the objectifying nature of the male gaze, but as a series I think it is a positive visualisation of transformation and fun. A female-orientated beauty industry is ingrained in our society, and whilst the more rational side of me wants to eschew it, I can’thelp my disproportionate excitement at my new Nars ‘orgasm’. Sherman’s work is an encouragement to subvert ideas of makeup as something that is used to fit ourselves into one single specific mould of beauty, and instead have fun.
Edith is a second year fine art student at Edinburgh College of Art. She wears mascara like it’s going out of fashion and is currently obsessed with the “crunchy” texture of her hair…maybe it’s time for a deep conditioning hair mask?
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