PRINT January 1993


CONSIDERING THE MANY genres Cindy Sherman has developed in her photographs—film stills, fashion photos, fairy tales, art-historical portraiture, scenes of dummies deployed in sex acts. Consider, too, the critical discourses engaged in her work—deconstructive post-Modernism, the photograph’s dialectic of absence and presence, theories of representation. Consistently, Sherman’s photography is positioned in the convergence of discourses, rather than squarely in any one of them; and in that convergence, the feminist content of her work emerges. Like her rehearsal and performance of permutations of (her)self, the many feminisms that have been read into her work mirror both shifts in feminist thinking over the years and the current, internecine struggles over sexuality and representation that are erupting within our communities.

Skirting the fray of clashing feminisms, many critics still disclose an entrenched resistance to the idea that Sherman’s motifs and thematics are embedded in feminist theory rather than incidental to it—they still recast her gender polemics as a grand concert of “human” (and “human” always means “male”) desire. But the cleansing of feminist commentary from Sherman’s photography is symptomatic of the very problematics that her work addresses. For example, if we acknowledge femininity as a discursive construction, how can we authentically construe a feminine esthetics and identity apart from the patriarchal framework upon which they are grounded? Rather than assuming a given femininity, Sherman dislodges the operations that have historically defined and imposed the feminine as a social category. Indeed her latest schlock-shock images displaying the broken-down merchandise of a medical-supply house—plastic mannequins endowed with anatomically correct genitalia macabrely animated in pantomimes of sexual fantasy—are emphatically interventional. Hardly indemnified by political correctness, these grimly humorous vignettes deep-throat the politics of pornographic representation. Yet despite their fun-house horrors of freakish hermaphrodites, postmenopausal Medusas, and decapitated Herculeses, these peep show pictures never stay put as clever carnal cartoons, or even as allegories of alienation. Instead, the seemingly minor questions they raise—Can photos be porn if they don’t pass the “wet test,” if, indeed, the bodies are plastic?—are inseparable from larger, more urgent ones: is the social economy of pornography different from that of art? Is porn antithetical to feminism? Do women see “differently”?

By framing such questions as dependent on distinctions between artifice and the real (distinctions on which she has long staged her investigations), and by inscribing them within the pornographic, Sherman integrates female identity, representation, contamination, and taboo. By presenting images that ask what’s OK, and what’s not, in picture-making, fantasy, and sexual practice, she opens wide the Pandora’s box that polarizes contemporary feminism. The women crouching as if in fear of discovery, and the plundered female bodies abandoned to vacant lots, in the earlier series, and now the titillating p.o.v. shots of dry, cold sex can only partially be explained by moralizings on the victimization of women in society. For the problems of oppression and objectification that surround pornography do not reside exclusively in the image, but in the very act of looking, in which we ascribe sexual difference.

When we look at photographs, it is through the eyes of the photographer, understood as occupying a masculine position, that we see. The implicit aggression of the photographic act—aiming the camera, shooting the picture—is literalized when the image examines the female body. In Sherman’s photographs, however, active looking is through a woman’s eyes, and this ambiguity makes them both seductive and confrontational. Sherman demarcates no privileged space for the female spectator per se, yet the role in which she casts us, as both viewer and subject, parallels the defamiliarizing effects of plastic dummies having real sex. Automatic scopophilic consumption, whether narcissistic or voyeuristic, is interrupted. By rendering the body problematic, and exposing what is conventionally hidden, Sherman infuses the desirous look with a sense of dread and dis-ease.

Sherman heightens the spectacle of the sexual act by isolating genital parts and coding them with fantasies of desire, possession, and imaginary knowledge. The instrumentality of these photographs lies in their tantalizing paradox: offering for scrutiny what is usually forbidden to sight, they appear to produce a knowledge of what sex looks like (hence Sherman’s subtle humor in using medical dummies), but simultaneously are not real. The dummies diminish the sense of pliant flesh, distancing the spectator from the body, yet props such as luxurious fabrics focus sensuality. Positioned close to the picture plane, the models invite an intimate viewing relationship. And their placement in splayed, supine, or kneeling positions elicits a fantasy of sexual penetration, even though they are not real.

Many women feel that there is literally no place for them within the frame of porn. Perhaps the most extreme case against pornography is made by Andrea Dworkin, who holds “pornographers” responsible for “eroticizing inequality in a way that materially promotes rape, battery, maiming, and bondage,” and for making a product “that they know dehumanizes, degrades and exploits women.”1 Would Sherman’s photographs of dummies qualify as pornographic, even though they aren’t “real”? Actually, the 1986 report of the Meese Commission specifically links porn to what is unreal: it is “representation” of sex that is the problem, not sex itself. To the writers of the report, as soon as sex is inscribed, as soon as it is made public rather than private, it changes in character, regardless of what variety of sex is portrayed.

The underlying logic, as Avital Ronell has remarked, is one of contagion, of “exposing” people to a contaminant.2 This is another way of stating the problem with mimesis: an imitation of reality produces the desire to imitate. It is “representation” that contaminates, and from which women must be protected. The irony is that woman herself has long been identified with the problems of mimesis, representation, and contamination. And when it comes down to it, we know that what censorship really protects is the so-called majority’s self-image of normalcy, and that woman, as Ronell observes, is merely a symptom of the law. We know, too, in Pat Califia’s words, that within the narrow range of acceptable sexual behavior, nobody comes out looking normal once you know how they fuck and what they think about when they’re doing it, and that the totalitarian insistence on sexual uniformity does hidden violence to all us dissidents and perverts, making us ugly before we have even seen ourselves.3 Still, even for us, Sherman’s images have enormous disruptive power.

Although strident compared to the docile female stereotypes of the “Film Stills,” 1977-80, the deranged female creatures of the earlier fairy tales and mutilation series of the mid-to-late ’80s, while sometimes intimating the possession of secret powers, are nonetheless the offspring of earlier Sherman women suspended in passive states of waiting, longing, and abandonment. The current series shows what those women have gotten up to, so to speak, when left to their own dark fantasies. One mannequin willingly lifts her rear end, presumably for a spanking with the nearby hairbrush. Another spreads her cunt wide open to some form of penetration—wide enough for a fist. The implication of S/M practice, sex with inanimate objects, fascination with the perverse, and transgression of the “nice girls don’t—and feminists certainly don’t” injunction are all personified by a glowering Medusa/whore/Venus/Olympia, who menacingly displays her startling red-foam vagina, the invitation promising pleasure for herself alone.

In the ’60s and ’70s, women using their bodies as subject and site of their art tended to explore feminine identity in relation to nature. Carolee Schneemann, Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, and others displayed their sexuality as both natural and empowering. The problem, then as now, is the assumption that we were ever goddesses in the Garden, or, for that matter, that there is a pure state of nature to get back to, a state prior to our contamination by language, or representation, or law. The desire for an “uncontaminated” expression of female sexuality appears in other guises today, particularly by women who seek to make “sex-positive” pornographic images that in effect project backward to nature and purity. In adapting pornography for female audiences, this clean-up operation rejects the “demoralizing” impurity of the excremental, the improper, the dangerous and disgusting.

Sherman’s representation of female sexuality, in contrast, indulges the desire to see, to make sure of the private and the forbidden, but withholds both narcissistic identification with the female body and that body’s objectification as the basis for erotic pleasure. Her mechanisms of arousal—rubbery tits, plastic pussies, assorted asses, dicks, and dildos—may deceive momentarily, but finally defeat the proprietary gaze of the spectator, whose desire can only partially be satisfied by the spectacle of artificial flesh. The convergence that Sherman establishes between female identity and artifice, desire, and disgust has been widely interpreted. Some see her sullying of the female form as an argument against the clichés of traditional feminine glamour. Others see it as a pedagogy against violent masculine sexuality, and against images that may incite male aggression. And the idea of the instability of female identity—long a fascination of psychoanalytic theory—has been invoked to suggest that Sherman is ambivalent about her own womanhood.

All of these readings are too simple in isolation; the last of them misinterprets the function of the frame as one that absorbs Sherman herself. From this it is construed that because woman (“Cindy Sherman”) is distinguished only by her lack, she can only abhor herself. This argument fails to take into account Sherman’s control as director and producer of her own visual dramas. Fantasies of sexual perversion are forever getting confused with real life, but rarely so simplistically. Sherman’s porn pictures express no blanket female self-hatred; rather, they engage the age-old designation of woman as essentially monstrous. More specifically, it is not just woman’s identity (which, insofar as it is taken to be artificial and unstable, is sensed as antithetical to the rule of law) that is alarming, but her genitals, which emit the smell of death.

Look again at Sherman’s images: the “diseased” cunt, alarmingly red, flayed, unsavory; the severed female torso “contaminated” by menstrual blood; the frightening Medusa/Olympia whose vagina excretes intestinal or phallic sausages; the doll whose vagina and anus merge into a dark, yawning emptiness. And look, too, at the photographer’s enthusiasm for framing female perversity—at her will to disrupt. Sherman portrays no naive notion of pleasurability or purity: her images luxuriate in desire and disgust, which, as Georges Bataille reminds us, are inextricably linked. Marking her bodies as monstrous, she kills all nostalgia for an original state of things—whether the “original” is identified with respect to distinctions between female and male desire, or is symptomatic of woman’s fundamental and a priori “lack.”

An interlocking network of fetishism and mutilation (a figure of castration) constellates around the body, multiplying the terror and situating the work more insistently in the locale of horror than of erotica. If the images evoke castration anxiety, what is their effect on the woman spectator, who, presumably, cannot lose what she never had? Metaphorically, they represent what is typically displaced, sublimated, or repressed. Sherman’s pictures, in fact, flaunt accoutrements immediately suggestive of fetishism. An eroticism ridden with menace is her lure, and artifice her entrapment and dis-ease. In the register of nightmare, the impulse to debase and violate parallels the impulse to worship and adore.

Hélène Cixous insists that women should mobilize the force of hysteria to break up continuities and create horror. This is not to hark back to some “natural” state—an effort that masks woman’s censored hysteria as though it were an unwelcome dis-ease—or to fall into some other form of “political correctness,” and the guilt and repressed desire that it triggers. For some, Sherman’s displacement of sex to a cartoon level may signal an area in which issues can be investigated from a position of safety. Yet the ugliness and hard-core explicitness of her pictures, part of a politics of demasking, also function on a political level—particularly with respect to feminism. Rather than making a “sex-positive,” Edenic retreat from that which we think we should not think or do, Sherman complicates libidinal desire. There is nothing fake at all about her vision.

Jan Avgikos, a critic and art historian who lives in New York, is a contributing editor of Artforum.



1. Andrea Dworkin, letter to the editor, The New York Times Book Review, 3 May 1992, p. 15.

2. Sec Avital Ronell, interviewed by Andrea Juno, Angry Women, San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1991, pp. 127-53.

3. Pat Califia, Macho Sluts, Boston: Alyson Publications. Inc., 1988, p. 16.