Women have occupied the role of the objet petit a within the gaze of America’s patriarchal culture for decades. French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan explains that there is an intimate relationship between the objet petit a, which coordinates our desire, and the gaze, which threatens to undo it through the interruption of reality (Lacan 9). At the heart of desire is an ever-widening void that we incessantly and unsuccessfully try to fill. Forever unattainable, the object of desire is ultimately nothing more than a screen for our own narcissistic projections. The gaze, as Lacan writes, is dismantled through the realization that behind our desire is nothing but what we lack.
Female artists since the 1980s have attempted to overthrow this gaze by appropriating from and reinterpreting the very tropes of popular culture that have been used to oppress them. Artist, Cindy Sherman uses photography to generate an unpredictability in her image and to challenge the dominant ideologies about female identity. Sherman’s Untitled black and white studies for film stills use photography as it relates to pop culture. Made during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Sherman costumes herself to resemble female leads of Hollywood B movies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (Owens 73). She does not reference specific movies as much as she references mid-century female looks of cinema.
In his essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” Craig Owens equates Sherman’s play-acting as an acting out of the psychoanalytic notion of femininity as masquerade and as a representation of male desire (Owens 75). “One is always in representation, and when a woman is asked to take place in this representation, she is, of course, asked to represent man’s desire (Owens 75).” If men are in visual possession of women, is Cindy Sherman simply acknowledging the inevitable objectification of her image and exploiting this possession for her own gain?
The power in this series lies in the instability of her identity. Although her photographs are always self-portraits, Sherman is able to transform her appearance to such a degree that she never appears to be the same woman or model. Kofman writes, “Because with ‘woman’ men never know for sure with whom they are dealing, they try to overcome her lack of ‘proper’ nature and propriety by making her their property (Modleski 95).” In this regard, perhaps photography is the perfect medium for the gaze to nourish and consume its desire to control the female image. After all, Sherman has been able to sustain an extremely successful career by producing work that clearly satisfies this hunger.
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Jacques Lacan, “IV: on the gaze”
Tania Modleski, “Femininity by Design” 2005.
Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” 1983.
Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills"