Sexism, sadism and side shows: Cindy Sherman at the City Gallery

Female socialization is a process of psychologically constructing and breaking girls, otherwise known as ‘grooming’, to create a class of compliant victims… Femininity is just a traumatized psyche displaying acquiescence. This is not natural. It was not created by God. It’s a corrupt and brutal arrangement of power.

– Lierre Keith

From female genital mutilation to foot binding, from media-fuelled eating disorders and fads for labiaplasty, to domestic violence and recent instructions delivered by U.S. president Donald Trump that female staffers “dress like a woman” – femininity is repressive and mutilating. The City Gallery’s current Cindy Sherman show, however, presents a different take. Sherman’s practice involves using herself to make tragi-comic portraits of women, who the artist presents as disfigured not by femininity, but in spite of it. Femininity offers women attractiveness, and “identity” – but in trying it on, we all inevitably, tragically flounder.

Diagram from Andrea Dworkin’s “Woman Hating”

“It’s not like I didn’t like them,” says Sherman of her portraits, “and I’m gonna make fun of these women.” Still, her exhibition was a strange place to be invited to wander on January 22 this year, during a break in the Love Trumps Hate rally and at the conclusion of the Women’s March. “I wanted some of them to be a joke,” Sherman says of her portraits. “Like the big nose on the young girl, the breast that looks like its half a grapefruit.” Or, “what if she’s a powdered-wig-woman, but she’s got this big foot?” These statements carry echoes of some of Trump’s own recent declarations, like that Heidi Klum is “no longer a ten”, that “a woman who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10”. As Barbara Kruger points out – “money makes money, and a rich man’s jokes are always funny”.

Must we pretend that it is not especially clear to what culture Sherman is so unironically pandering? This kind of work has a history: the imagery and pornography of the medieval witch hunts, bearded ladies, the racist parading of Saartjie Baartman for white audiences as the “Hottentot Venus”. Sherman engages in a tradition of “freak of nature” sideshow displays. The porn industry has been based on this degradation and dehumanisation since the witchcraze, which is why slapping, gagging, strangling, and spitting on women are such common practices within it.

No wonder that Donald Trump has ties to pornography and sex trafficking, alongside his plans to eliminate funding for 25 domestic violence programmes. Rebecca Solnit had already suggested that the U.S. needs a national rape monument for its countless victims, before he came to power. Now, Texas is looking to remove voting rights from women who have had abortions; Arkansas, to  enable rapists to sue women for having them. This of course emboldens misogynist leaders everywhere, including in New Zealand, where 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted.

In this now escalating climate of sexism, Sherman has produced the work Black Sheets – and claims to be mystified that audiences have seen in it a victim of sexual assault. Sherman says she imagines the subject as having “just woken up from a night out on the town… she’s got like, the worst hangover… other people look at that and think she’s a rape victim.” Well, yes. Assault is very common, and both the image and the work’s title evoke sex, and devastation. Why be disingenuous? Why ignore, if not for the benefit of fitting in to a white male establishment?


Representation of women in the arts is now more important than ever, but the fine art world is still dragging its heels as ever on sexism. While times call for the uncompromising work of artists like Barbara Kruger (quoted above), Robyn Kahukiwa and Shona Rapira-Davies, the art world is still busy encouraging conformity through its ‘feminising’ selection practices. The City Gallery programme has recently included Yvonne Todd, a follower of Cindy Sherman’s; and Fiona Pardington, who allowed the gallery to place her rephotographed pornography on the floor for visitors to trample.


The City Gallery Wellington has not, in recent years, appeared willing to look at gender as something of material consequence for women; only something of sexual and intellectual titillation. While artists like Kruger, Rapira-Davies and Kahukiwa challenge and resist girls and women’s socialisation to femininity in determined, monumental ways – Todd, Sherman and Pardington make trade-offs to conform to the norms set by male art dealers and the male art establishment. Fair enough – but we need to see more than that now. This cannot be our answer to escalating misogyny and attacks on women and women’s rights.

The same ideas about gender were also echoed in Robert Leonard’s show Bullet Time, as well as Leonard’s sidebar exhibition accompanying Sister Corita’s Summer of Love. Sister Corita was a Catholic nun, artist and activist, who made powerful works of protest. In Leonard’s response to her punchy show, a video of fanatic, television evangelists overwhelmed the room. This large, noisy work loudly parodied Sister Corita’s spirituality, rather than exploring it more deeply or even critically.

sausage-party-posterDespite the postmodern packaging, the City Gallery’s positions on gender remain facile: last year, the poster for a movie called Sausage Party instantly reminded of Robert Leonard’s catalogue essay for Bullet Time. The exploded apple, representing a woman, is pictured above.

Edgerton’s images were often sexually loaded: a gun discharging with an ejaculatory puff of smoke, an exploded apple (tempting forbidden fruit), a ruptured banana (a phallus), milk splashes (mummy!). They suggest those movie cutaways that signify sex without showing it—steam trains entering tunnels and fireworks exploding.

Rather than being critically contextualised, these kinds of analogies were employed by Leonard as a framework for exploring gender in Bullet Time.

This essentialist intellectualising on gender as identity is not innocent; the ideas it reinforces are of direct consequence to women. Indeed, on my recent visit to the City Gallery, my friend asked one of the male staff what it was like to spend hours sharing rooms with Sherman’s photographs. “They’re a bit scary,” he said, explaining how he shifted between the rooms to help himself cope. “Some of them remind me of the women who work here.” We were upstairs, so perhaps he was referring to Sherman’s Society Ladies?

guerilla-girlsIn 1985, Guerilla Girls famously questioned whether ‘women had to be naked to enter the Metropolitan Museum’, given that most “female representation” consisted of nudes painted by men, for male gratification and gain. That question is as pertinent as ever. At the time Guerilla Girls were working, dealers like Peter McLeavey in Wellington were building male dominated stock rooms. Women who manage to find a way in, tended to be those rewarded for a level of conformity. Women who make the male establishment uncomfortable by asking pointed questions about violence and male power, don’t tend to be welcomed into it.

Many women in Wellington at the moment are building their own platforms making these trade-offs. In fact, the whole of third wave feminism is premised on coaching and encouraging women to do so. Just last year, talented wordsmith Hera Lindsay Bird gained celebrity status with a poem called Keats is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind; while Pardington showed porn at the City Gallery, and the musical powerhouse Estère produced Ambition about a “sex worker” aspiring to be the United States president. We almost have this now, in Melania Trump, America’s first sex worker first lady. This so-called feminism rewards women for not taking sexual politics seriously; not looking at the real life impacts of male dominance and institutionalised objectification, and for accepting uncritical, individualistic narratives about “choice”, “identity” and “sex positivity”.

Pardington is currently represented by Suite Gallery – and we can compare her pornography with the way women are represented in the gallery by the likes of Roger Boyce. Boyce’s 2014 Muse exhibition also makes a pertinent comparison with Cindy Sherman’s work: Muse is a series of portraits of women appropriated from dating websites. It is based on a similar joke about women’s ultimate failures to meet the ideals femininity sets us, and a similar pretense at compassion. It is fetishistic, as are other works by Boyce, like his painting 3 on a match (above), which bears resemblance to the medieval ‘witch porn’ produced at the time of the witch hunts and tortures.

“Women are supposed to “fit in” to this picture,” says feminist author Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, “as pictures, that is, as projectionsThe march of mechanical masculinist progress is toward the elimination of female Self-centering reality.” Women are supposed to internalise and digest images of femininity to the point we can replicate it properly; to the point it has substituted ourselves. If we can’t do this, we become sad and curious, desperate figures, like the women in Boyce’s Muse.

Sherman illustrates this process. An Art21 documentary about Sherman, funded with help from the Andy Warhol Foundation, plays on the City Gallery’s top floor. On the back of the T.V. unit is a rack of women’s magazines, since Sherman is influenced by these. In the documentary, Sherman describes how her work began: as a child, she sought herself and she circled herself in these family photo albums, captioning them “that’s me,” “that’s me,” “that’s me”.

sherman thats me.png
Cindy Sherman

“When I was a kid, I watched T.V. pretty much all the time,” Sherman says, explaining that the television was in the basement. The artist echoes Warhol elsewhere, for instance when she talks about how “I want to make something that looks mass produced”, and her preference for inspiration from European movies, in which the women look “more blank”. More echoes of Warhol in the statement that “There’s a sort of boredom I wanted them to have”.

I can’t help but also be reminded of the six-minute Crimson Education film A Day in the Life of Max Key. Having grown up surrounded by media, Key has trouble distinguishing between his experiential life and the world of P.R. and publicity:

I’m more me than I was a few years ago… now, I’m just doing what I want, when I want… I’ve been working really hard in the last year to change my persona… I’ve been changing up my posts on Instagram, kind of just generally what I wear, growing my hair out, trying not to care as much I guess.

Key is now following somewhat in his father’s footsteps, studying commerce and using Twitter to pronounce that “real men ride women”. Of course, the movie Factory Girl tells the story of how Warhol used, drugged and ultimately destroyed Edie Sedgwick for his own personal gain.

Adopting this postmodern tone and its narratives is a very different thing if you are the hunted, or the hunter. Feminist author Andrea Dworkin has made the point that women should not fall into the trap of seeking sameness, seeking equality with men. “A commitment to sexual equality with men,” she says, “is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.” In adopting this hollowed, postmodern persona, sexism and all; and avoiding discussions of sexual violence, Sherman does herself few favours. Equality with men, on the terms set by a white, male establishment, is what black feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks – and Sojourner Truth way back in the first wave – have consistently critiqued white women for seeking.

Yet this is what Sherman does. “You see male artists doing it all the time,” she observes, “make a picture as big as the entire wall of a gallery. It just seemed like such an egotistical thing. There are not many women who really do that… I thought, damn. I’m going to do that!”

Sherman is absolutely right about this practice of male artists making triumphant works with little need to ensure those works represent anything more than their own whimsical interests. The work of Barbara Kruger, by contrast, is monumental – but made out of the kind of solidarity that turns it an occupation on behalf of and in support of women at large, a challenge to male dominance made to offer strength, representation, and further the interests of a group. Sherman though, does not voice any interest in challenging status quo egotism – just in having a slice of the pie.

When bell hooks challenged white feminism, it was because she was tired of watching white women dominate women’s movement with a fight to gain access to the privilege of our male counterparts, rather than dismantling the systems that uphold that privilege and worst affect black women. This whitewashed “feminism” has always been less challenging to men and to systems of power. When I look at work like Rapira-Davies Nga Morehu or Robyn Kahukiwa’s Power to Define, or Emily Karaka’s work, I see a challenge to white women too – to deepen our own understanding of, and response to white supremacist patriarchy and its norms. I see Barbara Kruger as an artist who responds to this challenge, and Sherman as contemporary who ignores it completely. After all, Sherman calls art history, television and women’s magazines equivalent influences on her practice.

This whitewashing was present at the Women’s March on January 22, too. Organisers told those of us gathered that the event was not a protest, and it wasn’t anti-Trump, it was pro inclusivity, and that “kindness is everything”. In a world that socialises women to accommodate even assault, and black women both assault and colonisation, it seems questionable to gather us together to preach more kindness, rather than forthright resistance. Then of course came all the post-March accusations that pussy hats are ‘transphobic’, because not “all women have vaginas”, and so forth.

Sherman allows space for such sentiment, which of course, comes from males. Looking at Sherman’s work is like looking for a woman lost in a hall of mirrors; and when the “thing” beneath the attempt at femininity is so lost, and so eroded as to become incapable of self-recognition, almost a vacuum, then of course: ‘it’ can easily be substituted for a man. And men, as we know, do everything better: including femininity. Sherman’s show includes a room dedicated to Casa Susanna, a 1960s resort for cross dressing men; and upon entry to the City Gallery currently, visitors are immediately greeted by two books by Katherine Cummings, a man who identifies as a transwoman. When Lister asserts that femininity is not a socialisation process but an “identity”, he encourages this occupation of a woman’s show by male interests.

The tone of Sherman’s show indeed fits perfectly with current trends in gender politics to ignore the sex-based nature of women’s oppression, fixate on ‘identity’ and speak disparagingly of ‘cis’ women in favour of men who identify as women. This trend began with the takeover of Women’s Studies departments by queer theory in the 1980s, as a paradigm dominated by hetero- and homosexual white men, hostile to women – particularly feminists and lesbians.

Feminist commentator Magdalen Berns has made a  video that captures this trend. The video is about the market for “femininity consultants” who offer services to men who wish to better “pass” as women. Nevermind that this practice is based on stereotypes and ignoring critiques countless women have made that femininity as mutilating and oppressive. In the video, punters question whether any woman could ever be worthy of assisting a man who is trans with his project of adopting womanhood. One says,

I feel like the idea of a cis woman teaching transwomen what it means to be a woman is kind of weird.

Another says,

Just the concept of having a cis female try to show a transgender woman how to be more feminine is ridiculous.

Misogyny is on the rise, and it is taking new forms. It now also comes in enhanced “inclusive”, “liberal” packaging, as a signal of support for men who are trans; but the affect on women remains the same.

As far as the City Gallery is concerned, perhaps Lister and Leonard find the idea of taking a feminist assessment of gender seriously emasculating – this may well explain their preference for female artists who present women as creepy clowns, and who accommodate male interests like porn, and gender as “identity”. It’s time the City Gallery asked a feminist, though, with critical perspectives on gender to contribute to their programmes, in the face of escalating attacks on women’s rights. Female representation is a tokenistic, tick-box exercise when all women are either silent or conformist on issues of gender. Where is the support for art that is about women, and by women and for women? The art to match the challenges of our times?

Work by Barbara Kruger

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