A Successful "Woman of a Certain Age"? Cindy Sherman and the Stereotypes of Middle-Aged Women

How do you write about Cindy Sherman? Has not everything that can be theorized or speculated or critiqued already been said? There certainly seems to be plenty written on her art, its place within, and impact on visual culture. Her recent (2012) retrospective at MoMA drew a wide range of opinions, from scathing criticism of her “irredeemably boring egotism” (Perl) to idolizing praise of “her self – remorseless, generous imaginative and shrewd” (Smith, Angel Provocateur). On the other hand, so far there does not seem to be much in-depth analysis of Sherman’s more recent work (from the latter half of the last decade to the current one). The bulk of theorizing and meaning-making has focused on what she has done up until the early 2000’s, particularly her Untitled Film Stills which seem endlessly fascinating to theorists and regular viewers alike. However, her society portraits, murals and another fashion series deserve a closer look and deeper analysis, particularly from a feminist perspective.

Untitled #466
color photograph
101-7/8 x 69-1/4 inches (frame)
254.3 x 174.6 cm

Sherman’s Society Portraits, which she produced in 2008, was her first major series of work since The Clown series of 2004. They are large scale works in heavy ornate frames which evoke formal commissioned portraits hanging in grand halls and mansions. The subjects of these works are, as the title implies, women of high social standing, heavily made up and coifed and photographed in front of “appropriately lush backgrounds” (Robinson). All of them are staring directly into the camera, often in a challenging manner. For this series, Sherman photographed herself, in full costume and make-up, in front of a green screen and then used digital image editing software to insert the background which she had photographed separately. Some critics have suggested that this series is about the stereotypes of women fighting the aging process. According to Searle, they “invite a certain misogyny.” Stein elaborates, saying the portraits are of “…the middle aged woman, successful, at the top of her field, and still subject to an inevitable and unkind scrutiny.” Perhaps that is the point. Sherman’s work has often revealed to viewers how easy it is for us to fall into criticism and judgment of women. When it comes to middle-aged women, as a society we have an expectation that they make every effort to fight the aging process and appear younger than they are. But, when they do, we immediately judge their efforts to be vain or shallow. At first glance these women appear to have bought into the requirements of society to maintain a certain appearance. But upon longer viewing, I think I see in their eyes a certain understanding of the impossible expectations which society has of them and a strength or determination to remain unbowed in the face of those expectations.

“Cindy Sherman,” installation view, 2012. Museum of Modern Art, New York

In 2010, Sherman released a series of murals, the dimensions of which vary from show to show as they are dependent on the gallery setting and are thus Sherman’s only installation-like work. In these she has used no makeup but rather turned to photo editing software to change her features from image to image. She still varies her costumes and wigs, though, and in this series has chosen a collection of very odd-ball characters to play. “They are bag-lady-like in their complete disregard for what is appropriate to wear. Here, Sherman is androgynously decked out as a juggler, or as a renegade knight from a pitiful renaissance fair. The most wonderful extreme is her apprentice bag lady in a baggy flesh colored body stocking, tap shoes, sparkle trunks and a ratty feathered bustier with gold Lurex opera length gloves” (Smith, Angel Provocateur). As usual, it is difficult to determine exactly what Sherman is expressing with this series. I think that the dimensions and the in-your-face nature of these images challenge what would normally be society’s reaction to marginalized women – to ignore or mock them. We cannot ignore them, and it’s very difficult to laugh at them when they tower over you to such a degree. Notably, all but one of the women have little to no expression on their faces, seeming to not have an opinion of the world they stare out at. The one who does is wearing a frumpy dress, black sneakers, polka dot rubber gloves and is holding a bunch of green onions. She sports a kind of knowing, ironic, half-smile reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Again, one gets the impression that she knows what the viewer is thinking of her appearance and has decided not to let it affect her own self-image.

Untitled #513. Color photograph, 68 x 96 3/8 inches (image size); 172.7 x 244.8 cm.

Sherman’s most recent work is a series of fashion related images. This is her third fashion series, not counting six images she did for Balenciago in 2007/2008. These works were “commissioned by Garage magazine and [use] garments from the Chanel archive” (Smith, Cindy Sherman). The subjects are again fully costumed but without makeup, standing in front of landscape scenes “she photographed in Iceland, during a 2010 volcanic eruption, and the Isle of Capri” (Llanos). Once again she has used digital manipulation to alter her facial features and she has further manipulated the textures of the backgrounds so that they appear somewhat painterly. These images are an antithesis to her society portraits: neither the women nor the costumes fit with the background. There are no readily made narratives for these images; the subjects aren’t stereotypes we recognize. This is a major departure from Sherman’s previous works, though it might have been foreshadowed in the murals; previously there have almost always been narratives within her images that the viewers could easily pick up on despite an ever-present element of mystery in them. Smith suggests “…that Ms. Sherman’s art is veering ever closer to self-portraiture and the possibility that aging itself may be emerging as one of her main themes” (Cindy Sherman). I think it is a mistake to read the lack of makeup as an indication of either a movement towards self-portraiture or a theme of aging. To me, there is something very elemental in these most recent works. The women are enigmatic and isolated but powerful; not at all overwhelmed by the landscapes they guard. Strength in women is not often acknowledged or recognized  by our culture; are powerful women really such rare beings or is it simply that we are incapable of seeing power under all the layers and stereotypes society has placed on women?

While theorists have, for the most part, decided that Sherman’s art is the quintessential example of post-modernism, Sherman has always resisted labels; whenever she has been asked about being a feminist or post-modernist she has refrained from claiming those titles for herself or her art. She seems to prefer for people to make their own meaning of her work rather than inform viewers of what her art is about. Because she has so often used herself as a model, it is perhaps inevitable that some people see her work as boring or repetitive; however, I feel she is continuing to create pieces that have different or new things to say. I do think it is impossible to ignore the feminist elements in her work and given her success, it behooves those of us who are interested in women’s role in society and art to highlight these elements. I am eager to see what she will produce next as I feel she has by no means exhausted the creative possibilities of her oeuvre.


Works Cited

Llanos, Michele. “Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures Gallery.” Trendland. 03 May 2012. Web. 30 April 2013.

Perl, Jed. “The Irredeemably Boring Egotism of Cindy Sherman.” The New Republic. 14 March 2012. Web. 30 April 2013.

Robinson, Gaile. “Art Exhibit: Cindy Sherman, Queen of the Camera.” dfw.com. 23 March 2013. Web. 30 April 2013.

Searle, Adrian. “Photographer Cindy Sherman’s Changing Faces.” The Guardian. 22 April 2009. Web. 30 April 2013.

Smith, Roberta. “Photography’s Angel Provocateur: ‘Cindy Sherman’ at Museum of Modern Art.” The New York Times. 30 April 2013.

—. “Cindy Sherman: Metro Pictures.” The New York Times. 03 May. 2012. Web. 30 April 2013.

Stein, Sadie. “Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman.” Jezebel. 22 April 2009. Web. 30 April 2013.


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Author: The Blue Route

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