The other day my friend introduced me to the Bechdel Test. It was devised to judge how women are represented in film, and the requirements to pass the test are simple. A film must have at least two women in it, they must talk to each other, and they must talk about something other than a man. Yet the majority of films tested, most of which are quite popular, fail the test.

Untitled Film Still #65

Thinking about this reminded me of some of Cindy Sherman's work, especially those present in The Modern's permanent collection. This includes Untitled Film Still #55 (1980), Untitled Film Still #65 (1980), and Untitled (1981). An anonymous woman is the star of each photograph, and Sherman herself plays the characters in a way that seems to reference, well, film stills.

It is important to think about the way women are portrayed in film. Media is undeniably important in this country, with film given special power of influence. Most children grow up watching their favorite movies; we add to our wealth of experiences what we've learned in the films we've seen. They can act as a representation of life, so the way men and women are portrayed in movies affects and is affected by society's gender constructs.

It seems that many of the popular films made in Hollywood are marketed toward men, and therefore many of the female roles are minor. If the Bechdel Test tells us anything, it's that women are often underrepresented in film. In many cases, the women present are there to further the plot from the male perspective. Sherman seems to address this reality through her work. The women in her photographs almost seem to reference women as they are shown in movies and even in art history, especially when marketed to a male audience. She plays the archetypes of film history, in which women were often presented as a rather small catalog of characters.

Much of culture is learned through observation. Expectations of men and women's behavior are expressed in the media, creating role models for people to emulate as they grow up. Perhaps this may show some insight into Sherman's decision to dress up and perform roles for each of her photographs, as though she is emulating the role models she might have had as a child. By performing as the subject in each photograph, Sherman breaks down stereotypes to reveal them for what they are: two-dimensional constructs placed on real people with individual experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Looking at these photographs, thinking about the Bechdel Test, I noticed my reflection was clear in the glass of the frame. As I saw Cindy Sherman playing some constructed female character, I also saw myself and how my own perceptions fit the puzzle. In many interviews, Sherman often encourages viewers to create their own narratives when looking at her work. Perhaps by doing so, we become conscious participators in the story, or in the society that created these stereotypes in the first place. Depending on the narrative we create, her photographs could possibly help us to question our own ideas about gender.

Author: 
Ailie
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