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Forum Discussion on Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (how are these images a commentary on the social roles women play?)

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Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills comprises of over seventy black and white photographs made between 1977 and 1980. When thinking about this series, some aspects of her entire body of work immediately come to mind: disguise and theatricality, mystery and voyeurism, melancholy and vulnerability. Each individual image creates a distinguished scene. Untitled Film Still #21 for example, reminds of a scene from an outdated television show or movie, with the woman in the picture as leading heroine, wearing a vintage 1950s outfit and looking captivated by something outside the frame. This creates suspense: we will never know what happens across the street from this woman. It makes the image not so much about what is happening in the picture, but more about what happened before and after the moment it was shot. This narrative element is characteristic of Untitled Film Stills. The scenes are recognisable as film stills – imitating typical cinematic angles, lighting, and dramatisation – but they come from no particular movie.

Since she became renowned as an artist in the late 1970s, Cindy Sherman played with the slipperiness of identity. In Untitled Film Stills, but also in all her later series, it is always Sherman herself who is in front of the camera. Yet these images are never really self-portraits. Sherman uses photography as a tool to deceive, and evades her own personality by taking on different identities. With vintage clothing, wigs and make-up, she creates an entire range of personalities. Sherman takes on many roles, also behind the camera: photographer, director, hairdresser, set designer and stylist. In conducting herself to working with only her own body, she is capable to explore the endless possibilities of this seemingly limited subject. The different personas Sherman depicts are stereotypes; they represent a series of clichés: career girl, bombshell, fashion victim, schoolgirl, society lady, etc. – all characters deeply embedded in our cultural history. They resemble publicity pictures made on movie sets, adopted from female roles in magazines, advertisements and especially movies. All Sherman’s personas in Untitled Film Stills project the constructed idea of the women’s image, pointing out the arbitrariness of the female stereotypes.

How do you see women’s roles today? Have they changed significantly in the past fifty years? How does the media portray women today? What kinds of roles do they play and are these roles cultually determined?

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