Art and Literature

The selfie as a feminist act

Can taking a selfie be a feminist act? The answer to this question, according to Stanford professor Peggy Phelan, lies at the intersection of feminist art and photography.

Phelan is a leader in the fields of performance studies and contemporary art. She has authored catalog and scholarly essays about the role of gender in photography, performance, and art. With the rise of new forms of digital recording and photography, Phelan’s work has taken on added significance. New photographic forms like the selfie—a self-portrait typically taken with a digital camera or smartphone—combine performance and self-portraiture. They also challenge traditional ideas about gender and photography.

According to Phelan, photography, particularly self-portraits, can shed light on how we interpret gendered images. In particular, the art of pioneering feminist photographers like Cindy Sherman can add depth to seemingly simple photos like selfies, and prompt us to rethink the role of selfies in debates about gender equality.

“Seize the gaze” and the rise of feminist art

Cindy Sherman is a renowned photographer and filmmaker best known for creating evocative self-portraits. Phelan explains that Sherman’s photographs were central to the “feminist art” movement in the United States in the 1970s and contends that Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of self-portraits created from 1977-1980, can shed light on today’s photographic trends. Sixty-nine black and white photographs of the same size and shape, “Untitled Film Stills” is a series of self-portraits that feature Sherman in Hollywood-inspired settings. By photographing herself in recognizable positions and poses, Sherman’s “Film Stills” raises questions about the lack of diversity of the women featured in mainstream images and the objectification of women’s bodies in film and photography. But perhaps more fundamentally, by inserting her own image into mainstream visual culture, Sherman underlined the porosity of the border between self and representation.  

Sherman’s photographs complemented feminist film theorists’ analyses of visual art. In 1975, theorist Laura Mulvey argued that Hollywood film portrayed white women as “an object to be seen.” This is because men controlled the camera and male protagonists dominated the gaze structure within the film. Phelan argues that Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” challenged traditional depictions of women because, as the photographer, Sherman controls the camera, while also performing as the object of the viewer’s gaze. As a result, Sherman began to overturn the usual assumptions about women in film and photography. 

Cindy Sherman’s impact in feminist art and photography

“Untitled Film Stills” propelled feminist art and photography in the 1970s and 1980. However, Phelan argues that Sherman’s impact is more extensive. In “Untitled Film Stills,” as well as her 1990 series, “History Portraits,” a series that features Sherman posing as the figures in famous paintings, Sherman, by inserting her own image into the history of representation, begins to open up a larger field for self-performance.

Sherman advanced a vision of photography that was based on new ideas about the female image and gaze, Phelan explains, and also inspired the broader goal of democratizing artistic expression for everyone. As a result, Sherman catalyzed the field of feminist art, and advanced new photographic practices that helped shape photography today.

Selfies and the feminist gaze   

Phelan’s analysis takes on added importance in light of new digital photographic mediums. Smart phones and point-and-shoot cameras are everywhere, allowing anyone to be the photographer or director as well as the subject of the photo. New forms of self-portraiture, like the selfie, challenge dominant forms of frame construction and the rules of photographic composition.

Phelan argues that Sherman’s work anticipated the selfie. Like “Untitled Film Stills,” the selfie creates new angles of perspective and gaze. Most importantly, the selfie, like Sherman’s feminist masterpiece, promotes the idea that representation is open for the insertion of the self. The inclusion of the female figure by the woman herself, and the resulting displacement of the male gaze have important implications for gender equality today. As Phelan shows, Sherman’s influence on self-portraiture, and her displacement of traditional notions of the female figure, have broadened the fields of performance and art, while also allowing women today to “seize the gaze.”