Artists around the world are putting their shoulder to the rolling wagon of feminine imagery in 2016. These works often aim to develop femininity – qualities associated with, but not particular to, women – by showing it in a new light. Six decades ago, work produced in a similar vein confronted a world where, despite two world wars having boosted the proportion of female workers worldwide, women generally had far lesser status. In America they didn’t receive the same legal rights as men until 1972. Today, key areas like wages and management representation still suffer from gender disparity.

The mentality that fosters such inequality is evident in 20th century feminine imagery. Picture themes across media on billboards, in magazines and on television promoted an aesthetic of women whose value was weighed mainly by their use in relation to men as girlfriends, wives or sisters. Changing the perception of femininity by reframing, debunking and progressing past this housewife ideal was central to feminist photography from this period. It aimed to oil the wheels of social change by revolutionizing femininity.

During the 20th century, the idea of femininity as a social construct spread across media. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, published in English in 1953, worded the history of sexism. 10 years later, Betty Friedan called for femininity perception to be overhauled in The Feminine Mystique. Today, Oxford Dictionaries defines “femininity” as “the quality of being female; womanliness.” Photography helps feed a new visual vocabulary into the feminist lexicon by offering a pictorial clarity to accompany the words.

Dressing Up

Cindy Sherman negotiated the definition of femininity by representing the feminine boundary of housewifery. In project Untitled Film Stills of 1977–1980 she produced 69 black-and white images of herself in postures of clichéd noirs: sprawling on a bed, picking up spilt shopping and gazing at horizons. Amalia Ulman’s viral Instagram performance, as a troubled Los Angeles girl, drew from a similar idea this year by satirizing the female behavioral routine. Sherman exposed femininity’s artificiality by showing how easily it could be slipped on and off.

Austrian photographer Birgit Jürgenssen also captured domestic dissatisfaction in sardonic ’70s works by dressing as a housewife with a stove around her neck in Housewives’ Kitchen Apron. A series from 1980, "10 Days – 100 Photos," saw parts of her self-portraits obscured by fur. Jürgenssen said of the latter: “The identity of the woman has been made to disappear – all except for the fetishized object, which is the focus of male fantasy”.

Jürgenssen and Sherman demonstrated how the traditional domestic view of femininity obscures actual identity. The starched dresses and made-up eyes of photographic caricatures aim to chip the bedrock of the ’50s housewife ideal. They also imply that femininity has a place in the workplace. Helmut Newton advanced empowering images of this nature from the ’60s onwards with his reverent shots of women in positions of authority.

American artist Hannah Wilke also pictured femininity as a fitted mask. In a ’74 picture, 20 adjacent images showed her transition from Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ with a simple robe adjustment. Her pose, instantly recognizable as both icons, impresses how naturally humans can acknowledge gender as fluid. Femininity is a veneer, which is why photography, being visual, is an apt medium to portray (and play with) it.

A crucial part of feminist photography was making established femininity seem detached and strange. A disguise by Wilke builds on the idea of a wearable “other.” Taking a photo of oneself always creates an “other” in a person reproduced in an image; distinct from his or her self. The likes of Jürgenssen, Sherman and Wilke drew from this quality of photography to underscore the “otherness” of traditional femininity.

We’re All Freaks

Disguises of another kind were approached by documentarian of “freaks,” Diane Arbus, in capturing transvestites. Her brutal and surreal images of dwarves, giants and circus performers shone a spotlight into the far corners of society. The American revolutionary mused: “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was.”

Arbus went a step beyond demonstrating the fluidity of femininity among women by showing how femininity could apply to those of non-female gender. She shot pictures of men dressed as women, looking where others didn’t. One photo shows a male torso combined with a woman’s hat; another a wig with a bulging bicep. The message was that the trappings of femininity could be donned by anyone.

Many of Arbus’ shots were taken in the ’60s when, alongside swinging promiscuity, gender boundaries were rocking. They fed into the dialogue of a world recognizing transgender people on a grand scale. The ’50s and ’60s saw the birth of some of the first transgender organizations and publications during a time of tension that culminated in the LGBT-powered Stonewall riots in Manhattan, 1969. Arbus’ unshrinking approach was an important precursor to the likes of Nan Goldin, who captured gay subcultures in New York from the late ’70s, as well as photographers of LGBT communities today.

As well as its gender non-specificity, Arbus touched on the possible depth of femininity. Perhaps her most famous image – one that pops up in places from The Shining to The Simpsons – is Identical Twins: two girls from New Jersey with the same features but contrasting expressions. Their differences betray each’s individuality despite being “identical.” The image shows how people are fundamentally unalike, individuals with an identity not necessarily masculine or feminine, something matching genes and dresses won’t change.

Beautiful and Weird

The notion of the ideal feminine was again bruised by photographers who exposed its nature as a disposable tool of mass media. Croatian photographer Sanja Iveković made pairs of images in mid-1970s series "Double Life." The earlier one of each couple was of herself, snipped from her 1953–1976 family albums. The other was from beauty adverts in women’s lifestyle magazines like Grazia, Marie Claire and Elle.

The paired images are uncannily similar in gesture, expression and location. The timings implied Iveković had been unconsciously following a set of rules of femininity while with her family. Magazine photoshoots would continue to conform to these boundaries years later.

American artist Laurie Simmons, mother of Lena Dunham, used dolls as her models. Since 1976, she has shot projects of the toys in a dollhouse setting. Her pictures of a housewife rattling around plastic trappings showed the alienation at the heart of the American dream’s femininity. This was the Warhol era – of artists appropriating mass-produced goods to comment ironically on their environments. Simmons used ’50s dollhouses instead of soup cans. Her results could be captioned with the slogans of Barbara Kruger’s photographs, like "I Shop Therefore I Am,” from the same period. Simmons highlighted how the archetype of a stay-at-home mother had become a kind of readymade artifact.

These are just a handful of the photographers who helped to reshape the image of femininity. As long as there have been cameras, there have been shutterbugs helping to redefine the boundaries of what it means to be woman-like. Those such as Sherman, Arbus and Simmons were the trendsetters whose ideas kicked at the shins of patriarchal ideals by illustrating the depth and fluidity of femininity. They helped to lay the path for the bold new femininity striding out today.

Cindy Sherman: Works from the Olbricht Collection runs until 28 August at ME, Berlin and Helmut Newton: A Retrospective runs until 4 September at Foam, Amsterdam

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