The ways we behave and express ourselves are shaped by the cultures in which we participate. Since the mid-twentieth century, philosophers, social scientists, and historians have theorized that gender—the roles, characteristics, and activities that distinguish men from women—are not innate but socially constructed. Behaviors thought to be feminine or masculine differ from one culture to another and across time periods.
Many artists have used their work to examine, question, and criticize the relationships between gender and society. As the feminist movement gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, artists began to challenge traditional roles of women, addressing topics such as women in domestic and public spheres, and the conventional standards of beauty. Artists have also addressed masculinity, investigating how societal pressures and mass media inform and shape our expectations of men. While many artists have tackled the social construction of gender over the last fifty years, they were not the first to do so: In the first half of the twentieth century, artists such as Claude Cahun and Frida Kahlo made self-portraits that emphasize the fluidity of gender, refusing to adhere to statically masculine or feminine characteristics.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.
A representation of oneself made by oneself.
Questions & Activities
Consider traditional gender roles. Write a list of five words that are typically associated with masculinity and five words that are typically associated with femininity. Using a pair of scissors, cut out each word separately.
Examine. Print out images of three works from the MoMA Learning Gender and Identity theme. Match the words to the images you think they describe best.
Reflect. How did the artist conform to traditional gender roles? How did the artist challenge conventional notions of masculinity and femininity?
In Untitled (almost original), Richard Prince juxtaposes various images of the Marlboro Man, a famous cigarette-advertising icon that promotes American ideals of rugged masculinity.
Consider. Advertising and consumer culture play a major role in creating and reinforcing gender stereotypes. Browse advertisements on the Internet or in magazines. Who is the target audience for these advertisements? Pick two ads—one that is targeted toward women and another that is targeted toward men.
Reflect. Compare how each advertisement constructs femininity and masculinity. Write your response in a two-paragraph essay.
In their photographs, Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman take on a variety of personas, such as movie starlets, clowns, and sailors.
Brainstorm. Think about your identity. Write down five words you think best describe yourself.
Mix it up. Ask a partner to pick three of the words and change them to the opposite meaning. For example, if you wrote “shy,” your partner would change the word to “outgoing.”
Imagine. Using your list of five words, construct an alter ego for yourself. Consider the following questions: What is this character’s name? Where is this person from? What does he or she like to do?
Create. Share your alter ego with the world! Write, draw a picture, or make a collage to communicate your new character’s story.