Filmmaker Nina Menkes invites audiences to Film Studies 101 in her documentary about the male gaze, objectification of women in cinema, and its effect on the industry’s culture and internal policy. BRAINWASHED: SEX-CAMERA-POWER, based on Menkes’ talk Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression, focuses on the visual language in cinema and its subsequent connection to diversity in the film industry, as well as its contribution to a culture of sexual harassment and misogyny.
It wouldn’t be a film about the male gaze without mentioning Laura Mulvey, whose theory of the male gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) has been the starting point in discussions surrounding this topic, in which the audience is inadvertently consuming films as a male spectator, where women are often objectified. In BRAINWASHED, Mulvey, disappointed but perhaps not surprised, laments the state of the industry, her hope for gender parity still having far to go.
Menkes shows us several clips from directors such as Hitchcock, Scorsese, Welles, Godard, and Coppola, which show the male gaze in action, fragmented body parts, slow motion, subjective POV, and the infamous body pan, all of which contribute to the narrative position of the characters which, Menkes notes, aren’t often related to the story at all. However, many of these clips, including one from Julia Ducournau’s TITANE (2021), aren’t given any context, and whilst there is no denying the presence of the male gaze, some context would have provided a more substantial discussion.
Menkes describes this impact of male perception not only affecting the audience and the industry but also female directors too, where the male gaze has become a subliminal standard in filmmaking and can be hard to change even with a woman behind the camera. Director Julie Dash, perhaps most recognised for her film DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), discusses the difficulties when trying to reimagine the gaze, having to think about camera placement and how the design of each shot perpetuates positions of power and how meaning will be conveyed, without falling back into what Menkes describes as a “global hypnosis”.
Menkes shows us clips from her own films, which offer a new perspective combatting the male gaze, as well as scenes from PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma, 2020), NOMADLAND (Chloé Zhao, 2021), A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), and ORLANDO (Sally Potter, 1993) to provide some comparisons and evidence of a “new gaze”.
With the focus being on women in film, she only briefly touches on the objectification and use of the male gaze for LGBTQ+ folks, who are often sexualised and objectified in the same way on film. BRAINWASHED could have benefited from a more intersectional approach, with some content feeling a little dated. However, the treatment of people who aren’t cis, white, heterosexual men needs to be addressed, and Menkes’ film is a good jumping-off point for this.
Menkes offers a concise history of women in the industry up to the present day, the drop in female protagonists after the silent era, and the rise of a masculinised, wall street-fed culture in Hollywood with the sexuality on screen being fed by male power dynamics. The systemic objectification behind the camera is examined. Charlene Yi describes a particularly horrible experience on set. Rosanna Arquette describes the abuse she received on and off set, and how women are often billed as hard to work with if they don’t agree to certain things that were often not in the script, posing a repeating dilemma between saying nothing or potentially finding it hard to work again.
Where perhaps BRAINWASHED may be treading old ground for some of those already versed in basic film theory, it’s nonetheless useful to watch, especially for the insights into the industry itself from its female workforce. For audiences completely new to this, Menkes provides a clear platform for further study on the commodification of bodies in cinema and highlights the saturation of male power in the film industry: a systemic, toxic culture that needs to be urgently addressed.