4 things you can learn from the film Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022) by Nina Menkes
After watching this movie, I thought my view of movies would change forever. I thought I would have like new “5D glasses” that would allow me to see through the sexist filters of mainstream cinema. I thought I would now be able to see in color beyond the black and white machismo we often see in Hollywood and streaming platform productions. But, I had underestimated the depth of the evil. The predominance of the male gaze and the objectification of female figures in visual content is not new. They dominate TV, print media, advertisements, and movies. And we are programmed to conform to this dominant aesthetic status quo.
That’s what the film Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, released this year, argues. This documentary by Nina Menkes is a critical rereading of the history of cinema. The analyses in this film essay are primarily related to the work of feminist and film critic Laura Mulvey. In 1975, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey popularized the notion of “the male gaze”, according to which the perspective of heterosexual men predominates in the visual language of cinema at the expense of that of women.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power illustrates this concept by drawing on images and scenes dating from black and white Hollywood to footage from feature films and series released during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nina Menkes intends to explain not only the discriminatory employment practices in the film industry but also the culture of abuse and sexual assault against women that is sustained by this aesthetic choice beyond the screen. The documentary This Change everything (2019) had already exposed the sexism of the film industry through the testimonies of many stars and the dissemination of revealing statistics on this milieu. Brainwashed came to dig into the issue by adopting a less glamorous but more academic and qualitative approach.
When the Woman’s Body Becomes an Object
Traditionally in fictional films, the male point of view is predominant. Male characters tend to be the subjects, the leading figures while female characters are often treated as mere objects, assigned to secondary roles, or to serve as “eye candies”. In most of the scenes, the man does the action, and the woman reacts to it. While the feelings and opinions of the men are emphasized, those of the women are minimized and when they are acknowledged, they are only put in the point of view of the men. Moreover, the story is often told by a male narrator: in 101 of the top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to 2005, more than 4 out of 5 of the film’s narrators were male, according to Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. These details may seem insignificant. However, these practices have a great influence on the interpretation of the stories told.
According to Brainwashed, these esthetical decisions program us and condition our children in a conservative and patriarchal way of seeing femininity and masculinity. Although a film as an artistic work does not necessarily have a moral vocation, it does have a social and political influence. Because of the predominance of the male point of view, these creative decisions create an unequal distribution in the degree of empathy and importance given according to gender.
This objectification and hypersexualization of the female body are not without consequences for the actresses. These practices weigh heavily in terms of oppression in their professional environment. The #Metoo movement had exposed the obscene underbelly of this male obsession. But, besides sexual abuse and aggression, there are many other faults to be denounced and corrected in the film industry: misogyny, ageism towards women, and discrimination in remuneration, to name but a few. Resistance measures often remain personal choices. But the battle to determine new professional standards is a collective struggle and the path recommended by this documentary film.
A Biased Aesthetic of the Gaze
In addition to the double standards of gender, the perspective of films is often also sexist. The objectification and sexualization of female figures is nothing new. But the various examples are shown in this film essay expose the pervasiveness of the problem. From classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious to the films of today, women’s bodies are commodified; every square millimeter of their naked flesh on the screen is sexualized and offered to the male gaze.
Even in films with women as main heroines, the female body suffers this deplorable discrimination, denounces Brainwashed. For example, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) is not free of suggestive clichés that over-sexualized the female body. According to Nina Menkes, the overuse of certain camera and editing techniques on the female body such as close-up, dolly up or down, framing of fragmented body parts, and slow-motion illustrates. What man doesn’t remember Halle Berry’s lascivious wiggles to emerge from the waves of the sea in Die Another Day?
To change this status quo, the increasing participation of women in Behind-the-scenes artistic functions (directing, editing, cinematography, screenwriting), traditionally monopolized by men, is a necessary step forward. But according to Menkes, this is not always a sufficient solution. Often, some women directors reproduce these same sexist patterns. And this is understandable, given that their education and film culture have been shaped in this way.
In this context, in addition to the representation of women in artistic direction, the documentary proposes a paradigm shift in creative choices. Women directors, screenwriters, editors, and cinematographers must find their own perspective, alongside the predominant male perspective. In this way, they will be able to invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of a female character, without the obligation to take into account the stereotypical reactions of men.
The All-Powerful Male Spectator
The third and final element of sexism in visual language is perhaps the most important: films are often designed and made for a male audience. It is this perspective of the heterosexual male viewer that influences the entire film circuit. Even if the film tells a woman’s story, even if that woman’s story is directed and narrated by women, if it is designed for the consumption of a male audience, all of the gender biases, stereotypes, and clichés are likely to continue to influence the types of films produced as well as the choices of artistic direction.
To overcome this “male gaze” on film production, narrator Nina Menkes questions the low percentage of women in film production. Women producers represent a tiny percentage: in 2021, only 26% of executive producers in top-selling films and 32% of producers were women, according to the 2021 Celluloid Ceiling study. Similarly, women aspiring to become producers are even less so. Even though more and more women are specializing in this branch of the film profession, the percentage of those who become producers is still low. The involvement of more women in production roles could change this.
Just as I Am Not Your Negro was an anti-racist documentary, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is a feminist essay. If Raoul Peck’s film condemned the “white gaze” in American cinema and television, Nina Menkes’ documentary came to call out “the male gaze”. In this, both works denounce the predominance of the white man’s point of view, his preferences, and his prejudices in the language of film at the expense of the rest of the world’s perspective. By critically re-reading the history of 120 years of cinema, these two documentaries denounce the social and economic discriminations as well as the relationships of aggression and oppression that this white male supremacy maintains in the world of cinema as well as in Western societies in general.
Filming Past The Male Gaze
That said, all is not lost in terms of film. Some productions are tackling precisely these aesthetic biases. For example, films like The Power of the Dog and Homeland are quality creations not by chance but because they were written or filmed by women. While, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), How to Get Away with Murder (2014–2020), and Passing (2021) show the full potential of making cinema differently by brilliantly bringing to the screen stories whose intersectionality would otherwise have made movie production companies ignore them.
After seeing Brainwashed, I thought my outlook on film would change forever. But I had overestimated the power of viewing this film just once. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power had opened my eyes to dazzle me, but they had immediately closed again. Because after watching this documentary at the Berlinale 2022, I had a hard time finding it. It wasn’t available in theaters. “On Netflix?” — No. On HBO? — Not at all. Disney? Amazon Prime? Don’t even think about it.
In this, film festivals have the merit of giving us to see what the streaming platforms don’t offer. But we would also like to see some alternative films not only distributed in these annual events; they also need to reach the mainstream or at least become accessible to the general public. To promote a more plural view and a more diverse visual language.
At this point, I will finally get to see Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power again. A second time. Or more if I need to, to reprogram my eyes. To get out of the sexist black and white cliché. And finally, start seeing movies in color.