VOD film review: Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
James R | On 13, May 2023
Director: Nina Menkes
Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Julie Dash, Laura Mulvey
The term “male gaze” isn’t one that needs an introduction in 2022, but that doesn’t mean it’s one that shouldn’t be discussed. Director Nina Menkes dives into the topic with this in-depth documentary, which ties the visual language of cinema to the sexual abuse and discrimination that’s been prevalent within the movie industry. That lens brings a timely urgency to the film’s academic debate, grounding media and storytelling grammar in real world consequences.
In an increasingly digital age, media literacy is one of the most important skills to learn, whether that’s fact-checking sources or taking a narrator’s bias into account. The male gaze in cinema has played a huge part in shaping the grammar and expectations of visual storytelling and Menkes demonstrates it with an expansive selection of 175+ movie clips, ranging from the 1980s to 2020.
Starting with an interview with Laura Mulvey, who first coined the term “male gaze”, the documentary builds on the notion that the need to position the camera physically in relation to what’s being filmed has typically resulted in audiences being aligned with a male perspective. That ranges from prioritising the audio of men speaking off-screen even when the camera is looking at a woman to the two-dimensional way in which women’s faces are lit to minimise their ageing, while men’s ageing faces are lit to bring out their wrinkles as a positive thing. Even the fragmented way in which women have often been presented, with voyeuristic close-ups on parts of their bodies, has been normalised in everything from advertising to social media, while men are often presented in a less objectifying full profile.
The link between how media teaches people to think of women and how they’re treated by men in an exploitative, patriarchal industry is a convincing one, and helmers ranging from Charlyne Yi and Catherine Hardwicke to Eliza Hittman make insightful contributions to back it up. Menkes even allows for the nuance of how female storytellers can subconsciously end up perpetuating the conventions instigated by the male gaze. Some elements of what is framed as a lecture don’t quite seem to fit the overall hypothesis, such as a scene from Julia Ducournau’s Titane, but that doesn’t detract from the documentary’s overall impact – and, if anything, will only help to stimulate debate around a topic that should be discussed openly and frequently. As Menkes puts it, “the first step of freedom is consciousness”.
Where to watch online in the UK:
This review was originally published during the 2022 London Film Festival.