Men are the subjects, women are the objects. Men look, women are looked at. Men are the active ones, who drive the story and have all the agency. Women are their passive prizes. That’s the essence of Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze theory, elucidated in her ground-breaking 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which woke many up to the way the overwhelming dominance of men in powerful positions in Hollywood had relegated women in film to second-class citizens. In Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, director Nina Menkes argues that almost half a century later, little has changed.
The main body of the documentary is comprised of the lecture “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression” that Menkes has been delivering since 2018, focusing on the ways that shot design has objectified women throughout cinema history, and how that objectification has led to off-screen horrors from workplace discrimination to sexual assault. Menkes delivers the lecture from on stage, that lecture is illustrated by film clips, and complemented by a number of taped interviews with academics and filmmakers including Julie Dash, Eliza Hittman and Catherine Hardwicke.
The publicity copy for the documentary boasts the inclusion of 175 clips, which in itself is a clue as to the shallowness of Menkes’ insight (after all, the film runs just a little over 100 minutes). If you’ve seen even a handful of movies from recent years, it will not take you long to realize that context has no place here. The inclusion of Vicky Krieps modeling a dress in Phantom Thread as Daniel Day-Lewis looks on omits that it’s essentially a story of her tipping their unequal balance of power in her favor. We’re shown J.Lo pole dancing in Hustlers with no mention that the whole movie is about a group of strippers actively using the male gaze against leering men. We see Agathe Rousselle grinding scantily clad on a car at the beginning of Titane with no reference at all to… well, the various ways in which she spends the rest of the duration very much as predator, not as prey. Because Menkes has excised context so thoroughly, there’s no room for any nuance: Women are treated as a homogeneous mass of delicate flowers who wither away under even the briefest glance from a man.
Using these excerpts in such a shallow, wrongheaded manner takes agency from the female characters who actually possess it. It enforces victimhood on women who are anything but victims. And undergirding much of Menkes’ argument is her apparent opinion that a woman being looked at is a woman being inherently degraded, with clips of powerful women clearly enjoying controlling the gaze of men indiscriminately interspersed with clips that drip solely with male lechery.
That a significant portion of this specious list of wrongdoers are female directors’ feminist films is even more galling. Of course, being a woman director doesn’t prevent you from falling prey to the male gaze in your own work, but Menkes’ frequent use of decontextualized clips to unfairly condemn women who’ve had to battle a patriarchal system to get their female-driven stories made is quite infuriating. Moreover, the frequent poor choice of illustrative excerpts devalues those rare sequences where Menkes does consistently choose appropriate examples to make a worthwhile point, as in the section which looks at movies that present sexual encounters where an ardent “No!” becomes an enthusiastic “Yes!”—and how damaging a message that sends about consent.
You might well be wondering: What does doing it right look like? Who does Nina Menkes think is doing the best job at standing tall against the male gaze? According to Brainwashed, the answer seems to be…Nina Menkes. Throughout the documentary, she uses clips from her own films to illustrate how she thinks things should be done; while there are other female directors lucky enough to get on her good list—Céline Sciamma and Agnès Varda both get a well-deserved two thumbs up—Menkes’ own work is by far the most commonly featured in a positive light. Considering that the bulk of the features included are mainstream movies, and Menkes’ oeuvre sits squarely in the art film bracket, this is a somewhat misleading “apples and oranges” choice. More than that though, the sheer self-aggrandizement of Menkes positioning herself so glowingly becomes almost comical as Brainwashed progresses—no prizes for guessing who directed the clip that serves as the documentary’s grand, forward-looking conclusion…
As much as it’s easy to forget with all her ill-judged choices, obviously Menkes is right: The male gaze has been and continues to be pervasive throughout Hollywood, and that has led to terrible real-life consequences for women from men who’ve been cinematically trained to see them as objects. That is a grave problem, and—although things have started to look up in recent years—needs rectifying at a far quicker pace than the industry is currently moving. It’s important, vitally important, that people continue to talk about it, and make films about it. But when there’s such a depressing wealth of clips from cinema history to pick from, and you make such bafflingly bad selections, how is that anything but damaging? When you tear down other female directors making movies about fully-rounded women with agency, how is that helping? The most galling, offensive thing about Brainwashed is how poorly it demonstrates a point that should have been so very easy to prove.
Director: Nina Menkes
Release Date: October 15, 2022 (London Film Festival)
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.