Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, let it blow your mind

Nina Menkes in a theater seat watching the screen in Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

From writer and director Nina Menkes, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power explains how the politics of shot design on our screens affects sexual assault and employment discrimination against women. The documentary uses over 175 film clips to make its point.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is so well organized and explored it will wake you from a long slumber regarding the treatment of women on screens. It makes me want to rewrite many of the reviews I have written for this blog, although I’m not going to do that.

The poster for Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

The film was organized like a TED talk or a speech by Nina Menkes. There were five main points, which I’ll talk about in a bit. Comments about each of the five main points were illustrated with film clips. People who spoke included Rosanna Arquette, Julie Dash, Catherine Hardwicke, Ita O’Brien, numerous other Hollywood leaders, and several academics in the film realm.

Point 1: Subject/Object

The phrase “male gaze” means the man is the subject. A man watches a woman. The man is taking the action. The object of that action is the woman. The woman is objectified. The point of view (POV) is the man’s.

Watching films that objectify women literally trains your brain to regard women as passive objects. The documentary called this quality “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

The point of view moves like this: audience -> male director -> male director of photography -> male protagonist -> female object.

Point 2: Framing

Women are often framed as fragmented body parts – butts, lips, breasts, legs – without even showing the woman’s face at all. It’s a man’s point of view, looking at the woman on display before him.

By contrast, when men are shown as sexy, they are shot full body and doing something active. Think of Magic Mike and men prancing shirtless on a stage.

Point 3: Camera Movement

Often the camera moves over the woman’s body in slow motion, further emphasizing that her body is nothing more than an object to be admired and owned. When scenes involving men are shown in slow motion it’s usually a battle scene or a fight scene.

Point 4: Lighting

While men are anchored in space with 3D lighting, women are often used like beautiful 2D portraits. Beautiful but not part of the action going on around them.

Point 5: Narrative Position

The women are passive and powerless in the narrative. The women are not self-acting agents, but objects.

As these points were being made, there were many interesting remarks and illustrations. If the camera is predatory, it trains the culture to be predatory. That translates into glamorizing sexual assault and creating the language of rape culture.

It translates into the devaluing of women in the workplace. Something like 94% of the women working in the film industry both in front of and behind the camera have suffered sexual attacks.

The male gaze is so pervasive in our world, it’s like the air we breathe. It’s so imprinted on us, we don’t even notice it. Examples of films made by women directors that use the male gaze were shown.

Toward the end of the documentary, there were several examples of films that did not rely on the male gaze. A few of them were Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Nomadland, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Promising Young Woman, Orlando, and The Watermelon Woman. I’d like to add the recently released Women Talking and The Woman King.

I watched the film on Prime Video. This is a must see film, not just for women. Men need to open their minds to this as well. Nothing will change if they don’t.

10 thoughts on “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, let it blow your mind”

  1. The male-gaze is not as objective as you might think. Hardly any men retain enough detail mentally to be able to tell the difference between two similar women within three minutes of seeing one of them unless it’s their wife or daughter. I’ve tested it. As an artist, I’ve painted many women and they are all unique. Most men need people, not just women to be dressed in something distinctive before they can tell one stranger from another. So what does that leave them with? Delusional fantasy. Take ears for instance. We all have them but how many people could recognize family members by just looking at their ears which are as different, more different than finger prints. If you had do draw one, hardly anyone could do it. Men are so unobservant that it sometimes makes me wonder how we survived as a species. Objectifying women is an evolutionary tactic to keep men from trying to procreate with sheep and pine boards with knot holes in them.

    1. Well, that was refreshing!!
      (I am going forth into the world to observe some ears as soon as possible.) Thanks John.

  2. Thank you for this review, which I found when reading another of your reviews, which I seek out because I trust their clarity, insight and brevity. I had not heard of this movie yet. It brought together for me thoughts and frustrations I’ve had with movies and the male gaze over many decades. I needed to see, hear and know what director Nina Menkes shares. I loved the ultimate question, what would it be like to NOT be trapped in this collective unconsciousness, the repetitive, boring yet abusive, misogynistic male gaze of the objectified female body? What would a true shot of the individual expressions of desire and passion look like? Thanks again for great summary review!

    1. Suzanne Brisendine

      As I read reviews for upcoming weekend releases, I thought of what I learned from this movie, and using it as a filter, decided I don’t want to see any more movies about men killing women – not exactly on point, but the ever-present theme, easily found almost any weekend, sells fear constantly. Enough of men targeting women to kill.

      1. There are thousands of them. Just scrolling through the offerings on Netflix or Prime, the posters are men, men, men. Sometimes a woman in the back or between two men. Finding something *about* women is almost impossible sometimes.

      2. Oh, same here. I’m not interested anymore in movies about men and men’s perspective only. I’m so tired of watching the same setup dresses like it’s something else.

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