Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power | Decoding What We Truly Witness in the Film


Movie viewers in this era are familiar with the concept of “male gaze,” which was introduced and expounded on by a feminist film scholar called Laura Mulvey. This concept reveals how women are often portrayed as sexual objects in movies from the perspective of heterosexual men and it has become the theoretical starting point of a new filmmaking revolution. Unfortunately, 40 years after Mulvey proposed this concept, male gaze still exists widely in countless movies. Women are still constantly being objectified by visual media, even if it means disrupting the narrative flow of a movie. This is a pressing issue because viewers have become accustomed to this type of portrayal, despite being aware of its existence. Many studies have shown that the omnipresent male gaze that is neglected can have negative effects on women, which include but are not limited to the increased likelihood of being body shamed, developing psychological problems, and internalization of self-hatred.

Independent filmmaker Nina Menkes created her documentary feature “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” based on her speech "Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema." The film analyzes how differently movies depict women and men by examining clips from hundreds of films. She interviews female and non-binary film industry professionals, film theorists, and scholars, including Laura Mulvey, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Dash, Joey Soloway, and Eliza Hittman, to examine the profound impacts of the male gaze. Through the examination of the visual language of cinema, the film highlights the covert connections between gender discrimination, sexual abuse and harassment that occur over a wider scale and timeframe in the film industry.

At the start of the movie, Menkes is seen with her back facing a large screen that displays an iconic scene from Blade Runner 2049. In that scene, the main character, Officer K, stands before the screen and looks at a naked and sensually attractive virtual woman named Joi. Then, Menkes says through a voiceover, “As a filmmaker and as a woman, I found myself drowning in a powerful vortex of visual language from which it is very difficult to escape.” She is referring to the "vortex" that the film creates through its visual language which subjectifies men and objectifies women.

In her analysis, Menkes references Ralph Waldo Emerson, who stated that "[p]erception is not whimsical, but fatal." She examines the design of camera shots in various films from five aspects: subject/object, framing, camera movement, lighting, and narrative position, and analyzes the information conveyed by these shots. I find her analyses of shot compositions in multiple films particularly interesting. Female actors are often captured with fragmented body parts, and their bodies are often directly displayed. Such compositions appeared in many films, such as Eyes Wide Shut, Old Boy, and Lost in Translation. On the other hand, movies use completely different techniques to present men. Male actors always receive natural three-dimensional lighting. Movies rarely show male body parts, and when they have to be exposed, they always perform impactful actions. This visual language creates a natural power dynamic between men and women, viewers and the content being viewed, and subjects and objects. As suggested in the documentary, male gaze ultimately renders women to become the subject of scrutiny , further turning their bodies into a spectacle and sexualizing them.

Male gaze , which is constructed by patriarchal societies, brings impacts that go beyond fiction and has major real-life consequences . This documentary provides data showing that women directors are significantly underrepresented in the American film industry, despite an equal gender distribution in film schools. In 1998, only 9% of the top 250 films in the United States were directed by women, and this figure has dropped further to 8% in 2018. Film producer Maria Giese claimed that the industry welcomes women when they pay to learn about filmmaking but rejects offering them remuneration. Dash and Hittman share their experiences of being ignored or assigned to be extras. Former actress Lara Dale is forced to end her career after refusing to perform a sex scene that is not reflected in the script. Discrimination against women within the American film industry is an open secret.

The impacts of male gaze extend beyond the film industry and it harms both men and women. According to Brainwashed, men who consume media content about objectification of women are more likely to commit sexual harassment and assault. Hardwicke believes that movies like Sixteen Candles promote and normalize dangerous behaviors, such as getting a girl drunk on a date. Films like Gone With the Wind, Blade Runner, and Do the Right Thing depict women eventually being gratified after giving in to men’s demands for sex despite refusing them initially. This glorifies sexual violence and assault and may have wide-scale implications in reality. It perpetuates a vicious cycle that revolves around the male gaze, which is unconsciously created by a patriarchal society that receives and reinforces harmful cultural messages. In the real world, this cycle leads to alarmingly high rates of sexual harassment and assault of women, with 94% of female Hollywood workers having encountered either situation. Male students at Yale University have even been known to chant the slogan "No means yes, yes means anal sex" outside female dorms, which is an completely unacceptable behavior.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

Women, especially female filmmakers, are not necessarily defenseless against male gaze and its corresponding impacts. Menkes suggests that they boldly reject this concept and create something new. Her documentary cites several recent films, such as Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as movies that have made breakthroughs in their narrative perspectives and storytelling methods. Giese also shares her experience, stating that changes can only be introduced when they are demanded for issues that involve money and opportunities. Soloway poses the question from a creator's perspective: "Where should the camera go?" Meanwhile, Mulvey asks a more fundamental question: "How can the object discover their own subjectivity, have their own subjectivity, and become a subject?"

For viewers who are tired of female representation as seen in many of the movies, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power analyses the reason for this phenomenon by studying the camera work of hundreds of films. Building on this foundation, it also points out the connection between male-dominated language in movies, hiring discrimination in the film industry, and sexual abuse and harassment. Identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. To address the problem of male gaze, the documentary argues that questions like what changes filmmakers can implement, what can those who are troubled by it do, and how the world will turn out following the MeToo movement have to be explored and answered. Although the path ahead is uncertain, as Emerson has said, perception is not whimsical, but fatal.

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