When feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she likely didn’t expect the concept to take on the life it did. The term appears only twice in the essay, describing a gendered approach to visual storytelling in which the camera enacts sexual politics, with men as empowered subjects and women as sexualized objects. But nearly 50 years later, Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze remains at the heart of contemporary conversations about misogyny on- and offscreen. (See: Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, Tom Donahue’s This Changes Everything, Amy Adrion’s Half the Picture, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Representation Project, etc.)
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, a new documentary by filmmaker Nina Menkes, wants to join this ongoing conversation. The trouble is that it has nothing new to say.
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Brainwashed is built around a lecture given by Menkes at CalArts, in which she makes a TEDx-style case against the male gaze, which is at this point well-trodden territory. “As a filmmaker and as a woman,” she says early on, “I found myself drowning in a powerful vortex of visual language from which it is very difficult to escape.” But her appeal to this ethos is quickly smothered by the film’s aesthetic choices — namely, its menacing voiceover and distractingly melodramatic score, better suited for a psychological thriller than a documentary.
Immediately Menkes floods us with examples to support her argument, presenting sexist shot after sexist shot, most of them ripped from their narrative contexts, from films like Do the Right Thing, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and American Beauty. She also shows sequences from Titane and Hustlers, though she never acknowledges that these films were written and directed by women.
Menkes does assemble an impressive roster of women directors — Julie Dash, Catherine Hardwicke, Eliza Hittman — as talking heads, and their insights prove to be the documentary’s most valuable assets. Menkes herself is most insightful when she trades polemic for analysis, deconstructing individual shots to show how framing, lighting, angles, slo-mo, and other cinematic choices can create what she calls a “narrative position.” But rarely in her analyses does she come to fresh conclusions.
If the title doesn’t already give it away, Brainwashed leaves little room for nuance or ambiguity. Menkes draws a suspiciously direct connection between the visual language of cinema and the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and employment discrimination. At one point, she chalks up Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win to Zero Dark Thirty’s masculine subject matter and largely male team; later, she shows a clip of Ana de Armas’s sultry turn in Blade Runner 2049 and implores us to “just think how women feel when they go see this film and they hear about all the Academy Award nominations that it’s getting.” (She doesn’t show any evidence of Robin Wright’s or Hiam Abbass’s commanding performances in the film.)
This kind of cherry-picking, along with a general air of didacticism, pervades Brainwashed, which ultimately feels less like a mature documentary than a video essay one might find on the Pop Culture Detective YouTube channel. At one point in the film, Julie Dash says that as a director she wants to show her audiences something “that had never been seen before”; if only Menkes did too.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is currently in theaters nationwide, and is available to stream on Kanopy and Kino Now.