Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power Exposes The Way We See Gender in Film

When we watch a movie, we are consuming an image presented to us, with established tropes, perceptions of beauty and relationships, and often from only one perspective (it’s easy to guess which one, too).

Independent filmmaker and professor Nina Menkes’ documentary, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, turns the spotlight on who is creating the images and points of view, who is objectifying who, and if the film industry can change this unconscious bias. Based on her lecture, Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema, director Menkes breaks down the pathways of how the male gaze shapes how we view cinema and, for women specifically, how we view ourselves.

Onscreen: Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, an example of gendered lighting. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Menkes starts with what I’ll call a triangle of perpetual doom, but what she calls a law: the visual language of cinema that leads to employment discrimination against women, which then leads to sexual abuse and assault—illustrated by clip after clip of classic films like Raging Bull, Lady of Shanghai, and Vertigo, to acclaimed modern films like Blade Runner 2049, Ex-Machina, Hustlers, Phantom Thread, and others. She brilliantly breaks down shot design, showing how it’s gendered and examines the objectification of women, the male gaze, the #MeToo movement, and what director Joey Soloway calls “propaganda of the patriarchy.”

This part documentary, part master class features experts from academia and film, like Rhiannon Aarons, film theorist Laura Mulvey, who coined the term “the male gaze,” directors Julie Dash and Catherine Hardwick, and actor Rosanna Arquette, to name just a few. These professionals delve deep into how problematic classic images we’ve come to admire and idolize are.

The documentary gives us useful, real stats, like 95% of directors of photography are men, and only 8% of women have directed the top 250 films in Hollywood. The subject matter becomes more disturbing when experts talk about accepting rape culture, and we hear women who experience sexual harassment and ostracization when they say no to harmful situations.

I’m going out on a limb to say that this is one of the most important documentaries on film to date. Even as a Black, leftist feminist who is ready to call out sexism and racism, especially as a film programmer, the learning experience watching Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is truly incredible. It’s needed, brilliant, and breaks down the whys and hows of gendered visual language in a simple, gut-punching way. It will reset many minds and inspire future women and women-identifying/non-binary filmmakers to shift the narrative and power dynamics in Hollywood.

Watch it on Kanopy now.



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