Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power Review: The Inherent Misogyny Of Cinema Is Academically Analyzed [Sundance 2022]

It's no secret that Hollywood has long objectified women and kept them away from any positions of power that would allow them to do anything about it. Only in recent years have significant dents been made to further diversify the hierarchy of misogyny and patriarchy that dominates the entertainment industry. But in her new documentary "Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power," filmmaker Nina Menkes reveals that the visual language of cinema has long held the male gaze in the endless objectification of women and their bodies.

Inspired by her own cinematic lecture, "Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema," Menkes provides a clear connection between how women are depicted on film, their lack of employment opportunities in the film industry, and the perpetuation of sexual harassment and abuse, both inside Hollywood and the rest of the world. With the assistance of nearly 200 clips from acclaimed and respected films over the years, Menkes provides thoughtful analysis with ample examples of how everything from framing to lighting, from camera movement to narrative position, has come to inherently embrace, whether consciously or subconsciously, a predominantly male gaze that objectifies woman a majority of the time.

An Academic Breakdown

Because this is inspired by a lecture of Nina Menkes' own creation, the framing device for this documentary comes from a recorded presentation, complete with an audience of what appear to be film students. It's basically a cinematic TED Talk. The lecture has very clear talking points, each accompanied by dozens of clips that perfectly illustrate Menkes' point and cement her perspective on the ever-present misogyny and paternalism that pervades films. Along with Menkes' own commentary and guidance, she's joined by a variety of scholars, critics, historians, and filmmakers (including "Transparent" creator Joey Soloway, seen above), most of whom are women, offering input from a broad range of female experiences. It's a nice change of pace for an industry typically dominated by male talking heads.

First, Menkes starts with one of the most fundamental aspects of female objectification by explaining exactly how women are objectified. Many people don't realize that the objectification of women in film can be much more simple and innocuous than being presented in a sexualized fashion, and Menkes emphasizes this point as the foundation of her lecture before moving into the objectification of the female body. The presence of the male gaze is solidified in the illustration that the main audience studios try to appeal to is men aged 18-49, and their perspective comes from mostly heterosexual male filmmakers, working with typically male cinematographers, who are shooting male stars as the subject, and they're all looking at female characters as the object. 

With an extensive assembly of clips from movies ranging from "Grown Ups" to "The Handmaiden" and "The Breakfast Club" to "Blade Runner 2049," Menkes meticulously points out the language of cinema only reinforces this perspective. We can see how the framing of a shot frequently fragments the female body, focusing only on a certain sections, such as her breasts or butt, often without any narrative necessity. This often implies a predatory perspective that can carry over to a perpetual lustful gaze in the real world. Further illustrating how cinematic language has become dominated by the male gaze, Menkes provides examples of how camera movement lingers on the female body in a way that the male form is almost never depicted. Often during or after romantic encounters, the camera will pan over the female body to allow the audience to gaze longingly, especially when nudity is involved. 

One of the most convincing points Menkes makes comes when she uses clips from films that were directed by females. Some of these cliches and tropes have become so ingrained in the fabric of cinema that they've become accepted and presented as traditional and normal, and some filmmakers don't even realize that they're perpetuating this worrisome trend. 

In case you needed any evidence that this topic needed to be broached, there are clips from discussion groups who participated in the lecture confirming their enlightenment and ignorance regarding certain tropes in the cinematic language used to depict female characters. But perhaps it would have been even more valuable to have a discussion with some of the filmmakers whose work is being featured, to create an open dialogue about their intention and the unintentional consequences that come from their creative decisions.

Real World Consequences

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that this consistently objectifying depiction of women on film can have extremely problematic real-world consequences. It carries over behind the scenes, where filmmakers, producers, and executives think that they can treat actresses as objects or use them in exchange for sexual favors that will bolster their careers. Menkes supports this with evidence, by way of a statistic that 94% of women in Hollywood have experience sexual harassment or abuse. No, the movies aren't solely responsible for the presence of sexual harassment and assault, but they certainly perpetuate a lot of misconceptions about what's acceptable when it comes to romantic encounters with women.

Furthermore, this stigma has also led to women being expected to partake in sex scenes without prior notification and without complaint. If an actress isn't willing to be nude or do something sexual on screen that someone in the Hollywood hierarchy has deemed as necessary, then her job is under attack. You could fill a whole documentary with stories like that, but "Brainwashed" only needs one to drive the point home. It's no surprise that the documentary doesn't feature some of the biggest names in Hollywood, because who knows what that could do to their career in an industry that's still controlled by men. 

"Brainwashed" isn't so much of a shocking revelation as it is an eye-opening wake-up call to be more thoughtful about how women are depicted in film and how that translates into our everyday lives. Menkes herself says she's not trying to be the sex police or to ensure that scenes like those shown throughout her film are never seen again, but she hopes that cinema and those who make it possible can become more inclusive and diverse by depicting women as being more than objects, whether sexual or not. However, there does seem to be an air of finger-wagging that ignores the complexity and necessity of depicting desire in cinema, whether it's for women or men or non-binary individuals. Plus, there are a lot of assumptions made about certain sequences that don't feel inherently objectifying or sexual in nature. Because of that, there's a lack of exploration into the motivations behind these depictions of desire and sexuality. Menkes stops just short of proclaiming herself to be a filmmaker doing the right thing, though she doesn't hesitate to use clips from her own films as shining examples alongside those she uses as troubling examples.

In the end, "Brainwashed" ends up being less about sex (though there's plenty of it shown in the doc) and more about power. If there's one thing that this film drives home, it's that men have been in that position of power in Hollywood (and everywhere, really) for far too long, and women have paid a heavy price for it. The documentary does end on a hopeful note of change, but that change has to come from within, and the only way that's going to happen is by getting more women behind the camera in as many positions as possible, from the director to the composer. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10