Sundance 2022: “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” Is an Edifying, If Familiar, Look at Film Language and the Male Gaze

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.

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Still from Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power by Nina Menkes. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

First, I’d like to offer an upfront disclaimer about my thoughts on Nina Menkes’s documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, part of Sundance’s premieres section: My perspective is almost certainly influenced by my own position as a scholar who has researched, written about, and taught the material covered in the film for at least the last 15 years. As such, while what Menkes brings to light is undoubtedly important, I found myself frequently frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement that these issues have been discussed in film and media studies and women and gender studies programs for upwards of the past 50 years.

Based on a lecture Menkes, a filmmaker herself, began giving about the representation of women in film, Brainwashed has a clear thesis: The visual language of film (and its “male gaze”) objectifies women characters, a phenomenon that is further linked to employment discrimination and sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. Homing in on shot design and how it creates gendered power dynamics and “propaganda for patriarchy,” the documentary includes 175 clips from films running the gamut of movie history.

As an educational venture, Brainwashed makes a compelling case, offering ample evidence in support of its claims; as such, it would certainly be a useful film as a primer for beginning film students or others unfamiliar with the endemic ways cinematic form diminishes women. It’s feminist and clearly structured, laying out its terms and stakes in, what Menkes herself described during a press conference as, “really simple strategies that are repeated” and “basic things you can’t really deny.” So, I’m certainly not the target audience for Brainwashed, which may appeal more to viewers unfamiliar with film analysis and who will find themselves shocked by the extent of examples Menkes provides.

Menkes’s interviewees—folks like Julie Dash, Eliza Hittman, Joey Soloway and Catherine Hardwicke, among others—are all excellent, making incisive and enlightening comments about their careers and experiences. The documentary also features preeminent feminist media scholar Laura Mulvey, from whose germinal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” the academic and popular usage of the concept of the “male gaze” originates. However, besides Mulvey and one or two others, Menkes consults very few scholars, instead speaking mainly with other filmmakers, actors and creatives from within the film and TV industry.

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Still from Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power by Nina Menkes. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

This oversight is of particular note not only because it makes the conversation feel somewhat insular, but also because several of the interviewees discuss how the gendered nature of film language was rarely, if ever, brought up in their film school classes, where any feminist ideas they had were dismissed and the techniques they were taught (highlighting active male protagonists and objectifying women) were precisely those Menkes’s documentary critiques. Meanwhile, media studies and gender studies programs have been actively attempting to challenge these long-held patriarchal structures for decades.

Media studies and gender studies programs have been actively attempting to challenge these long-held patriarchal structures for decades.

My in-depth speculation about this disconnect would take us too far afield from the usual contours of a film review, but I will say this: In many colleges and universities, there has long been a rift between film schools (teaching production) and media studies departments (teaching critical analysis). The distrust some feel towards academics/academia furthers this divide. How else can we account for ideas that find their way into almost every scholarly essay about gender representation in media making their way into a documentary like Brainwashed as if they are new? We all need to do better to bridge this gap between theory and practice.

If it’s true, as Brainwashed suggests, that film students don’t learn about the ways shot design can impact how viewers see the relationship between gender and power, then Menkes’s film is deeply necessary. It also provides so many damning examples of women on film who are treated to differentiated camerawork, lighting, framing, etc., in order to make them appear passive, vulnerable or merely to-be-looked-at that the film’s thesis is, as Menkes hopes, undeniable. I appreciated how the documentary takes its argument one step further by tying the treatment of women in narrative film to the treatment of women behind the camera, a trenchant claim given the persistent shadows of #MeToo in Hollywood.

But, all that said, I wanted Brainwashed to dig a bit deeper—or at least more thoroughly acknowledge the extent of work that has been done on exactly the issues the documentary explores.  

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.