On Wednesday, filmmaker Nina Menkes spoke at a virtual Q&A session about her film, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” which features film clips by A-list directors from 1896 to 2020 to explore the gendered politics of cinema and its relationship to the objectification of women.
The event, “Demystifying the Male Gaze: A Conversation with Filmmaker Nina Menkes,” was organized by Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Tanya Goldman as a complement to her American Feminist Film History class.
While Menkes’s work in the film industry for the past 30 years has subverted patriarchal norms, “Brainwashed” was her first attempt at directing and producing an overt social commentary.
“My own films up until ‘Brainwashed’ have been primarily narrative fiction. I did make one documentary feature in 2005, … but I have not done a film like this,” Menkes said. “‘Brainwashed’ is different … [it’s] an overtly social critique.”
The documentary deconstructs the concept of “male gaze,” which was coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” and refers to the way visual media depicts the world through a heterosexual male lens. In the essay, Mulvey asserts that the male gaze is linked to patriarchal power structures that dominate and control women. Menkes’s documentary aimed to unpack the way the male gaze reveals itself in film.
“The film is about the way that the visual language of cinema—the actual elements of shots—are correlated to the twin epidemics of sexual assault [and] sexual abuse and employment discrimination against women. It’s like an evil triangle,” Menkes said.
By addressing the male gaze, filmmakers and film viewers can challenge and subvert the structures that have historically marginalized and oppressed women—structures that Menkes asserts are hidden in plain sight.
“[The male gaze is] hidden in plain sight, because once you’re aware of it, you see it very clearly,” Menkes said. “It’s still affecting our perception very deeply and contributing to oppressive conditions that keep women down.”
Goldman found Menkes’ film to speak to a number of the themes her course addresses on feminist film theory.
“In the fall, I just learned about this film, ‘Brainwashed,’ that was effectively doing the work very much inspired by Mulvey … so it kind of just worked perfectly with the content that I always teach,” Goldman said. “And here is a contemporary filmmaker effectively building a whole film around that and really elaborating on Mulvey’s theory.”
At the Q&A, Goldman was particularly interested in Menkes’s response to criticisms of the film. Goldman looked forward to asking Menkes to reflect on the limitations of the film, including its reliance on Menkes’s own work to examine concepts of the male versus female gaze. Goldman noted, however, that “Brainwashed” is powerful in its presentation of a sequence of shots that illuminate the objectification of female bodies in visual media.
“Who was the audience of this film? In my class with my students who are critical film goers, we’ve been [examining the male gaze] all semester, but, you know, to really sit and see clips from as early as 1900 to the present,” Goldman said. “One or two viewers have said that they found that the quick succession and the consistency of seeing this really did make the work quite effective.”
Menkes hopes that “Brainwashed” can spark broader conversations about the influences of visual media on gender discrimination, particularly for those who have not considered this issue.
“This visual language that has been deeply normalized to a point where most people don’t even notice it, is the bedrock language of rape culture,” she said.