In her documentary “Brainwashed: Sex Camera Power,” director Nina Menkes takes a look at 100 years of film history in which women are visually disempowered. Masterpieces like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” or cult films like Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” are not spared.
«Men get the slow motion as action heroes. “Women get slow motion as a sex object.” Nina Menke’s polemic about the different portrayals of women and men in films is documented in “Brainwashed: Sex Camera Power” with sometimes surprising examples from film history.
The US director and author has made several films about social taboos and political controversies – mostly from a female perspective. In “Brainwashed” Nina Menkes now concentrates on so-called A-list movies. So films that are high quality, qualified and have won awards. Even those that are considered masterpieces of film history, such as “Vertigo” by Alfred Hitchcock or cult films such as Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”.
The male perspective is standard
What Menkes presents to us is sometimes heavy fare. She places the emphasis on the camera perspective, the angle that the camera takes in the scenes in question. It practically always has a male connotation and is rarely free of judgment. In many cases, the subtlety of the camera work does not make this apparent at first glance.
According to Menkes’ theory, which is supported in the film by female directors, professors and psychologists, this standardized male gaze (“Male Gaze”) is due to the systematic underrepresentation and discrimination of women in the film industry. The “male gaze” is the norm in filmmaking.
The “Male Gaze”: in the film and in real life
But Menkes’ thesis goes further: the discriminatory and sexualized portrayal of women in film has an impact on real life. This means that if women are constantly devalued on screen, it is considered normal and therefore happens in real life as well.
This is also confirmed by experts in the film. According to the filmmaker, the portrayal of women in film has also shaped female self-perception for generations. A de facto disempowerment of the female has taken place.
The film industry has not only female but also male sex symbols. The documentary shows Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise with a toned, naked torso.
The difference in staging between men and women: Women’s body parts such as buttocks or décolleté are often panned in close-up while they stand or lie passively. While the men are shown topless, but mainly in full-body shots in active roles – for example as roofers. The woman is looked down upon, the man presents himself.
The fact that a counter-movement with female and – mostly young – filmmakers has been establishing itself for a few years is only addressed in the film towards the end. In any case, the film cannot claim to be complete with the selected examples. Nevertheless, it stimulates thought and provides a new, critical look at masterpieces in cinema history.
Cinema release, November 2nd, 2023