Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022)

July 4th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Nina Menkes; Documentary with Laura Mulvay, Julie Dash, Joey Soloway, Catherine Hardwicke, Rosanna Arquette; USA 2022, 107 min.

It is no an accident that British film critic Laura Mulvay leads an all-female cast of academics and filmmakers in this new documentary. Brainwashed takes a long cold look at the different ways women and men are treated, both on the screen and by the film industry. Naturally, their male counterparts were invited to contribute but declined. It proves inconclusively that patriarchy has no gender, and that Mulvay’s theory of the ‘Male Gaze’ is very much alive even in the most high-brow fare.

Accordingly, we are forced to take our most admired films and throw them under the bus of sexism: from Last Year at Marienbad to Vertigo, Raging Bull and Le Mepris. Even cult classics such as Blade Runner and Metropolis get the red card.

In the full frontal assault few get away unscathed. Hollywood’s early women directors Ida Lupino and Dorothy Azner are just as guilty as their contemporary counterparts, despite representing just eight percent of the filmmaking community, they have all somehow committed the ‘male gaze’ faux pas’. Even “Palme d’Or” winner Julia Ducournau, only the second female to win the award, takes the rap – for Titane, in which a young woman has sex with a car.

But what exactly is the “male gaze” and what does it consist of? It starts with the definition of the Subject/Object relationship, followed by the specific framing of female and male characters, executed in the camera movement and the lighting: Easy to see how this happens if female filmmakers and camera operators are in the minority. Women often appear naked in films whereas their male counterparts rarely so. The effect is subliminal. Yes, of course, we are all inured and conditioned to it, it’s par for the course – but how often do we actually object?

In the golden era of the studio film women’s faces were captured in 2D sheen, making them look dewy and perfect, whilst men were shot in craggy 3D, implying they had other qualities. Women were reduced to the one-dimensional stereotype of beautiful inertness. As an interesting observation: have you ever watched Raging Bull and noticed that Cathy Moriarty’s image at the swimming pool is detached from the male speakers?

Finally, let’s move on to Mandingo, a trash product directed by Richard Fleischer in 1975. The female plantation owner (Susan George) forces the black slave to have sex with her (otherwise she would accuse him of rape and he would die). His pectoral muscles are very visible, and in all other ways the table is turned too: the male body is, for once, waiting to be conquered by the powerful female.

Brainwashed is rigorous and bracing in its approach, stringent in its execution; and an eyeopener for all who thought they knew the full extent of the phenomenon known as ‘the Male Gaze’. AS

BFI Blu-ray, BFI Player Subscription, iTunes and Amazon Prime release on 17 July 2023



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