A new documentary purporting to expose the sexism inherent in certain filmmaking techniques turns out to be an enemy to media literacy
‘The trap of representation’ in cinema at large and in Hollywood in particular is usually understood to mean the way in which increased presence on screens does not necessarily translate into larger creative power or salaries in front of and behind the camera, and in fact may hurt the fight for these rights as it dulls the motivation to fight for them. It is more rarely used to refer to the extremely superficial, literal-minded, decontextualised approach to cinema which legitimate concerns about representation seem to have encouraged in some people. If there ever was doubt that bad faith ‘feminist’ readings of films had a life outside of viral TikTok videos, there is no longer: Nina Menkes’ documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is proof that this way of approaching art is now trying to legitimise itself. Considering the middling-to-positive reviews the film has received from several serious outlets after its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this is the kind of dangerous development in film spectatorship that Martin Scorsese may well write an op-ed about soon.
The film, based on a talk Menkes has delivered in various cities across the world since 2017, begins in voiceover with the words “as a filmmaker and a woman,” already outlining the speaker/director’s gender essentialist perspective on cinema — one which, while useful when looking at statistics of who gets to make films in Hollywood, surely could never survive the scrutiny of 105 minutes of film analysis. Are we still to believe, in 2022, that men and women — those old-fashioned binary categories — really direct films in fundamentally different ways, either because of their gender and/or because of the experience of the world that this gender comes with? Does Menkes herself even believe it?
She at the very least claims to, and her method for proving her tenuous point relies largely on a series of bad faith arguments, false equivalences and logical leaps, laid upon a flimsy foundation of film theory 101. After a condescending explanation of the difference between subject and object, she briefly interviews Laura Mulvey, whom she actually calls “the original gangster of film theory.” Though the legendary theorist’s own contribution is rather nuanced, Menkes practically ignores her comment — the way she will continue to do, without fail, with her many other prestigious interview subjects — better to offer a wilfully simplified and decontextualised summary of the thesis laid out in the scholar’s groundbreaking, frequently revisited and problematised essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In one of many confounding examples of the supposedly insidious objectification of women in cinema, Menkes talks about women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” while showing a pole-dancing scene from Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers — hardly the kind of subtle, hard-to-decipher “vortex of visual language” that the suspenseful Philip Glass-lite score would lead us to expect. Menkes does not seem to know that objectification is partly the point of pole-dancing, and her ‘analysis’ misses out completely the way cinematographer Todd Banhazl (a man!) and director Scafaria (a woman?!) go out of their way to amplify not just the beauty, but also the acrobatic prowess of Jennifer Lopez in the scene. She also conveniently leaves out the fact that said pole-dancers are in fact the main protagonists, in a film which explicitly touches on the liberating potential of this activity. It is tempting to interpret Menkes’ silence here as an implicit comment about how demeaning she finds pole dancing to be, something only women who have been “brainwashed” into flaunting their forms would do. But looking for any kind of subtext here, even the most reactionary, may be giving a rhetorically confused film too much credit.
As Menkes goes on to deliver correct if obvious readings of the way shot design influences our understanding and perceptions of characters, it is bad enough to see her talk about basic concepts of shot construction like they are mental warfare. What makes this even less bearable is that she seems to have gone out of her way to select examples in which the objectification of women is, again and again, very much the point. She highlights the use of soft focus cinematography on women with a clip of Rita Hayworth in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947), never mentioning the fact that this technique is rarely used anymore — Brainwashed is only concerned with film history to conveniently mention that “the very first narrative film features a woman subject, a woman protagonist, and was directed by a woman producer/director,” referring to Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1896 film The Cabbage Fairy. More frustrating is the decision to deny what the images alone make obvious: the character played by Hayworth is clearly a femme fatale, a mysterious woman of such entrancing beauty that men would follow her into hell. She is an otherworldly figure, and the soft focus cinematography and saturated lighting do not simply make her traits appear smoother like an Instagram filter — they also make her seductive aura visible, her imperfections literally disappearing as though the viewers themselves were hypnotised.
It is as if Menkes herself was blinded by the seductive power of her own conveniently simple argument, repeatedly ignoring the obvious artistic justifications for objectification present in every single one of her clips save for one (more on this below). One of her most convincing (but also least original) arguments is on the close-up, which effectively fragments the female subject into distinct body parts, turning a character into an object of flesh to be looked at and touched but not approached as an active agent. It’s a fair point, especially when considering how rarely male characters are framed in this way. But Menkes chooses to demonstrate it with a long sequence dedicated to the bath sex scene from Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly (1972), analysing a fantasy of unstoppable Black male power and sex appeal from a Blacksploitation film like it is a documentary.
She makes a similar mistake later on when looking at the opening credits for Brian de Palma’s Carrie — similar, but even more shocking and maddening, as Menkes fails to realise that the film she is trying so hard to portray as an evil indoctrination into ‘the male gaze’ is already making the exact same point about female objectification that she is. We enter the female communal shower like it is a secret and forbidden world of carefree happiness and sensuality, full of naked young women laughing together and unaware of the camera, and Menkes gets painfully close to understanding the film when she says “you have to wonder, the last time I was in a locker room, I wasn’t prancing around!” When the camera lands on a young woman languidly caressing her entire body while she showers, an outraged Menkes tells her audience, “you can’t even have an experience of your own body without seeing it from this weird angle.”
It is just about possible to imagine someone watching this scene and not realising that it is intentionally over the top, a deliberately unrealistic vision of what young men — the implied audience for most commercial American films at the time — imagine or hope to happen in female showers. It is however inconceivable that anyone who has actually watched the entire film or simply seen what immediately follows this opening sequence would not perceive the intense irony at its heart. Menkes leaves this out: as the young woman suddenly begins to bleed, she screams and panics, then hurries out of the room while her classmates throw tampons at her. The sensual idyll is suddenly interrupted by period blood, that boner killer. The rug is suddenly pulled from under the implied heterosexual male viewer — the exact same one Menkes believes Hollywood is straightforwardly making all its films for.
Where Menkes sees a salacious filmmaker using his tools to hypnotise helpless viewers into objectifying — and therefore, it is implied, always disrespecting — women, De Palma was already conceiving of a cine-literate film watcher, an active spectator capable of grasping tone and humour, one aware of what a film usually does, is actually doing, and can do. For Menkes, the only such person able to see through the ‘manipulation’ is, of course, herself. The inclusion in Brainwashed of a casual post-lecture discussion among the people who have attended the talk seen in the film — a suspiciously well-dressed and well-groomed crowd — feels like an awkward attempt to mitigate that impression, showing that other people also feel this way about cinema, but only thanks to Menkes opening their eyes to their ‘passive interpolation’ into the ‘dangerous’ images that they consume.
It’s a lack of tact, a forgiving of the optics of her own project, that she does not grant other female directors. The sequence where she states that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win for The Hurt Locker (2008) isn’t a triumph for feminism because “every single department head on this movie was male” is almost convincing — it would have no doubt made things easier for women in Hollywood if the first Best Picture winner to be directed by a woman had other women in key positions. But then Menkes lets The Hurt Locker end credits play out in judgmental silence, and the absurdity of what we are watching becomes impossible to ignore. Regardless of one’s opinion of the film, casting Bigelow as a traitor of women here is nothing short of ridiculous, a preposterous and simply unreasonable charge that once again shows a complete disinterest in history — though she probably didn’t want to, it is highly unlikely Bigelow could have imposed female collaborators on The Hurt Locker, a film made some years before #MeToo gave (some) female directors this very real option and put greater scrutiny on studios regarding quotas. Most importantly, denouncing a film as unfeminist because some men worked on it, because it deals with the “male” topic of war, and features the typically “male” motif of slow-mo explosions, betrays a dispiriting vision of what Menkes’ goals for feminism are, namely a world and a cinema where the problem of sexism can only be solved by completely severing all contact between men and women.
This goes some way towards explaining Menkes’ counterproductive decision to point out the objectification of women not in random scenes from American cinema, but in sequences of straightforward seduction. If, as Menkes believes, men’s lusting after women is inherently degrading, then seduction scenes are simply the most forceful way for her to make her point. “I had no idea how to be a woman and at the same time be an active mover,” the director states when looking back at her life as a younger woman trying to make it in Hollywood, and many women can relate to that sentiment; most, however, know that the solution isn’t to reject objectification wholesale, to renounce and distrust beauty and attraction. Not Menkes, who seems unable to imagine women reclaiming and participating in their own objectification out of their own free will — to her, all women who do so have simply been ‘brainwashed’ by society and movies into displaying themselves. She objects to the scene where Gal Gadot walks through No Man’s Land in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) not because it somewhat dulls the horror of real-life events, but because Gadot’s Diana walks down towards the enemy in slow-motion like she is “on a catwalk.” Looking good is, for Menkes, always a trap. In a whiplash-inducing sequence, she quotes Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” while looking at the famous opening shot on Scarlett Johansson’s derriere from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), and says “one might wonder if this is supposed to be her face.” Does anyone who has seen this film, about two people of different ages, genders and backgrounds forming a unique connection that does not fit any labels, really wonder if Scarlett Johansson’s ass is her face?
A mention of Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties (2020), a film which caused controversy online when it was added to Netflix, was therefore to be expected, and Menkes retreads the same tired argument as the outraged online users, most of whom had not seen the film (this piece explains it all very well). More unexpected is Menkes linking Cuties to Pretty Baby, Leon and Lolita, all films which to some degree confront viewers with the hypersexualisation of young girls, but in wildly different ways and with hugely varying degrees of responsibility. Menkes simply isn’t interested in such nuance and has no scruples throwing the Cuties out with the bathwater.
She refuses to acknowledge the possibility that certain formal strategies might have consistent effects (objectifying a character, emphasising their dominance over another, etc) but not consistent meanings — that their significance always depends on context. Only someone so fiercely resistant to this nuance could argue for a one-to-one correlation between representation and endorsement; between cinema and lived reality. Brainwashed opens on a nifty graphic in the shape of an upside down triangle — just like the one on the poster for Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), but without the self-awareness — that draws a straight line from “visual language of cinema” to “employment discrimination” and “sexual abuse/assault.” Far from actually trying to prove this connection, Menkes simply peppers her banal analysis of shot design with both general statistics and anecdotes. After describing the poolside scene from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) as sexist for showing closeups on Cathy Moriarty’s body that are not consistent with the distance that actually separates her from her watcher, Robert de Niro (this is called directing), she serenely states that objectification in cinema is why women cannot get jobs. Following a clip from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) where Deckard forces himself on Rachael who eventually stops resisting, she says “this kind of scene certainly contributed to” Yale university students shouting “no means yes” outside a woman’s door in 2010.
The scene from Blade Runner represents a rape, and filming it reportedly made actress Sean Young uncomfortable, in part because it was not initially planned as a scene of coercion. But it is narratively coherent on many levels, and it is disingenuous for Menkes to pretend that it is not. In a futuristic universe where characters are not sure whether they are humans or robots, and whether their memories or desires are truly their own, coercion has different implications than it does in the real world, which is precisely what makes the scene and the film so disturbing. It does not justify what Deckard does, but just because something happens in a film does not mean it is the morally right thing to happen — least of all in a neo-noir film, where characters are often unsympathetic, as Deckard is, and routinely make terrible decisions, as Deckard does.
Menkes also includes examples of such scenes from other films, and she is right to say that “we could make a ten hour lecture” of clips of such moments. But does she really want to absolve those frat boys of all responsibility so easily? Over and over, she makes the mistake of putting the blame for misogyny and all its real-life consequences squarely on cinema, not realising that she is in fact letting people off the hook. In wilfully misinterpreting her clips, she argues for the existence of an utterly passive viewer who takes everything they are shown at face value and simply can’t help hating women as a result. Under the guise of teaching film analysis tools that would liberate viewers from the grip of sexist cinema, she further encourages a panicked form of first degree interpretation that not only insults the intelligence of both film watchers and filmmakers, but also seeks to lock them into a narrow, uninventive and literal form of passive film viewing and cynical filmmaking.
Her argument would be more convincing if she included more examples that actually do what she thinks they’re doing, such as the scene from Jay Roach’s Bombshell (2019) in which the camera, gliding down Margot Robbie’s body just as John Lithgow’s eyes do, makes the viewer complicit in his abuse. But that would require an actually rigorous approach, and Menkes puts more effort in the appearance of expertise than in its actuality. She includes brief interviews with prominent women directors such as Eliza Hittman and Julie Dash, but reduces their pertinent comments to soundbites, just long enough to give her incoherent film an air of legitimacy, but not so extensive that they could threaten its already wonky thesis. When she ends the film with a question for the audience, asking us to see “what happens if you try to actually listen inward,” she does not particularly bother to demonstrate how female filmmakers have tried to do just that. Besides brief mentions of films by her interview subjects, a clip from Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), a spatter of Agnès Varda, a migraine-inducing cut from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020), and a montage of female characters across various films breaking the fourth wall (?), she reserves close analysis of woman-made work to her own films only.
It would be interesting to hear more about her attempts to “create something different” and “depict female characters as full on subjects with their own intense desires,” but here, too, she cannot escape the anecdotal and the isolated, standalone event. In her first feature, starring her sister as “a highly alienated prostitute,” Menkes’ way to “express how it feels to be a sexualised object” is to focus on the impassive face of the woman, leaving the writhing body on top of her largely off screen. In her short film The Great Sadness of Zohara, she gives her alienated character agency by having her repeatedly turn around to look into the camera. These are interesting choices, but hardly evidence of an overall visual strategy or language — the same compositions could be put to totally opposite purposes. Menkes once again affords herself and her work special treatment. Near the end of the documentary, while showing a clip from her film Phantom Love (2007) in which a woman floats horizontally in mid-air then explodes, Menkes does not hesitate to draw viewers’ attention to her homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975); considering everything that precedes this moment, it is impossible to imagine Menkes not condemn other women directors who might place themselves in the lineage of a revered male filmmaker in this way.