sat 02/03/2024

Brainwashed review - the toxic impact of the 'male gaze' in film | reviews, news & interviews

Brainwashed review - the toxic impact of the 'male gaze' in film

Brainwashed review - the toxic impact of the 'male gaze' in film

Documentary charts an issue that goes beyond the film screen, served up in a digestible portion

NIna Menkes watches a clip from 'The Lady from Shanghai' during her CalArts talkBFI

The phrase “male gaze” was coined by the British film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975 and has become a standard tool for analysing a film’s gendered content. What director Nina Menkes has set out to show in Brainwashed is that the techniques that create the male gaze have entered cinema’s DNA and become standard across the genders, for makers and watchers alike. “It’s like a law,” she says. This is bad news for us all, she argues, not just cineastes.

The documentary uses as its framework a 2018 lecture Menkes gave to her film production students at CalArts in Los Angeles. We cut to and from it and see the 175 clips she used to illustrate her points. 

The film-making techniques under scrutiny are familiar enough: point of view (aka “subjectivity”), framing, camera movement and lighting, all of which determine a film’s narrative position. Most of which has been chosen by men. From all eras of cinema since 1896, Menkes selects clips of women shot as objects, being watched by a man with his back to us or by a camera (typically wielded by a male DP); women’s bodies depicted as fragmented parts, or predatorily and slowly panned over; women shot in”2D”, ie lit unrealistically to give them a quasi-divine unreal status, whereas men come at you in 3D, warts and all, suggesting their individual personality and agency.

It’s hard to disagree with Menkes on all this. The evidence is clear, and it’s not all pre-#MeToo. She takes films made in the past five years, and there are these same techniques, from Tarantino to The Avengers. Men are shot in slo-mo only when they are fighting, and rarely are they served up as body parts.

NIna MenkesThis binary system has horrible ramifications, Menkes argues. She portrays these as a triangle: on one point is the male gaze, leading to a second point she calls employment discrimination – only 9% of Hollywood films in 2018 were made by women – and on to the third point, sexual abuse and violence against women. Coming as it does after the #MeToo outpouring, with 94% of women in the US film industry claiming to have suffered sexual harassment or assault, it’s hard not to believe something is pretty rotten in the state of Hollywood.

And as Hollywood produces 80% of the media content screened worldwide, the assumption has to be that what it chooses to make and how that work projects women is of serious concern to us all. It’s the “bedrock language of rape culture”, Menkes claims, a circle of violence. One chilling news clip shows a mob of Yale fratboys outside a women’s dorm chanting, “‘No’ means ‘yes’, ‘yes’ means ‘anal'!”, in case anybody doubted that young men’s attitudes to women, even in supposedly elite circles of the US, are patriarchal and putrid. You can’t prove these attitudes stem from their viewing habits (though porn has to be a major player), but it seems highly likely.

Women from behind and in front of the camera, as well as theorists including Mulvey, testify here to the difficulties women have in getting films made, or of being edged out by a studio (ie male) imperative as too old. One employment law activist notes that Hollywood’s ratio of male to female workers is worse than the US coal industry’s.

Menkes doesn’t spare women directors: stand up for a knuckle-rap, Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, for the catwalk-style glamourising of her heroine; and Sofia Coppola, for the opening shot of Scarlett Johansson’s derriere in see-through scanties in Lost in Translation. Behind the few women directors who make it will typically be male DPs, producers, studio bosses, investors, even composers (95% male), who are key to creating the tone of a scene. How does a woman say no, and not ruin her career? How does she retain her sexuality and stay strong and proactive in this climate, Menkes asks, having experienced difficulty herself in balancing those two forces?

Her solutions sound simple. Women, as Agnes Varda suggested, should look right back at the camera (seen in Promising Young Woman); shots should be framed to give parity to the subjects (Portrait of a Lady on Fire); and perhaps men’s bodies too could be shot as fragmented parts, their torsos panned over (Mandingo). Trickier, perhaps, is Menkes’ advice that women should “tune into our actual experience to create a shot”.

What is concerning, though, in these days of cancel culture, is how the tools she provides might become blunt instruments. 

Take her analysis of a sequence from Raging Bull. De Niro’s Jake La Motta is poolside, eyeing a pretty blonde at the other end, Vicky (Cathy Moriarty), who is talking to two men. Except we don’t hear what she is saying. Her lips move, but no sound comes out. Aha, says Menkes, but two men in this scene, who we can see are sitting as far away from Jake as Vicky is, are perfectly audible. Narrative position here, she says, is giving Vicky a remote, unearthly status. Bad Scorsese. But what if that is exactly what he wanted the viewer to register? Jake’s worrying infatuation with Vicky is signalled right away by this soundlessness, as if he is being transported into an unreal realm by her. 

Bad Hitchcock, too, whose output is regularly sampled here (Brainwashed uses excerpts from the Vertigo score throughout). But as Vertigo is about voyeurism and its consequences (see also Rear Window, Psycho), which Hitchcock is arguably implying we the audience collude In, it seems inevitable that the tools of the male gaze are going to show up.

These quibbles, though, do not detract from the solid case Menkes makes for a more self-aware examination of what we watch and what we take away from it. She sets aside the often tortuous lexicon of modern criticism and scores lucid, telling points about the vexed state of cinematic art.

One activist notes that Hollywood’s ratio of male to female workers is worse than the US coal industry’s

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters