“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” is an expanded form of Nina Menkes’ presentation “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression.” Menkes is a feminist pioneer and before you turn away wondering what any of this has to do with you if you are a non-white woman or if you are a man, particularly a minority man, be assured it does.
Menkes gives an example (from the horrifically bad “Mandingo”) of a Black man objectified in a way similar to how women are commonly treated. Yet that isn’t enough. More than three decades ago, in 1988, playwright David Henry Hwang suggested that the so-called Orient and people perceived as Oriental were considered the subordinate weaker part of humanity. In the yin-yang or the East-West dichotomy, the Orient is the feminine side of nature and is contrasted by the powerful, wise and intellectually superior masculine side of nature represented by Western nations, and particularly Western White men. I will return to this later in my suggestions of how this discussion can be enlarged.
In “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-power,” Menkes looks at how the visual language of cinema is tied to employment discrimination against women and sexual abuse/ harassment. This is not a love triangle, but an oppressive Ménage à Trois .
Menkes bases her observations on an influential essay by British film theorist Laura Muvley, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which first appeared in a 1975 issue of “Screen.” Mulvey didn’t actually use the phrase “male gaze” to describe the way “the unconscious patriarchal society has structure film form.” This is about the objectification of women and if you’re not sure what that means, Menkes gives the viewers a linguistic lesson. She parses out the sentence; The cat eats the mouse.” The object, the mouse, is acted upon by the cat. In the case of the male gaze, the man sees the woman. The woman has a sense that she is being looked at; she is on display.
This is the part of the so-called Menkes List that most people know, the point of view where the male is the subject and the female is the object. The woman knows she is being observed and is posing to please a heterosexual male. This dehumanization of women is also done by the fragmentation of the woman objectified, or framing. Women are also seen in a more two-dimensional view. This is done by lighting the woman using softer light and possibly a defuser. Menkes calls this “fantasy lighting.” Men get three-dimensional lighting. We get to see their wrinkles and scars. These three points can also be applied to static art such as paintings.
With video, there is also camera movement. For women, there are body pans and angles that emphasize sexual availability. It is also the contrast between when certain features are used. In the case of slow motion, men are usually show in military or athletic action, whereas women are shown on display. Think of Halle Berry rising from the water in a bikini in the 2002 “Die Another Day.”
In some cases, the sexualized female body has nothing to do with the narrative flow. It is just part of the scenery or background. The fifth point is particularly important for people of Asian descent.
The Menkes List
- Point of View: Male subject/female object
- Framing: Fragmented shots of (female) body part
- Camera Movement: Body pans and the positioning of women’s bodies. The usage of slow motion that emphasizes the sexual desirability or availability of women.
- Lighting: 3-dimensional for men, but 2-dimensional or fantasy lights for women.
- Narrative Position: The sexualized female body exists outside the narrative flow.
To her credit, Menkes has assembled a diverse set of talking heads, including May Hong HaDuong, the director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Sachiko Taki-Reece.
HaDuong notes, “There is a reticence to even question how they were made and the stories that they tell. Without questioning it, we are doing a disservice to our own humanity.”
We need to look at how sexist elements are used in scripts and how scripts and visual presentation works toward building of character. Set design can also perpetuate the sexism or misogynistic attitudes.
Taki-Reece notes that “for women because you are looking at those films, she would like to shape herself to be” a certain way. In essence, “she loses her own self; she feels empty.”
Menkes uses a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson to sum up this issue of how our perception influences our culture and lives: “Perception is now whimsical, but fatal.” Some of this is a sign of the problems within our culture because “if the culture is predatory, the camera is predatory as well.” That includes the e
Can one talk about the film industry and predatory practices without touching upon Harvey Weinstein, the casting couch and rape culture? This documentary goes there, but it also doesn’t allow women to slide.
While Catherine Hardwicke was the first woman director to win an Oscar, in someways, her film and her approach is still in line with the male gaze. It has been normalized.
Dr. Raja G. Bhattar emphasizes that this isn’t just a male gaze, but usually ” a white heterosexual male gaze.” Yet Menkes shows the problem exists in films for places like Asia such as South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s (박찬욱 ) 2016 “The Handmaiden” (아가씨) and 2003 “Old Boy” (올드보이) or South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s (김기덕) 2018 “Human, Space, Time and Human” (인간, 공간, 시간 그리고 인간).
Kim also wrote and directed the celebrated “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2004), but also the infamously gruesome “The Isle” (섬).
While certainly Asian films are problematic, what wasn’t addressed in this documentary was some troubling ways that some minorities are sexualized in sharp contrast to other women in narrative. Examples of this include the 2020 Amazon Prime Video science fiction drama series “Tales from the Loop” and the 2012 science fiction film “Cloud Atlas.”
In “Tales from the Loop” the only instance of nudity is limited to the Korean American actress in Season 1, Episode 3 “Stasis.” The scene lasts about five minutes. The two people are frozen in another . The man is on the bottom. The woman, Liu (Leann Lei), is on top of Lucas (Dominic Rains) and her nipples are shown in closeup when the scene is revisited. The woman who plays her daughter, May (Nicole Law), also gets a sex scene (earlier in the same episode), but it’s from a distance and the people, Ethan (Danny Kang) and May, are fully clothed although May is shown taking her panties off and Ethan unbuckling his pants and laying down.
In Episode 2, there are drawings of fully naked women, not men. In Episode 6, a Black man, Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), listens to the sounds of two men having intimate relations, but this sexual activity is implied and not shown. Briefly, one of the men is shown bare-chested and naked to just below his navel from the window looking down. In another instance, the men disappear into a room after one unbuckles his pants. Nothing graphic is shown and no sounds of sexual intercourse are heard. A man is also shown masturbating in bed, but this is tastefully done. The man, Gaddis, has a white tank top on and is shown from the mid-abdomen up. His face doesn’t even contort. It would be easy to believe that he just dozes off.
In “Cloud Atlas,” although there are scenes that take place in Hawaii in the last segment and the general weather and historical data of traditional clothing, there is no full nudity. Yet in Neo-Seoul, we see plenty of female nudity. The film also features yellow face, but no black face. As much as I love Tom Hanks and find the message intriguing, I don’t like how this is cinematically packaged.
In the 2011 French film, “The Intouchables,” and in the 2017 American remake, “The Upside,” the treatment of the female masseuses seems to differ from the treatment of the other women. In the case of the French film, the masseuses are of Asian descent. In “The Upside,” it isn’t clear, but the women could be hapa or Latina. While there is a West Asian woman (Persian) as a professional in “The Upside,” she is young and pretty, that only slightly mitigates the treatment of these sexualized masseuses/prostitutes.
Both of these films are ostensibly taking on issues of race and class, but in a largely Black and White binary. Don’t forget that it was 2016, when Chris Rock was hosting the Oscars that Asian Americans were the butt of a joke.
That’s not to say that there should be another censorship board like the one in old Hollywood. Black face has been mostly abolished due to social pressure and the concern over racism from a Black and White binary perspective. As with sexism and the so-called male gaze, Menkes emphasized that she doesn’t want to be “the sex police.” Here, Menkes uses a quote from Agnès Varda, “The first feminist act is looking. To say, ok, you’re looking at me, but I am looking right back.”
Part of the problem is how aspects of sexism have been normalized to the point where even when a woman is a protagonist, she is sexualized. In this case, both Marvel Cinematic presentation of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen) and DC’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) were used as examples. Even when a woman is the director, she might use similar strategies that men use for women. The greater problem is that with something like 96 percent of the directors being male, what happens is “the male heterosexual director, male heterosexual camera man are lined up with the audience,” even when that potential audience is half female.
Even when a film attempts to serve a female audience, such as the recent “A Journal for Jordan,” directed by Denzel Washington, while the film did have brief flash of male nudity, film didn’t provide those slow-motion shots of Michael B. Jordan as one might expect if the focus had been on a woman.
When the main message of imagery is a woman’s sexual value and women are seduced into powerless via glamor, then that supports a predatory rape culture, one where women have to prove their sexual value to the men in power, where men grow rugged with wrinkles and women who are wrinkled are replaceable. And under the White heterosexual male gaze, where do men and women of Asian descent fit and what responsibilities do Asian films carry with them?
Asian films were used as examples in the documentary; Asian male directors are shown to be problematic, but the point of narrative position should not be lost on Asians and Asian Americans who have too often been bystanders in stories ostensibly about them or taking place in their locales (e.g. Chinatown, Hawaii) or even foreign countries where the focus is on a White person amongst non-White people.
“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” is essentially a college lecture on films with information that also can be applied to other visual arts. “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Rhiannon Aarons: Performance artist, writer and actress. Lecturer at California State University, Long Beach and Santa Monica Community College.
Kathleen Antonia: Actress and producer (“Blatinas”).
Dr. Raja G. Bhattar: A diversity, equity and belonging strategist, organization development facilitator. white heterosexual male gaze
Julie Dash: Director and actress (“Daughters of the Dust,” 1991).
Sandra de Castro Buffington: Producer of “Brainwashed.”
Maria Giese: Writer, producer and director who instigated the groundbreaking industry-wide Federal investigation for women directors in Hollywood.
Catherine Hardwicke: First female director to win an Oscar.
Eliza Hittman: Director, writer and producer (“Beach Rats,” 2017).
Iyabo Kwayana: Cinematographer, director and writer (“La Receta,” 2010; “Macarrao,” 2015).
Ita O’Brien: UK Intimacy Coordinator and founder of Intimacy on Set.
Freddy D. Ramsey Jr : Actor, writer, director (“This Is Us” and “South Central Love”).
Nancy Schreiber: An award-winning cinematographer based in Los Angeles and New York who was the fourth woman ever voted into membership in the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers and the first to receive the ASC’s President’s award in 2017.
Maya Montañez Smukler: Officer of the Archive Research and Study Center at UCLA.
Joey Soloway: Producer, writer and director (“Transparent,” “Six Fee Under” and “United States of Tara”)
Penelope Spheeris: Director and producer. (“We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll,” 2001, segment “Tribute to Documentaries “The 75th Annual Academy Awards,” 2003).
Charlyne Yi: Actress, comedian, writer and musician. (“Knocked Up,” 2007 and “Steven Universe”).