There is an old adage that sex sells. Old, but sadly accurate. Hypersexualised imagery has been prevalent in our culture for far too long, perhaps to the point that it almost becomes like white noise, something you unintentionally tune out of, due to it being the status quo.
Bill Hicks used to do a bit in his routines about what he felt advertisers would like to do as the perfect commercial, and you can’t help but feel that he had a point. So much of what we see in media is dictated largely from a male-dominated perspective, not just in advertising, but also entertainment too. The veil was lifted way back in 1975 by Laura Mulvey, in an essay entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in which she set out how phallocentrism set the tone of much of what we consume in cinematic terms, and this remains a landmark piece of writing to this day.
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Almost half a century has passed now since Mulvey’s work was first published, and she walked so that others could run. One of her spiritual postcedents is filmmaker Nina Menkes, who in 2017 – following the rise of the #MeToo movement – had a piece published: The Visual Language of Oppression: Harvey Wasn’t Working in a Vacuum. This expanded upon the content of academic lectures she had been giving while teaching, building on the themes which she had identified, linking the visual language in cinema to sexual assault and harassment, as well as discrimination in the workplace.
The culmination of Menkes’ work is its encapsulation within her documentary feature film, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, which takes the subject matter from her lecture and presents it to the widest possible audience, accompanied by a variety of clips to illustrate her point for maximum impact. Given the fact that Hollywood is predominantly responsible for so much of the entertainment media which pervades our cultural landscape, Menkes’ film shows how insidious it has become outside the walls of the multiplex, seeping into and infecting attitudes towards gender, sexuality and equality in the most harmful ways.
Menkes’ themes are more important than ever, considering the fact that the present conservative-leaning US Supreme Court overturned the long held Roe v. Wade ruling, which had for decades given women a protected right to abortion. Seeing fit to strip American women of the agency over their own right to choose, as well as their bodies, it seems hard to deny that the inherent patriarchal thrust of society has been greatly influenced by what we take in – almost by osmosis – all in the name of entertainment, normalising the attitudes of seeing women as objects of desire, making it ‘acceptable’ to deny them personhood and strip away their rights.
Through her judicious use of extracts to illustrate her point, Menkes demonstrates the human cost associated with the production of ‘art’, which can have the effect of glamourising both sexual assault and rape culture. In fact, so many sexual images of varying degrees are presented during the course of the feature, what perhaps first seems shocking upon being confronted with so much material in close succession later makes the viewer perhaps feel almost desensitised, as a way of dealing with the brutal reality. It cleverly shows how we as a society have perhaps become inured, thanks to the steady drip-drip-drip through exposure in everyday life.
Whereas statistics have so frequently been lumped together with lies and damned lies, sometimes the figures speak for themselves, and unveil a painful reality. In this case, Menkes shines the spotlight on how few women directors there are, particularly those who have been feted for achievements or associated with films which are highly regarded. It took until 2010 for the first woman to actually win the Best Director at the Academy Awards, with Kathryn Bigelow picking up the Oscar. Since then, only Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion have been able to follow in her footsteps, so that huge imbalance will sadly continue for some time to come.
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Such a slow rate of progress clearly shows the Glass Ceiling is yet to be barely cracked, let alone broken. Women failing to get advancement or recognition within the male-dominated Hollywood machine is no surprise, as this has been prevalent for almost as long as the industry has existed. Take the case of the designer of the Creature From The Black Lagoon, who was robbed of her achievements by men in the system. Her story was brought to the fore in the book The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick, which makes for a perfect companion piece to some of the other real-life stories told here of women who have been victims of men abusing their power.
Criticisms have been made in the past with regard to Alfred Hitchcock’s noted obsession with ‘Hitchcock Blondes’, and Menkes uses an example from Rear Window to demonstrate how women were being portrayed, then bringing us right up to date with more recent instances, showing sadly how little has changed in terms of the ‘male gaze’ being used to depict how women are being presented. With superheroes being so prevalent, attention is rightly drawn here to Joss Whedon’s sometimes problematic presentation of female characters, with this being illustrated by his use of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.
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The finished film feels so comprehensive, it would almost be unnecessary to ask for anything much in the way of special features with this Blu-ray release from the BFI, as it speaks so clearly in its own right. However, what we ultimately get here enhances the experience, with a commentary track by Menkes and film editor Cecily Rhett. There is also a recording of a conversation with Menkes conducted at BFI Southbank in May 2023, in which she talks about her career and work. A booklet included along with the Blu-ray features some short essays about Menkes, as well as building upon the themes in the main feature.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power lays bare the impact that movies can have on all of us, carefully unpicking the threads of this tapestry of a shameful cross-cultural contamination, all perpetrated in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Menkes’ documentary is a disturbing and sometimes – quite rightly – uncomfortable watch, but is essential viewing for all, as it causes the scales to fall from one’s eyes, and reveals what is a terrible truth, hidden in plain sight for far too long.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is out now on Blu-ray from the BFI.