Sundance Dispatch #2: Whose Gaze?
This article appeared in the January 27, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (Nina Menkes, 2022)
Brainwashed, a new documentary from California Institute of the Arts professor and filmmaker Nina Menkes (Queen of Diamonds) that premiered at Sundance last weekend, aims to make American cinema a more hospitable place for women who conceive, create, and consume mainstream movies. “It is essential that this visual code of oppression be exposed and understood,” Menkes wrote in a well-received Filmmaker Magazine essay in 2017. Those words would, in part, pave the way for her latest film.
Comparable to scholar Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly lecture series and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation, Brainwashed attempts to anthologize the endemic subjugation of women in visual media. This story of female evisceration, which Menkes argues is as old as Hollywood, is told through interviews with 23 contemporary feminist filmmakers and nearly 200 decontextualized clips of the second sex in compromising positions in cinema. As expected, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour weather critique. Emphasizing how systemic this pathology is, films by women directors like Sofia Coppola and Patty Jenkins are also deemed complicit in commodifying their female subjects, including Lorene Scafaria’s ripped-from-the-headlines stripper thriller Hustlers and Julia Ducournau’s avenging Titane.
A documentary that lambasts certain visual conventions is fated to be a bit self-conscious about its own form. Indeed, in an attempt to subvert what its director considers a patriarchal filmic form, Brainwashed presents Menkes in a range of postures: roaming across a stage as a TED Talk–style lecturer; reclining as a movie-house spectator. After cherry-picked clips of objectified women in cinema flutter by in Brainwashed’s opening montage, the director’s visage suddenly appears in close, intimate framing. Ostensibly, the montage of unrealistic women-as-objects is disrupted by a hyperrealistic woman-as subject. Through form and argument, she stages an intervention; the camera, and the viewer’s eyes, linger on her own. Menkes hopes to shock spectators out of their learned sexism by confronting them with what she considers a rarified image: the unvarnished face of a 56-year-old woman, complete with sage wrinkles and crow’s feet. But viewers who perhaps relish Eartha Kitt’s raucous cougar in Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang (1992), or Nicole Kidman’s haggard detective in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (2018), or even a frolic around Grey Gardens (1975) with the Maysles brothers (three films unmentioned in Brainwashed) will likely feel condescended to and needlessly admonished.
Brainwashed’s thesis—that the visual language of cinema is inextricable from both the sexual assault and employment discrimination of women in the film industry—is inspired by U.K. film theorist Laura Mulvey’s 47-year-old essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Regularly assigned in Film Studies classes, the text asserts that movies gender men as subjects of the gaze and women as its objects, and accordingly implicate the viewer into a masculine point of view. Menkes doesn’t deny this source—in fact, she flaunts it, with Mulvey herself appearing in interviews throughout Brainwashed. But what goes unacknowledged is the bevy of scholarship and writing, largely by women, that takes issue with Mulvey’s dogma, finding it immaterial, myopic, or artless at best and queerphobic at worst. Film critic Molly Haskell challenges the notion of the male gaze in a 2016 edition of her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, another staple of Film Studies readers. “Mulvey… neglected the context in which the films studied were made and seen, that tremendous audience diversity, that lack of consensus, which is such a thorn in the side of sociologists and theoreticians. For example, what about female audiences? Are men the only ones who ‘gaze,’ and even appropriate and convert the object-woman into their own fantasy worlds?” Reactionary cultural critic Camille Paglia is characteristically less charitable in her opinion of Mulvey; in a 1999 interview with Salon, she dismisses as simplistic “the idea that a man looking at or a director filming a beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into ‘meat.’”
Regardless of how one feels about Mulvey’s most famous essay (she herself has expressed some ambivalence towards “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and has reconsidered some of the ideas in her later writings), it feels intellectually dishonest to repackage this feminist film studies polemic from 1975 as gospel for a new, popular audience without the context of the debates it ignited. Though it is tempting to craft a grand, unified theory that justifies the ills of an entire industry, this type of analysis reduces the complex dynamics of spectatorship to considerations of sex at the expense of sexuality, gender, race, and even class. The short-sightedness of this approach is evident when Menkes, with reference to a quote by Quentin Tarantino, compares sex discrimination in Hollywood to the Jim Crow South in her article for Filmmaker, or when Maria Giese, a co-producer of Brainwashed, passionately asserts in the film that Hollywood is “worse than coal mining” when it comes to Title VII violations.
So it’s unsurprising that Brainwashed’s self-seriousnessness and authoritarianism regarding the male gaze—how it manifests in lighting, blocking, the close-ups that graze the femme character’s form, and even her stillness—results in a selective seeing that is antithetical to the feminist tenet of intersectionality, which holds that oppression is interwoven across the various identities people inhabit, and doesn’t just occur in the silo of sex. It is revealing that when Daughters of the Dust (1991) director Julie Dash is asked about her experiences with sexism in Hollywood and her approach to visual form, she doesn’t reference Mulvey but rather cites Audre Lorde’s famous intersectional axiom, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Nonbinary-identified showrunner Joey Soloway, who famously cast a cis man (Jeffrey Tambor) as a trans woman in Transparent, is asked about the abstract manifestations of the male gaze rather than their own propensity for objectifying others. Neither does Menkes ask Soloway about one of the more baffling implications of Mulvey’s male-gaze rubric, which the scholar later made explicit in a 1989 essay, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Women in Cinema”: that in her capacity to identify with the male subject of patriarchal cinema, the female viewer emerges as a kind of “transvestite” spectator.
Despite Soloway’s presence, the queer image in particular suffers neglect in Brainwashed. Much like U.K. film theorist and Mulvey contemporary Claire Johnston did in her 1975 essay “Dorothy Arzner: Critical Strategies,” Menkes celebrates Arzner’s Dance Girl, Dance (1940) as a work that disrupts the male gaze by having its protagonist (played by Maureen O’Hara) “look back” at and berate the audience during an on-stage performance. But three things go unmentioned in Menkes’s film: the fraught use of racist stereotypes within the work, Maureen O’Hara’s subsequent on-stage catfight with the character played by Lucille Ball, and the director’s well-documented lesbianism. Did Arzner’s queerness influence her images of female intimacy and subjectivity? And, if so, in what ways? These questions are left unexplored.
In her 1989 essay “Lesbian Looks: Dorothy Arzner and Female Authorship,” queer film scholar Judith Mayne cautions against lionizing Arzner as a benevolent feminist film heroine and underlines the ways in which feminist film theory can reify the very binary it critiques by privileging it above all other axes of analysis. “The writings of feminist film theorists have affirmed, in a rather amazingly mimetic fashion, that the Hollywood apparatus is absolute, the codes and conventions of Hollywood narrative only flexible enough to make the conquest of the woman and the affirmation of the heterosexual contract that much more inevitable,” she explains. Though Menkes offers several examples of groundbreaking queer cinema that eschews the male gaze (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Watermelon Woman), Brainwashed does not explore these films beyond briefly noting Céline Sciamma’s inversion of the gendered subject/object binary and Cheryl Dunye’s tasteful close-ups of lesbian carnality. The queer woman emerges in these sections as the one-dimensional object of righteous feminist filmmaking rather than a fully-wrought figure with an unpredictable moral compass.
In 1999, the film scholar Patricia White published Uninvited: Classical Hollywood and Lesbian Representability, a first-of-its-kind tome that worked to identify the ways in which queer women experience cinema. Noting that Mulvey’s “woman is the prop and man is the camera” stance only led to feminist film theory becoming more constraining and heteronormative, White wryly demonstrates how difficult it is to apply this theory to the ever-imaginative lesbian spectator. “An affinity with Katharine Hepburn or James Dean may function transparently in a progressive narrative toward recognition of one’s butch dyke identity,” she explains. “But this is in the context of an identification of and with cultural constructions of spinsters and rebels, rather than with dutiful wives and daughters.” In other words, biological sex alone is not enough to spellbind the female viewer, or any viewer clever enough to treat older, absolutist definitions of “man” and “woman” with some reservation. But in Brainwashed, we see only this half of the picture.
Tomasin Fonseca is a film critic based in New York City; her work has been published in The Advocate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.