BRAINWASHED: SEX-CAMERA-POWER. On the objectification of women in cinema

The simplicity, brevity and power of the film’s message make the viewer fall into the chair.

Lukasz Budnik

30 March 2023

The documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power was nominated for two awards at last year’s Berlinale. The film by the independent director is a kind of video essay that talks about the objectification of women in cinema. The simplicity, brevity and power of the film’s message make the viewer fall into the chair.

The director of the film is Nina Menkes, known until now rather from independent feature films. She is also a lecturer at the California Art Institute. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power  is based on her lecture Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Cinema. In her documentary, Menkes uses examples to illustrate how the language of cinema – framing, camera movement, POV, lighting – objectifies female characters on the screen, sexualizing and belittling them.

The director presents a number of examples from the history of cinema, mainly from American cinema, but not only, because there is, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and his Contempt, and even a Polish accent in the form of the infamous 365 days by Barbara Białowąs and Tomasz Mandes. The film contains as many as 175 fragments of films from the years 1896-2020. The screen shows scenes from classic Hollywood movies, such as The Lady from Shanghai by Orson Welles, Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock, as well as from contemporary world cinema – Titane, Wonder Woman, Blade Runner 2049 or Blue is the Warmest Color. Menkes points out how these films show women exclusively from a male perspective.

Of course, Nina Menkes does not do anything revealing – she simply talks about the so-called. male gaze, i.e. the male gaze, which has been defined in the theory of film studies for a long time and used not only in the analysis of film, but also, for example, in the theory of art history. The term was first introduced by British film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The masculine view in cinema or art simply means presenting women from the perspective of a white, heterosexual male.

While it doesn’t say anything new, it does so in a concise, precise and very clear way. You can see that Menkes has been teaching at the university for years, because he perfectly uses the academic style. Not only is Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power  simply very smooth to watch, Menkes presents male gaze in a slightly broader cultural and social context. It connects it directly to violence against women and shows how the ubiquitous objectification of women on screen legitimizes and also teaches male viewers from an early age to objectify women in everyday life. This is an extremely accurate diagnosis of the causes of the scourge of violence, sexual harassment and rape.


Of course, Menkes can be accused of taking some of her examples out of context, such as the famous opening scene from Julia Ducournau’s Titane, in which the main character in skimpy clothes squirms on the hood of a car to the delight of a male audience. The director argues that this is an example of how male gaze is also present in the works of women who use it completely unconsciously. The thing is that Ducournau deliberately uses such framing and sexualizes his heroine – only to later reverse this optic. Nina Menkes, in turn, argues in interviews that it’s not about the context, but only about proving how differently women and men are shown on the screen.

Regardless of these accusations, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power is still a great and coherent film essay. It will attract both those for whom the topic of male gaze is nothing new, and those who have not thought about the way women are presented on the screen so far. Nina Menkes’ film evokes emotions – it opens eyes and arouses anger and disagreement with the shape of the world in which we live.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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