In her lecture “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression,” filmmaker Nina Menkes dissects the use of the visual idiom of film as an instrument of the heterosexual male gaze. The sections of this startling lecture that form the framework for this documentary are illustrated with about 175 clips, as well as interviews with filmmakers such as Catherine Hardwicke and Julie Dash, and film theoretician Laura Mulvey, whose famous essay on the male gaze is at the heart of Menkes’s analysis.
Drawing on scenes from classics such as Raging Bull and Lost in Translation, as well as cult films including Superfly, Menkes shows how women are systematically filmed differently than men—an example being how framing and lighting are repeatedly used to position women as passive objects of lust. Menkes argues that this persistent approach to representing women in fiction is far from harmless. By connecting the dots between gender discrimination on the work floor and sexual and other forms of violence against women, she reveals the all-too real impact of that ubiquitous portrayal.