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Thoughts on Women and The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street

Since the release of Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s been almost daily internet back-and-forth about its merits, its morality, its shortcomings, and—above all—the question of whether it glorifies greed, amoral excess, and misogyny.

For those who’ve been under a festive rock this holiday season, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the Gordon Gekko-meets-Hunter S. Thompson autobiography of one Jordan Belfort, a working-class Queens guy who starts out on Wall Street as a straitlaced young broker at a white-shoe firm. He’s quickly indoctrinated in the ways of that world by a senior partner, and after the firm goes belly-up in the wake of 1987’s Black Monday, he finds his groove pushing penny stocks—“selling garbage to garbagemen.” Thanks to his flair for patter, Belfort and his gaggle of fellow Wall Street outsiders get good fast, bring their hustle to Wall Street in the form of the WASPily named firm Stratton Oakmont, and are soon gleefully stock-frauding away while mountains of cocaine and piles of hookers appear and disappear at their whims.

Much of the three-hour movie is a series of manic, off-the-wall surveys of every material indulgence and deviancy money can buy. There are Ferraris, private helicopters, a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous pan through the high-gloss interior of Belfort’s yacht. There are stacks upon stacks of crisp, fresh bills being loaded into suitcases and rolled into coke straws and fornicated upon. There are so many loving odes to Quaaludes that some enterprising chemist is almost certainly attempting to bring them back into production right this minute.

And, of course, there are women—perhaps more than anything, they’re the real spoils of the untold wealth that Belfort and his colleagues stack up. Few women work at Stratton Oakmost in anything other than a service capacity, and “service” is defined as anything from getting double-teamed by Belfort and his partner Donnie Azoff (a completely haywire Jonah Hill), to volunteering for head-shaving in return for $10,000. (“She’s promised to spend it on breast implants!” crows Belfort)

There are trophy wives: Belfort finds his when she shows up at his beach house, and pursues her while his faithful first wife watches. There are cash mules, who strap piles of bills to their bodies before boarding flights to Switzerland. And there are many, many sex workers: Belfort voice-overs a breakdown of the “three kinds of hookers” regularly employed by Stratton Oakmont (and, as suggested elsewhere in the film, by the rest of Wall Street); public sex among brokers is a team sport, as much a part of their culture as the white-collars on their striped button-downs.

A woman covered in cash in the new movie

That these are the only women in the film is historically and culturally accurate, as journalist Joanne Lipman recently noted in a piece for Time. (The filmmakers, she writes, couldn’t come close to the true absurdity of the era, as seen through the eyes of women who were there.”) And the fact that they’re part of the story doesn’t, in theory, make the movie itself misogynist, just as the portrayal of coke-hoovering, investor-defrauding Wall Street d-bags doesn't, in theory, tacitly condone or commend that behavior.

However.

In practice, it's a different story. Though DiCaprio protested in an interview with Deadline that the people who think the film is reveling in its debauchery are shockingly wrong, the stakes for Belfort's bad behavior just aren’t made amply visible. Unlike in Scarface, one movie to which WoWS has been compared, there’s no chainsaw-dismemberment scene to spatter the reality of human collateral across the screen. No one dies as a direct result of Belfort’s careless disregard for anyone but himself—the one scene where someone might have (a rescue-plane explosion) is presented as a grandiose hallucination on the part of an already-unreliable narrator.

There’s no part of the movie that addresses how Belfort got clean and launched a new career as a motivational speaker after being barred from ever working in finance again. There’s also zero time spent on his time in prison, other than a slow pan over a cushy prison green while DiCaprio's voiceover reports that money was an opener of as many doors there as it was anywhere else. (This New York magazine article notes that Belfort’s “cubie” was none other than career stoner Tommy Chong, who encouraged Belfort to write his memoir after hearing his uproarious stories.) There’s nothing anywhere in the film to suggest that Belfort regrets any of his actions. He’s a drug addict, then boom—he’s sober. He’s drummed out of the financial sector, then boom—he’s raking it in on infomercials promising to reveal the secrets of sales success. And through it all, the audience never sees him suffer in any significant way.

leonardi dicaprio standing over a pool in wolf of wall street

But even if the narrative had done a better job of cautionary-taling the whole saga, the fact that Belfort himself is credited as a cowriter of the script would strongly complicate things. He may be a horrible person, is the metatextual takeaway, but he wrote a bestseller, co-wrote the adaptation of that bestseller, and got to see himself portrayed by one of the world’s most celebrated actors in a film by one of the world’s most celebrated directors that’s being hailed as one of the year’s most entertaining. Doesn’t sound like too much of a punishment, really.

Likewise, the carelessness and disdain with which female characters are portrayed could more easily be forgiven if the film weren't the work of a director who has spent most of his career sidelining women.

That's not a cool thing to say about a director you and I and everyone else loves like he actually invented lasagna. And I know, he made 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a groundbreaking portrait of a woman's struggle for autonomy; I know, his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, is a true partner in his films. But the films Scorsese's known for—Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino—are men's stories, filled with men's deeds and misdeeds, and driven by masculine energy through masculine subcultures. Good stories, exciting stories, stories of quality cinema? Definitely. Stories that engage with women as anything more than wives, mistresses, or shopping-bag conveyors? Not so much.

This doesn't make him a sexist; it doesn't make his movies misogynist. What it does do is point out that a movie like Wolf of Wall Street will be deemed bravura, unconventional, and edgy simply by amping up the Roman-orgy hedonism we all already associate with Wall Street. This story has already been told. By telling it again with bigger and sexier props—the Quaaludes, the candle-wielding dominatrix, the intoxicated public masturbation—Scorsese is simply reifying Hollywood's love affair with men's stories, and helping to ensure that truly new, actually edgy stories will continue to get shunted to the sidelines. Consider, for instance, that the film flew past the MPAA's ratings board despite graphic female nudity and sex, while recent films with scenes that focus on actual female pleasure, including Charlie Countryman and Afternoon Delight, jumped through hoops to avoid the dreaded NC-17, perpetuating an infuriating industry double standard.

Scorcese and DiCaprio both claim that they wanted to tell a story that held a mirror up to the ugly reality of Wall Street's long con. In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, DiCaprio said: 

“This attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that’s wrong with the world we live in. At no time did we ever say, we are making a comedy,” he said. “These people were having an outrageously good time at the expense of other people. They were living in a Roman empire while other people were suffering. The intoxication of that is what was interesting to us.”

And it may indeed be that he and Scorsese anticipated that audiences were sophisticated and right-thinking enough to see scenes where women are used like fap rags and where brokers discuss the logistics of an upcoming dwarf-tossing contest as gross, crass, and reprehensible. But could they really be so disingenuous as to ignore that just as many people would high-five each other over those very same things? That a roomful of financial dudes would cheer at at all the wrong moments? That people—as Upworthy’s Rebecca Eisenberg noted on Twitter—would see the spectacle of a guy punching his wife in the stomach after she announces she’s leaving him as hilarious?

There is a way to do everything the filmmakers and his star claim to have wanted to do, of course: Film the movie through the eyes of one of the women who was there—say, the broker who started at the bottom as a jobless single mother, grew through the ranks to become a Chanel-wearing power bitch, and went down with the rest when Belfort ratted them all out to save himself. Not only would the angle be one we've never seen on film before, but it would have been much the same story Belfort tells, only through a more accurate and less ambiguous lens of revulsion and condemnation.

The difference? There wouldn't be the same reward: For the filmmakers, for Belfort himself, and for the entire Hollywood machine, who can now congratulate themselves on another job pushing the boundaries well done.


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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Thanks for posting this.

Thanks for posting this. Trends in Hollywood are deeply disturbing and as you say often reify misogyny and white male privilege. We need to speak loudly against this in multiple venues.

This is what I love so much

This is what I love so much about Bitch. Thanks for the review and for keeping my brain thinking.

I saw it last night and I

I saw it last night and I hated it. I was disgusted just by the intro.
As a female, I am incredibly disappointed with the way women were portrayed, just a piece of meat in their horrible life style. I felt so bad watching the infinite, pointless party scenes, over and over.
I think Scorsese missed the mark completely. I'm not sure he even had a solid point of view while doing this...
I agree with this article 100%. Great writing, this is why I love Bitch magazine!

I've yet to see this movie,

I've yet to see this movie, but one of my co-workers did and all he's mentioned about it is how it's an awesome non stop party. So after reading this I can't help but think that this is what a lot, if not most people will take away from the movie. It's really hard to imagine that no one involved in this film saw how showing this kind of thing without showing any negative consequences would promote how awesome the behavior is instead of how horrible.

And it is questionable why such a respected filmmaker would not want to do a new take on such a story. It would be amazing for once to see this kind of tale told from the woman's perspective.

Starting a comment about your

Starting a comment about your thoughts on a movie with "i haven't seen the movie" and judging it based on your male coworkers take on the movie discounts any comments you make therein out . Whether I agree or not with what you're saying, you should see the movie before commenting on how other people will receive it and what is being done by the filmmakers when you haven't actually watched it yourself .

She wasn't giving her opinion

She wasn't giving her opinion on the movie, she was making a statement about a coworker's interpretation of the movie and her concern over whether or not that's how a majority of men interpreted the movie, which is backing up this entire article's point.

Not sure about this

WoWS isn't meant to be a fairy tale where good triumphs over evil in the end. Movies like that went out with the Hays Code.

I think it's appropriate to be outraged at Belfort and his behavior. It's also appropriate to be outraged at people high-fiving each other over this behavior. But I'm sure there are guys who high-five each other at the sight of Geena Davis' breasts in Thelma & Louise (or who "cheer at the wrong moments"). Does that mean the film shouldn't be made?

I'm sure Scorsese and DiCaprio knew that some people would take the film the wrong way. But isn't the "infuriating industry double standard" another example of people (this time the mainstream) taking a film the wrong way (thinking they appealed to "prurient interests")? It seems like the argument is the same one that says, since a few people cheat and receive food stamps, we should end the food stamp program.

I agree that Scorsese appears to have little interest in making films with significant feminine energy. So the alternative perspective proposed is never going to be a Scorsese film. I also agree that the only boundary being pushed is making a film where people will sit through three hours of bad taste.

I'd much rather there be films like WoWS than go back to when every film had to reflect conventional morality.

 

I totally agree!

I totally agree!

I just googled 'Wolf of Wall

I just googled 'Wolf of Wall Street + misogyny' and this is literally the ONLY piece that worked for me. Thank you so much for being someone who notes the distinction between what the director meant and what people will actually take away from the film. For the most part, this movie utterly disgusted me - in saying, the actors are brilliant and it is an excellent film otherwise - but what really got me was the complete indifference to women. It's not a misogynistic film, because for misogyny to exist you have to recognise women as people in the first place...

great insight

I have just seen it and I have to say it enraged me that i payed 5euro on the ticket. actually 10, with my boyfriend's.
I was deeply offended by the way they portrayed women, and I was deeply amazed when seeing the reaction of the public during and after the movie. It shocked me to see they just took it as entertainment, and felt like a total alien when I realized I have probably been the only one in the audience who actually found it disturbing, once again, and in such a glorified manner, to watch a movie where women are just a pair of breasts&ass, to the delight of all the gentlemen there.
I'd just love to go watch a movie, as blockbuster and famous as this got to be, a movie just empowering me as a woman and not making wanna go home and think what new pair of shoes should I buy to make myself sexier.

Well I can see why you would

Well I can see why you would be a person who would hate what I as an American man absolutely loved. First off Europeans will never understand what it mean to work. You think taking naps and talking all day is "doing business" well welcome to America. If you're not out there grinding everyday to get what you want then you don't deserve anything. This is capitalism, not a magic place where we can eat 3 hour lunches and expect to be financially successful.

Secondly, you bought your boyfriends movie ticket? Well when you have the philosophy of men like JB and you are here to demolish your competition women are the prize. As a 5,6 middle class guy I'm sure he could only get a limited number of women. As a millionaire he can have any woman he wants and at the end of the day, everything US men do is in pursuit of a Margot Robbie type wife. A trophy is all some men want. It's all most of us want. We have friends, they're called our boys. So how do you put yourself apart from the rest of them in the only category that matters? So it's sort of a big deal.

Now I don't expect you as a European to understand the American definition of success but when the rest of your continent goes the way of Greece, maybe you'll start to get the philosophy of men like Jordan Belfort. Do I glorify him? Yes. Do I want to do what he did financially and personally? For the most part. Why do men love this movie? Because it's what we all want to have. You all can think that this is "crude" or it "enraged you", but at the end of the day, your boyfriends, husbands, brothers, all of them dream of a trophy wife in a Lamborghini, never having to worry about money again.

Wow!

Fortunately you do not speak for anything but a very small minority of American men. About 4% of American men are sociopaths, and these men might emulate or praise the behavior of JB. Other men see him for what he is: a fraud, a user, an arrogant bully, and a rapist. Many American men are happy making an honest living and treating others with kindness and respect. Many of us value and love our marriage partners. Many of us find virtually every single part of JBs behavior repugnant.

Even more fortunate is that only a tiny tiny minority of US men combine both the ignorance and belligerence required for blanket insults of Europeans.

Wow indeed!

Thanks - as a European, I'm relieved to read your note there.

I loved the movie and didn't

I loved the movie and didn't feel it was anti-feminist or shallow at all. I am actually annoyed by reviews that imply the "regular viewer" (not the sophisticated, well-read critic, of course) will be too dumb to understand that the movie isn't about the joy of drugs and money. It was an incredibly entertaining film with fantastic cinematography and very entertaining but I still felt nothing but contempt for the character Jordan Belfourt- the real person and the movie alter ego- and his entourage. If this is what greed looks like, then it's not pretty sight. Imho,the horrible female characters were a reflection of the horrible world view of the main characters. Yes, most of the women were either prostitutes or trophy wives but Wall Street IS horribly sexist. Even today (and the movie is set in the 90ies!) there are very few female executives working in financial services and the old boy's is very much alive and well. Making the movie about the female broker would have been a completely different movie - she wasn't at the same exectuive level as Belfourt and the others. My criticism would be that this particular character was included in a tokenist way to imply that female brokers could be just as ruthless and greedy as male ones. That's an egalitarian view on moral depravity.

I would have hated it if the movie had focused on some kind of redemption, on "justice" or on the people who were affected by Mr Belfourt's action because that's just not what happened. No one got what he/she deserved - neither the victims nor the criminals. Look at the tiny amount of time Belfourt spent imprisonated. Look at his success and wealth today. He got away with it and he gets celebrated for teaching other people how to rip each other off. It is wrong but they WON. I loved how during the final scene the camera was turned to show US, the viewer, and how we're all complicit in that fucked up system.