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The Case For The Wolf Of Wall Street, Surprisingly Feminist Film

Posted on Friday January 17, 2014, 12:18 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
The Case For The Wolf Of Wall Street, Surprisingly Feminist Film

*This blog contains spoilers for The Wolf Of Wall Street. Frankly, I doubt they'll actually spoil your enjoyment of the film, because it's great, but please take that into account.*

There's been criticism of The Wolf Of Wall Street for its depiction of women, and it's easy to see why. Numerically speaking, the majority of women in the film are prostitutes, and the film's male characters uniformly grope and harrass them - when they're not engaged in frequently demeaning sex. I can't think of a single scene where these prostitutes were not partially or entirely naked. Besides the call girls, there are a number of female employees glimpsed on the brokerage floor, one of whom volunteers to have her head shaved in return for $10,000, which she reportedly plans to use on breast implants. Another has public sex with a colleague. The two leads are both married to women they cheat upon frequently, and the film's most important female character by some distance is Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan Belfort's trophy wife, about whom more later. The film passes neither the Bechdel Test nor the supplementary Mako Mori test, and is entirely focused on its male characters. Yet despite all of this I thought the film was something of a feminist tale, which deserves a cheer at least for its fierce condemnation of hyper-masculinity and misogyny.

Here's the key: the film's attitude to its principal male characters is stunningly judgmental and uniformly, utterly condemnatory. I honestly don't see how you can doubt this (others will disagree); if you envy the film's Jordan Belfort for longer than a moment here and there, well then a little bit of you is as much of an asshole as he is. It's genuinely rather breathtaking that the real Belfort signed off on a film that portrays him as a psychopath, that holds him up to ridicule and undermines his character's self-importance even when he's at his most triumphant.

Scorsese shows a Belfort who literally loses the ability to walk as a result of the drugs he takes, who blacks out while dry-humping crewmembers on a transatlantic flight, who has to get regular penicillin shots to fend off venereal disease, who throws what are essentially frat-parties at his place of work, and who treats everyone around him as objects. He's at his most businesslike and focused when discussing with his cronies exactly what humiliations they can contractually inflict upon some performing little people. He is addicted to Quaaludes but will accept any substances going in their absence. His entire business is predicated upon selling junk investments to blue-collar investors who don't have a lot of money to lose, and he is laughing all the way to the bank as he bilks these plumbers and teachers out of their savings because, after all, the value of investments can go down as well as up. He agrees to entrap his collaborators in return for a deal with the FBI, but after spilling his guts to the Feds he tries to play both sides by warning his best friend that he's wearing a wire. Some saw this as a human moment of something resembling redemption, and it's about as close as Belfort gets - but if you think for a moment that he hasn't betrayed his friends before that, you're dead wrong. And again, if you think any of that behaviour is cool, you're an asshole.

DiCaprio's Belfort is not just an unreliable narrator; he is a reliably unreliable narrator. Whatever he says, the opposite is probably the right thing to do. This is the very antithesis of a role model, and the film does all but hit you over the head with the fact that he's an utter schmuck. Look at him as he begins to explain how he makes his money (illegally) only to stop and say, "You know what? Don't even worry about it." It's the sort of patronising, paternal tone that Wall Street has been using with the whole world ever since the financial crash, encouraging everyone to stop looking at what went wrong and just bail them out and leave them to keep going as is. To make it clear that Scorsese is equating Belfort with the whole, wider financial sector, the repetition of this tweak (DiCaprio says something along these lines twice) makes it obvious that he does. DiCaprio's Belfort even tells the FBI that the big boys down the street are doing worse than him, in a rare moment of what one suspects is honesty. Even if you thought (wrongly) that all the other crap Belfort pulled was cool, surely you're not down with destroying the economy for shits and giggles?

Once you realise that the film deplores Belfort's behaviour, it becomes possible to see the naked women as something other than the usual T&A windowdressing. The endless parade of flesh explicity serves to give life to his misogyny, and his misogyny is not cool. The endless shagging does not obviously make Belfort happy; it seems more of a reflex, or perhaps an overly-enthusiastic atttempt to follow the advice of early broker mentor Mark Hanna (McConaughey) to jerk off regularly. It goes hand-in-hand with his day job, a way of continuing his quest for dominance of less powerful people once the markets close. The frequent female nudity seems sort of necessary to get past the point of titillation and reach the level where it should cause a viewer to get a little uncomfortable with the sheer amount of flesh. A viewer with even an ounce of sense should emerge from the film with the uneasy realisation that, given that Belfort's an asshole, misogyny might also be assholish.

The female characters that the film does feature are reasonably good, by Hollywood standards. By far the most important and interesting is Margot Robbie's Naomi, who replaces Cristin Milioti as Belfort's wife. It's worth noting that Robbie is introduced by Belfort in the first minutes of the movie, long before she appears narratively, in the same breath that he shows the viewer his house and his car. He views her as an object, a possession, but she is very much her own woman.

Naomi is the one to seduce Belfort, not the other way around. And she's the closest the film comes to a figure who can rein him in: she argues him to a standstill, threatens him into submission (with a withdrawal of sexual privileges), and tears after him to protect their children from his drug-addled fits. Some will undoubtedly call her a gold-digger, since she is relatively poor compared to her husband and, not coincidentally, stunningly beautiful - but she's never quite that simple. She uses both sex and beauty as weapons, certainly, but there's a fine mind ticking behind the facade, and one gets the sense that she's initially intrigued by Belfort's outré brashness more than his money. She leaves him at the end, of course, but the impression is that her decision has less to do with their still-healthy finances and more to do with his diminished lust for life. None of this is to say that she's a female role model. She's portrayed here as decidedly complicit in his money laundering and at least partially aware of his crimes, but she's definitely a strong female character, which is far more desirable (if all women onscreen were role models, they'd be intensely boring. I just want to watch human female characters).

Were you in any doubt at all of Belfort's dickishness, Kyle Chandler pops up around the halfway point to provide a standard by which to judge him. As FBI Agent Patrick Denham, he isn't present to witness the worst of Belfort's excesses, obviously, but his flat-faced reaction to Delfort's bikini-clad girl accessories is a stark contrast to the bankers' popping eyes and unrolled tongues. Chandler, who with Friday Night Lights in particular has pretty much cornered the market in harried decency, sees the appeal of the bribe he's offered but turns it down flat rather than get in bed with Belfort (metaphorically speaking). It's not an easy decision - witness his face late on in the film as he makes his way home on the subway in his three-day-old suit - but it's the right one. The film never shies away from the reality that sometimes the dicks win and the good guys go home alone. The wages of sin may be death, Scorsese seems to be saying, but so are the rewards of virtue. If Scorsese had tried to make a traditional morality play out of this story, he'd be offering us a comforting lie instead of the cold hard truth - but that doesn't mean he has to like it.

And then there are those bankers. They literally beat their chests and howl like wolves at the prospect of money or sex (the two are ever-linked, it seems) even while adjusting their toupee or popping tranquilisers. They consider themselves alpha males, warriors, as their leader Belfort whips them into a frenzy of excitement for the latest opportunity to make money. But the truth is that they are weak, ridiculous, boys playing at being men. While Scorsese uses generally good music to score their parties (he's Martin Scorsese; there's only so uncool he can be) the visuals are all popping eyes and bulging veins in red faces, with flabby white flesh bulging out of their crumpled, lived-in suits. These are grotesques,  and no reasonable audience member can look at them and think, "That. That's what a real man looks like." It's a parody of masculinity, and it's entirely unselfaware on the part of these men.

A few disclaimers: could this film be more feminist? Sure. Would it be nice if every film in Hollywood had women who were equally clothed to their male counterparts, who had full independent lives and who were given equal storytime in Tinseltown? Absolutely. Could we have done with a little more time spent with Milioti's disapproving first wife, or some other female voice not on Belfort's payroll? Perhaps. Does the film have its cake and eat it in terms of the bad behaviour? It's arguable. Are there strictly worthier, maybe female subjects out there for the attentions of a Martin Scorsese? Unquestionably. But you can't show misogyny without, well, showing misogyny, and this film illustrates the link between financial and sexual exploitation, between financial power and patriarchy, and it does so in a way that is thoroughly condemnatory. To call this film sexist is, like Belfort himself, to place surface appearance over substance.

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1 dseys
Posted on Friday January 17, 2014, 19:52
Very interesting thoughts. I saw this movie a week ago and am still thinking about it. At first I was repelled by all its excesses, but I'm starting to think the film would have lost its impact if all of this had been tuned down.

2 milkyjoe313
Posted on Saturday January 18, 2014, 08:24
This is an outstanding, brilliantly written article. I loved this film and the excess especially, and admit to enjoying and envying Belfort's hedonistic life (maybe I am an asshole), but the message was pretty clear to me throughout (especially the scene on the subway), look at the state of the economy and the wealth of those who brought it down, the good guys (us) did lose, and the moronic, wolf-like creatures won. Hats off to the best observation/review I've read of a film all year.

3 Bonzo13
Posted on Saturday January 18, 2014, 10:27
(spoilers, cont'd)
I almost agree with your article entirely. However, I was stunned to see your 'impression' about why Naomi left Jordan.

The guy was nuts! I understand your 'jump the sinking ship' idea but the 'ludes' scene is somehow horribly topped off by Jordan nearly killing their daughter in the later abduction attempt. (Not to mention gut-punching Naomi just before that. How's that for 'lust for life?') There's not one moviegoer left after that moment who knows they will never be together again. No 'impression' needed.

As soon as Scorcese shows the daughter's reaction in the 'ludes scene, you know he's showing you this marriage is soon to end. I only mention all this because I wholeheartedly support your point and I think this supports it. Deeply enjoyed the film and your perspective.

4 JoKeRJaMeZ
Posted on Sunday January 19, 2014, 09:21
I actually agree with you after reading this. Great piece of writing. Whatever the debate, it was a superb film, the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I realise how great it was.

5 Bobby TwoTimes
Posted on Monday January 20, 2014, 14:02
An outstanding film - possibly one of Scorcese's best and definitely DiCaprio's best - and a good article. Nice to read something that understands both sides of a film portraying women like this and not just complaining about how sexist it is blah blah blah. The whole point of showing the way women clearly mean so little in Jordan Belfort's life is because that's obviously the way he really thinks of them. This isn't a film about the cheated customer (that some critics have moaned about), it's a film about Jordan Belfort - plain and simple! It's about the people he worked with, how he made his money, drugs, sex, violence, power and everything else that comes with his gloriously entertaining stint at the top, but that's not to say that guy isn't a complete asshole! But people didn't complain about Scorcese making a film about Jake LaMotta, the wife-beating violent animal, or Travis Bickle, the psychotic angry, murderous Taxi Driver, Or Henry Hill and his mafia mates beating, stealing and killing their way through life. It's a Scorcese film for goodness sake! He makes films that are interesting to him and appeal to that side of us that all wonder just what it would be like to lead a life this way. Is it worse to watch films about murderous serial killers?? It's a fantastic film and Leo should be finally worthy of an Oscar in my opinion - but I think the subject matter will sadly prevent this happening.

6 Youshouldberunning
Posted on Monday January 20, 2014, 14:33
Great piece, Helen, though do I see one problem with the conclusion. I think that because you are not an asshole you are seeing condemnation where many are seeing titillation. I know many guys who, though they are intelligent, well-educated and respectful to their (female) partners, would see Belfort's life as aspirational - tits and ass especially. 'Legend' is how I have heard him described. So although the hookers, venereal diseases and overdoses more than negated the 'fun' of the character's life for me, I don't suppose that a large proportion of the male audience would agree. Scorsese and DiCaprio surely went into the project with a very similar mindset to you (and I) viewing Belfort with very little approbation. But whether they are aware that this is not necessarily how the film can be viewed is another question entirely, are they playing it safe and making sure that both views (asshole vs legend) have some currency, and if so can it really be seen as not misogynistic?

7 Helen OHara
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 09:29
See, I'd call those men assholes, youshouldberunning. My basic belief is that if they see women like sex objects, which is what you've basically just described with the reference to tits and ass (even if they make an exception for their female partners), then they're assholes. I know that attitude is very much embedded in our culture, but that doesn't mean it isn't assholish and it doesn't mean it isn't misogynist. If they don't have the self-awareness to see that, then a film would have to be so obviously preachy to get through to them that they would refuse to watch it, I suspect.

8 BelfastBoy
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 12:43
I found the film overlong and unpleasant but this is an outstanding article, which I found fascinating reading. I agree completely that the film does Belfort no favours whatsoever, but my issue would be that, despite whatever personal / health consequences there are, he essentially 'gets away with it' with little punishment in the legal sense. Yes, it's a film about Jordan Belfort, but what about the victims he apparently still avoids recompensing? Playing tennis in a cushy prison while they lose their live savings?

A few comments of mine:

- The scene where the female employee has her head shaved: anyone else find this very unsettling viewing? Yes, she got the $10k, yes she agreed to do it - but whether this was deliberate or not, the impression presented to me by the actress is that her character really hated what was happening to her. She didn't look like she was enjoying the experience, or playing along, at all.
- What about the many female bankers present in the crowd scenes? Is it fair to assume that they were as hedonistic as the men? When Jordan gives the speech where he decides not to quit, the female employee he singles out looks on him with utter adoration (and is later arrested along with the men).

9 BelfastBoy
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 12:44
I found the film overlong and unpleasant but this is an outstanding article, which I found fascinating reading. I agree completely that the film does Belfort no favours whatsoever, but my issue would be that, despite whatever personal / health consequences there are, he essentially 'gets away with it' with little punishment in the legal sense. Yes, it's a film about Jordan Belfort, but what about the victims he apparently still avoids recompensing? Playing tennis in a cushy prison while they lose their live savings?

A few comments of mine:

- The scene where the female employee has her head shaved: anyone else find this very unsettling viewing? Yes, she got the $10k, yes she agreed to do it - but whether this was deliberate or not, the impression presented to me by the actress is that her character really hated what was happening to her. She didn't look like she was enjoying the experience, or playing along, at all.
- What about the many female bankers present in the crowd scenes? Is it fair to assume that they were as hedonistic as the men? When Jordan gives the speech where he decides not to quit, the female employee he singles out looks on him with utter adoration (and is later arrested along with the men).

10 BelfastBoy
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 12:52
Sorry for double post! I kept getting an error message but my actual text didn't appear.

11 OrganicLifeform
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 13:11
@ Helen: Another very interesting read! One of the things I admire about the film itself is that it condemns this type of behaviour without outright saying so (which has led some viewers to believe it actually condoned it, which I find a baffling view to take away from seeing the movie). I did find Naomi a strong and sympathetic character and I share your views on why she fell for him: there's a curiosity there, never did I get the idea she was in it for the money (but yes, when she had the money, she spent it, but I'm not sure if she was aware of all of the scheming).

@ BelfastBoy: You are left with the question 'What about the victims?' But this isn't their movie. This is Belfort's movie and, like him, the film doesn't bother with them. Furthermore: we all know about the consequences of Belfort's actions. Would a victims-segment really add anything or only take away from the nature and brashness of the film? I think the latter.

12 essembee
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 13:46
Whilst I agree whole-heartedly with your message that the film portrays a clear message of the 'dickishness' of Belfort and his boys, I think the sexism debate is masking something a lot more fundamental that took my enjoyment of the film from 'love' to 'like'...I just didn't care what happened to any of them!

None of the gang had any redeeming qualities whatsoever, not one of them, and there was zero in the way of redemption or remorse. Belfort, post-arrest is pictured relaxing by his pool in the shadow of his huge mansion and when he worries about having to sell it all to pay his legal fees, not to worry the boys will bail him out - so that's all fine then. He then sells those same boys down the river to go play tennis in 'jail', a jail he needn't worry about because 'he's rich' - so that's fine too. This is a man who see's a plane go down in a storm with all on board killed and his reaction is that it must be a sign from God. To him. Self Important much?

Scorsese's last Oscar-contender 'The Departed' has some equally dickish characters. Matt Damon's corrupt police officer being a great example. But mixed up in the tale were DiCaprio and Walberg and Sheen who had some layers you cared about.

At first I hoped the excess and the brutality and the anger and the arrogance was a veneer. That maybe there was something more beneath it but the film just kept digging to find that all that was underneath was more naked hookers covered in coke. Give me something to care about. Somebody who's story actually matters.

13 thatfuzzybastard
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 16:40
Great piece! The one thing I'd quibble with is your reference to " Milioti's disapproving first wife." One of Wolf's many great jokes it how it subverts the audience's expectations of the disapproving first wife, something of a stock figure in these tales of rise to decadence.

Does she read the first profile of Belfort? If so, she knows that her husband is a scammer. And her only response is, as you quote, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." But the really interesting moment is when Belfort gives her the diamond bracelet and explains how his business works. Everything about the scene, including the long-lens shooting and the out-of-focus waves behind them, sets up the viewer to expect her to condemn him, or at least gently disapprove. Instead, her reaction to being openly told that her jewelry is being bought by scamming truck drivers is to suggest that he scam richer people, who have more money to take.

Among the ways that Wolf is surprisingly feminist is its refusal to treat its women as virtuous ciphers. The viewer, and perhaps Belfort, think of their shenanigans as boys' fun that women wouldn't understand. But repeatedly we find that the women of this world are as money-crazed as the men, they just didn't have the same opportunities. Even the woman in the office who gets her head shaved---for a moment, as the razor drops hair on the floor, a sincere moral horror starts to move across her face. Then she sees the wads of cash in her hand, and all is forgotten.

14 Jenna_Wilde
Posted on Tuesday January 21, 2014, 18:50
I don't necessarily agree with the article. In order to be a feminist film, you have to make the viewers sympathsize with the female characters.

The film made it really difficult, when it essentially made most of the women gold-digging whores, most of all Naomi. Belfort repeated made disparaging comments about Naomi "only good at using his credit card" which she never refuted. Even in the end, when she made the decision to leave him - he was screaming "you're just leaving me because I now have chains around my ankle! How convenient for you, huh?" if she said something like "No, Jordan, I'm leaving you because you've been treating me like shit, not like a partner you love and respect" that would have made me sympathsize with her more, as a woman who has feelings and stands up for them. But she said nothing of that sort, thus it's like she's validating his comment. So as a viewer, I was given the impression she was just with
him for his money and bailed the minute he got into trouble, thus making her a gold-digger with no love in her heart.

Maybe Belfort is an asshole, but the women in his life appeared to actively contribute to that; none of them was written as a good character.

15 Helen OHara
Posted on Wednesday January 22, 2014, 11:25
I don't agree that you need to sympathise with the female characters for a film to be feminist. I just think they need to be real, human characters. Many great stories are told about male anti-heroes, and that's an entirely valid approach. We should be able to do that for women too.

I also don't think it's terribly feminist to judge other women as "gold-digging whores". Belfort made disparaging remarks about Naomi, sure, but he's an asshole. A good character isn't a character who is good; it's a character who feels real. Naomi very much did to me.

fuzzybastard, I'd agree with much of that; you're right.

Posted on Sunday January 26, 2014, 20:13
That's a really good read, Helen, but you really shouldn't be worrying your pretty little head about things like this ;)

17 femblogger
Posted on Saturday March 1, 2014, 07:39
This line was in this movie commentary: " Would it be nice if every film in Hollywood had women who were equally clothed to their male counterparts, who had full independent lives and who were given equal storytime in Tinseltown?"

A better, more feminist question is: Wouldn't it be nice if every film in Hollywood had men who were equally as unclothed, and sexualized, as women?

I am a super men-lover. I am not a lesbian. I am a feminist who loves the male body. Why do women accept the "fact" that female nudity is OK when it is "part of telling the story" when EVERY FILM EVER MADE is able to tell the "story" without nude men? Personally, I have never once had sex where a naked visible penis was not involved.

Where are scripts about women who struggle with female nudity (and lack of male nudity) in society? IF there were scripts like that, it would be "part of telling the story" to include male erotica, male sexuality, and male nudity.

I know women THINK they are empowered, but I have been around a long time, and I can GUARANTEE you that men struggle much more than women realize with all the female nudity and revealing clothing. Men are easily aroused physiologically, whether they want to be or not. Women do not experience this phenomena and have no idea how it affects men's lives, AND (more importantly), how it affects men's attitudes and respect for women.

Men used to respect women, even just one or two generations ago. Now days, misogyny is on the RISE because men are faced with a "media reality" that women are primarily vapid bitches, hos and strippers (even though that's not true). But since that's all men see on TV and in media FROM THE DAY THEY ARE BORN, what are they supposed to think?

When will women demand male full-frontal nudity on TV PPV and in R-rated films?

18 saimiz
Posted on Friday March 7, 2014, 15:03
It is our decision on which side we choose to live that makes the difference. For every individual but also society as a whole.

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