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.
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.
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.
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?
I found it really disturbing that people in the audience laughed when he punched his wife in the stomach after raping her. #wolfofwallstreet
— Rebecca Eisenberg (@ryeisenberg) December 31, 2013
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.