The Wolf of Wall Street’s male gaze

Martin Scorsese succumbs to the same sexism that his film purports to critique

February 9, 2014 7:15AM ET
A scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” tracks the journey of real-life finance scam artist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Told in part through voice-over narration by DiCaprio, it shows Jordan’s rise from small-time penny-stock trader on Long Island to the founder of Stratton Oakmont, one of the largest brokerage firms on Wall Street in the 1990s — all by the time he is 26 years old. Jordan, a master salesman who develops a cultlike following, amasses a fortune by pushing questionable stocks to investors with hard-sell tactics before graduating to stock manipulation and money laundering. Along the way, he and his colleagues indulge in vast amounts of sex, drugs and reckless behavior — all of which the film forcefully foregrounds.

While critics have largely praised the film, it’s drawn some heat for glorifying the exploitative, hedonistic lifestyle it depicts. For one thing, the victims of Jordan’s fraud — i.e., those who spent their life savings on worthless penny stocks or lost big when Jordan manipulated stock prices — are absent from the film. The film is also a comedy — albeit a black comedy — that invites its audience to laugh and even marvel at the crass frat-boy antics on display.

What’s received far less attention than merited, however, is the film’s portrayal of women. While “Wolf” is based on a true story and real characters, there is a fine line between accurately depicting the rampant objectification of women in Jordan’s world and succumbing to it. Unfortunately, by using women as little more than playthings throughout the film, the creators of “Wolf” have given in.

‘Erotic contemplation’

“Wolf” fails to say anything interesting about the women who inhabit Jordan’s world. Interchangeable Barbie-doll figures, hookers and strippers serve simply as props for the male protagonists as they carry on with their debauched antics, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. Scorsese and Winter had plenty of creative freedom in their treatment of Jordan’s story; all that was needed to show how marginalized women were on the Wall Street trading floors of the 1980s and 90s were a few key scenes featuring prostitutes and parades of strippers. Instead, Scorsese and Winter carry on in shot after shot, displaying dozens of barely clothed or naked female bodies whose not-so-private parts are meticulously waxed or shaven. The breasts, stilettos and shimmying bottoms continue, ad nauseam; with all the titillation, it starts to feel like the filmmakers are being seduced by the very Wall Street machismo they purportedly critique.

Put more precisely, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is dominated by the male gaze — the gaze of Jordan, of Scorsese, of Winter and of the assumed audience. Film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote about the concept in a 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she explains that Hollywood often forces the audience to see a film from a male perspective, causing women on screen to serve as simple objects of desire. This isn’t the fault of an individual director per se. Rather, the problem is systemic. Hollywood creates “magic” through a manipulation of visual pleasure, coding the erotic “into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”

One-dimensional Naomi (Margot Robbie) — Jordan’s second wife and the main female character — is coded all over.  In the scene in which the blonde first meets Jordan, she wears a dramatic skintight blue minidress with a cutout revealing a good part of each breast. Anticipation builds as a Stratton associate alerts the men at the party to look at her. When the camera catches her figure, time almost stands still. In Mulvey’s terms, it’s a moment of “erotic contemplation”: The spectator is invited to drink her figure as she flashes a demure but dazzling smile before the camera. (Someone in the background then shouts, “I'd f--- her if she was my sister,” followed by another, who says, “I’d let her give me AIDS.”) Enter an intoxicated and high Donnie (Jonah Hill), who, upon seeing her, begins masturbating openly at the party. Naomi reacts not with disgust but with bemused laughter. 

There is a token female trader who utters a few lines, and a tough-talking secretary. The rest are primarily hookers and strippers, whom Jordan ranks by quality and status, naturally.

Naomi remains an object — and little else — throughout the film. She exists only in relation to Jordan. She first appears in the film’s opening sequence,  when she gives Jordan a blow job as he drives his Lamborghini. She exchanges dialogue only with Jordan and seems to have no life of her own. She talks mainly of gardening and maintaining the house, and of the other women Jordan is sleeping with. Her main contribution to the film is aesthetic: We see her fully naked (save black stockings and shoes) in one scene, topless in another and otherwise clad mostly in lingerie and tight dresses. (Nudity was reportedly a requirement for Robbie; we never see DiCaprio in full-frontal glory.)

In one notable scene, which takes place in their toddler’s bedroom, Naomi tries to punish Jordan for cheating on her by withholding sex but is ultimately humiliated. While spreading her legs and pushing a pink stiletto onto Jordan’s forehead, she says, “Mommy is just so sick tired of wearing panties,” then spreads her legs to show what he will be missing. Practically panting with desire, he suddenly realizes that the security guards have watched her display through a camera embedded in the daughter’s teddy bear. He laughs while Naomi closes her legs, embarrassed. So much for Naomi’s attempt to subvert Jordan’s misogynistic logic.

The other female characters in the film similarly fail to break free of the male gaze — whether that gaze seeks visual pleasure, control, or both. Jordan’s ex wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), at first seems to have a moral backbone, as she questions early on whether Jordan should be ripping people off via his penny-stock scheme. But she doesn’t develop as a character and ultimately ends up enthusiastically cheering her husband on. Then there’s Naomi’s aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley), who is tricked into laundering money for Jordan after he charms and flirts with her. In one particularly harrowing spectacle, a female Stratton employee agrees to have her head shaved in front of the trading floor in exchange for $10,000 — which she pledges to use for D-cup breast implants.

There is also token female trader who utters a few lines, and a tough-talking secretary — hardly meaningful characters. The rest are primarily hookers and strippers, whom Jordan ranks by quality and status, naturally.

Coke and mirrors

But what if critics of the film’s treatment of women just don’t get it? Are Scorsese and Winter, say, using the Brechtian alienation effect — showing us the gluttony, the abuse, the degradation so that we don’t identify emotionally with Jordan, and instead can look at him with a critical, dispassionate eye? There is, in fact, a good argument the film is using this device vis a vis Wall Street–style excesses broadly. In an early scene, for example, a senior stockbroker, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) invites young Jordan out to a martini-and-cocaine-fueled power lunch to school him in the ways of Wall Street. Mark tells Jordan to worry only about making money for himself (“Fuck the clients”). “We don’t create s---,” Mark says proudly. “We don’t build anything.”

There’s also evidence that Scorsese and Winter are holding a mirror up to the audience, forcing us to ask ourselves how we can sympathize with the monster that is Jordan. He is, after all, the film’s hero. In the final scene, for example there are hints that we’ve all been duped by Jordan’s charm and salesmanship. Jordan is running a motivational seminar on sales, and his enthralled audience watches him intently as he challenges participants one by one to sell him a pen. That audience is arguably a stand-in for us, the audience of “Wolf.” Like the seminar participants, we are drawn in by Jordan’s charm and encourage him to be who he is.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a similar Brechtian argument to be made on the women question — i.e., the notion that the misogyny contributes to some clever cinematic device. As A.O. Scott of The New York Times writes, “the humiliation and objectification of women — an insistent, almost compulsive motif” — is not something the film merely portrays. “Mr. Scorsese, never an especially objective sociologist, is at least a participant-observer.”

Is Scorsese guilty of moral failing in “Wolf”? At a minimum, he is guilty of having a blind spot (shared by many others in Hollywood) when it comes to female characters. He doesn't seem to grasp how to develop them or when to acknowledge that the script and film are indulging in double standards. Another nude-women-partying scene may very well please the marketing folks, but directors need to recognize when those scenes add little to the meaning or force of their films.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the movie's protagonist. The text has been corrected. We regret the error.

Moira Herbst is a strategist for BerlinRosen, a New York–based progressive communications firm, and a contributor to The Guardian. She has worked as a journalist for BusinessWeek, Bloomberg News and Reuters.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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