marginalia

Marginalia: Gender Balance in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

When this movie was still in edit and pre-release mode, there were rumblings and grumblings across all media about the excesses portrayed. And, as its star and producer, DiCaprio has had to do the most PR for this movie than any other in his career to deal with the backlash. Yet this is, apparently, Scorcese’s top-grossing movie yet. Go figure.

Earlier this year, a friend forwarded this rather good article from Bitch magazine. It makes several excellent points about the true impact of movies that glorify the “greed, amoral excess, and misogyny” of Wall Street excesses with the degree of realism and authenticity that Scorcese, DiCaprio, and team have done. I was nodding all the way through till this last bit about how the movie could have stayed true but less gender-biased:

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.

I was so fired up that I typed a long comment in response right away (usually not how I respond as I need to let things percolate), but, would you believe it, my system crashed. Which is just as well. Having allowed myself to simmer on this for some time, I planned on writing about it as part of a movie review eventually. But, I cannot bring myself to watch this one, given all the trailers. So, instead of a review, here’s a riff.

As I mentioned, I do n0t agree that the movie could have been more gender-balanced by filming the entire thing through a woman’s perspective. In theory, maybe. In reality, the story was based on Jordan Belfort’s book and co-scripted by him. There’s no question that this is meant to be his perspective. If the book had been written by a woman who was there and lived it, and someone wanted to put that onto the screen, then, yes, that woman’s perspective would be plausible and believable.

All this, to me, is indicative of larger problems in media, beyond this particular movie and how it was made. Bear with me as I try to explain my layperson’s point of view:

1) There is the inescapable fact that, despite the many women who lived through that period with Belfort and his cronies, not one has written her account, bestseller or otherwise. It is certainly worth questioning and exploring why that is the case.

Further, I would much rather see a strong female-centric Wall Street book that gets made into a female-centric movie than have a male-centric story altered to give a female perspective. Let me unpack that a bit in light of a few other known facts.

A) Recently, there was news that Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s cohorts, is going to write her memoir. She had earlier written an open letter to Scorcese, DiCaprio and Belfort criticizing the making of the movie. But my guess is that her book is going to be the “victim’s take”, much like she positions herself in that open letter.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that she should try to write it differently because she was, of course, an innocent victim and we need that first-hand perspective to give us more insight into the far-reaching and long-lasting effects of Wall Street excesses. However, it will not shine a bright, unflinching light, necessarily, on what drives people to seek out, indulge in, or condone such excesses. [Mind you, I’m not suggesting that TWoWS achieved that either.]

B) Even when women do write such works (‘On the Floor‘ by Aifric Campbell, ‘Bond Girl‘ by Geri Duffy, ‘Wall Street Women‘ by Melissa S Fisher), they do not hit the bestseller lists or get made into movies. Again, it is worth questioning and exploring why this is the case. Were those books simply not marketed well? Or, are they not good enough stories? Or, is Hollywood not interested in making movies of such books? Possibly, the situation is a combination of all three. Still, this needs to be addressed, surely, instead of suggesting we need to take male-centric books and create counter-gender versions of them.

2) I watched a Charlie Rose interview with DiCaprio and Scorcese where they talked about how DiCaprio had pursued this particular book-to-movie adaptation through his production company because it was a role he was very interested in playing — even fighting off Brad Pitt for it. There was coy hinting at more such Hollywood backroom dealmaking to finally get this movie made.

So let’s ask this: how many female actors in the upper echelons of Hollywood use their own production companies to pursue roles so aggressively? If they do, we rarely hear about it, so I don’t know. We hear the odd story of how a young Kate Winslet sent a single red rose to James Cameron with a note saying “From Your Rose” to get the role in Titanic. My guess is that even the top Hollywood women actors — Streep, Blanchett, Roberts et al — who are getting better roles each year, still do n0t chase roles as aggressively as their male counterparts because they’ve made their trade-off choices between careers and families. [I don’t mean to short-change these amazing women because, every year, they give us nuanced, complex and unforgettable characters but, certainly, not ones that generate near as much controversy.]

Even when we have a younger generation of female actors who are also writer-directors, like, say, Tina Fey, they only go so far. In fact, just today, there was news that three men are setting up a new division in their movie production company to focus on creating female-led film and TV projects. Commendable, yes, but why is it not “three women have set up a new production company to focus on creating female-led film and TV projects”? Can’t you just see, for example, our all-time favorite symbols of the ideal independent women, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, running their own Hollywood studio, with Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Tina Fey joining in? [Not to take away from any of these women and their other related efforts, particularly, Davis’ ‘Gender in Media’ foundation, which is doing some very important work on this very problem.]

And when we consider the most well-known female directors in Hollywood — Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Sarah Polley, to pick just four at random — we don’t often hear of them fighting to make the most difficult and controversial movies. That a number of their movies do end up courting controversy points to different (though, related) issues.

So, in conclusion, I’m not convinced by all the desk-thumping arguments about how this movie could have been more gender-balanced. I think Scorcese, DiCaprio, Belfort and Co. made exactly the boys-will-by-boys movie they wanted to make.

Sure, we can wag our fingers at them for getting away with it yet again. But, once we’re done with that, let’s focus our energies on ensuring that women get to write books and make movies with strong, female central characters and that these creations get the requisite attention and resources. Yes, easy for me to say. But, better that than this tiresome throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram business whenever the big boys get away with playing unfair and winning.

Here are some interesting links related to some of the points above:

— Review of ‘On the Floor‘ by Aifric Campbell and ‘Bond Girl‘ by Erin Duffy

— Review of ‘Wall Street Women‘ by Melissa S Fisher

— Hollywood needs more women

— Sundance Women Film-maker’s Initiative

— How Long Will Hollywood Ignore the Bitches of Wall Street? (paywall)

— Geena Davis’ Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist

— Women Directors: Navigating The Hollywood Boys’ Club

(added April 3, 2014) The Dollar-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women

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